How to Cope When You Can’t Cope

When depression is weighing you down, it feels like you can’t do a damn thing. Cooking, cleaning, bathing, eating, working, adulting, nothing. But you know you have to. Deep down inside, you know. But how do you cope when you can’t cope?

You’re tempted to force your way through. You know it won’t do much good. But what other options are there? You have to do all the things. You just… can’t.


A little bit of forcing might be doable. Just a teeny tiny bit of braveness. But it has to be the right force. How do you know where to start?

A woman of color crying, looking at the camera with an expression of hopelessness because she can't cope with whatever's going on

Sometimes you can cry. Sometimes you can’t do that either. But it’s okay not to be okay.

How to cope when you can’t cope

Cope with water on your insides

If you’re a Trekkie, you might have heard that humans are “giant bags of mostly water.” I don’t know if 60% qualifies as “mostly water,” but that’s how much water’s in the average adult body.

Water is important to so many parts of the human body, I couldn’t even begin to list them all. So, short list: spine, brain, heart, stomach, everything, joints, cells. Also everything. And did I mention everything?

The current way to figure out how much water you should be consuming every day is to take your weight and divide it by two. That’s how many ounces you need. It doesn’t have to be straight up water, though. Fruits, veggies, and juices all have water in them, too.

(Note to self – purchase 17 reusable gallon water bottles immediately.)

Why is this so important? Three reasons. 

  1. 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated. I’m dehydrated, despite my best efforts. You are, too. Even if you think you aren’t, you probably are.
  2. Dehydration can cause fatigue and confusion, which only serve to add to depression. Anxiety, stress, and irritability are also common dehydration symptoms.
  3. New research has shown that even mild dehydration can have an effect on your mood – and that drinking water has a “significant impact” on lifting depression.

So cope with water on your insides.

A person standing , legs shoulder width apart, arms upraised, in front of a giant waterfall that's creating a rainbow at the bottom

ALL THE WATER on your insides

Cope with water on your outsides

Hot water

Hot water relaxes your muscles, relieving tension and stress. Combined with the scent of your favorite shampoo, body wash, or even essential oil, it can have a profound calming effect. Aromas like basil, rose, geranium, lavender, and chamomile are particularly helpful for depression. But any scent you like can help you feel better. (I swear by Lark & Rue – my friend Caitlin started making products for her sensitive skin, and my sensitive skin is happier when I use them. And her customer service is second to none.)

Cold water

Cold water has been shown to have a surprising effect on depression. Studies across the globe over the last 200 years have clearly demonstrated that cold water hydrotherapy (water therapy) can be more effective than medication or other therapeutic treatments to treat depression. 

(This isn’t to say you should dump your doc or shed your meds – because you shouldn’t. I’m not a doctor and can’t give you medical advice. But this might be a useful supplement to your meds and therapy.)

If you want to try cold water therapy, start with a warm shower and lower the temp gradually to around 68°F (20°C) and keep it there for 2-3 minutes. You can do it once or twice a day to decrease stress hormones and increase oxygen, blood, and serotonin in your brain.

Joel Runyon of Impossible believes in cold showers for another reason. In his TEDx talk at Loyola University Chicago, he said this:

If you’re not willing or able to be the type of person that’s willing to be uncomfortable for five minutes alone in the shower, where the only negative outcome is you being cold for five minutes and the only person affected by that decision is you, then how will you ever have the strength or courage to be uncomfortable in a situation where the outcomes are much, much greater and the people affected by your decision far outnumber just yourself?

So cope with water on your outsides.

A woman taking a shower

“Splish, splash, I was taking a bath” sounds better than “Go cower, ’cause it’s cold in the shower!”

Cope with happy in your head

I have bipolar  disorder. Whenever I’m in a depressive swing, it’s all I can do to decide what to watch on Netflix or Hulu. So I’ve made lists of happy shows to watch. Friends, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Undercover Boss, everything from HGTV and Food Network, but especially anything involving the Property Brothers, Love It or List It, and any competitions.

Or maybe your thing is music. I’ll put the Weird Al Yankovic radio station on Spotify and listen all day long. Or pull him up on YouTube so I can listen and watch. Or I’ll put on 90’s hair rock, the music of my childhood, and try to remember what happiness is. Speaking of what happiness is, I’m a big fan of musicals, so Cats, and Les Miserables, and Phantom of the Opera, and all the rest  of them. 

Or maybe you’re a book lover. The Little Prince, Anna Kerenina, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Chronicles of Narnia, and hundreds of others. Some of my favorite authors are Nora Roberts, Mark Victor Hansen, Jack Canfield, and Madeleine L’Engle. 

Or maybe you do best with puzzles. Jigsaw puzzle apps are great when all you can do is lay in bed. The on-yourdining-room-table kind are amazing when you can get up and stare at little swatches of color. Logic puzzles, crossword puzzles, find-a-word puzzles, jumble puzzles, any kind of puzzles. Anything that can activate your mind and give you a win.

So cope with happy in your head. 

A dogue de bordeaux, looking as sad as all dogues do, with an expression that says he can't cope.

Rufus loves the musical Cats, Chicken Soup for the Cat Lover’s Soul, and 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzles of cats playing poker. Rufus does not see the irony.

Cope with food in your face

You’ve heard everything there is to hear about eating healthy. So you keep trying to choke down your kale, chickpea, chia seed, asparagus, sardine, quinoa smoothies made with almond milk, kefir, cinnamon, black pepper, and turmeric. Yum!

Healthy foods are great. But some of the healthiest foods are yummy too. Berries, macadamia nuts, citrus and tropical fruits, peaches, and pears are all high in nutrients and incredibly delicious.

For a great dinner, try a salmon fillet and some baked sweet potato chips. Now there’s a place to use your cinnamon. Don’t like fish? Have some lamb or lean beef with roasted potatoes brushed with extra virgin olive oil and tossed with garlic. Delicious and nutritious.

So cope with food in your face.

A large bowl with six scoops of ice cream - two each of three flavors. Mixed berries and mint leaves are scattered around. There are three spoons and three waffle cones to eat the ice cream with.

Why are there three spoons? What’s with the three waffle cones? I just need one of each!

Cope with anything for 15 minutes

If you’ve known me for more than five minutes, you know I have a list of health issues as long as my arm. So whenever I have the opportunity to communicate with mentors with health issues, I take every word as gospel.

About 15 years ago, I got to be on a conference call with one of the highest achieving women in the direct sales business I was part of. She had all kinds of health issues, including such severe allergies that she could rarely leave her home. One of the things she said on that call was, ”you can do anything for 15 minutes.” 

There are sometimes limitations to anything for 15 minutes. (And since you’re reading this on my blog, that was probably your first thought…) Obviously someone with quadriplegia isn’t playing a tennis match before they go run a 3k.

How to do anything for 15 minutes

When you move into the realm of theoretical possibility, “anything for 15 minutes” gets good. But if you can’t do 15, start with 10. If you can’t do 10, start with five. Or three. Or even just one. But whatever it is, set a timer, and promise yourself that you’ll go until the timer goes off.

Make sure when you do this, you’re setting yourself up for a win. Whatever task you want to tackle, break it down into its component parts. Let’s say you need to wash the dishes. 

You’ve got your silverware, flatware, glassware, and pots and pans. Divide silverware down into forks, knives, and spoons. You decide you want to start with the spoons.

Before you wash all the spoons, you have to fill the sink with hot water. While the sink is filling with hot water, you have to add dish soap. So now you have your first three component parts. Fill the sink with hot water. Add dish soap. Wash the spoons. If any of those components takes you the whole 15 minutes? That’s fine. You’re making progress. That’s the goal here. Progress.

So cope with anything for 15 minutes.

A purple sea urchin kitchen timer with eyes and feminine lips

Meet Esmeralda, my faithful kitchen timer, who’s seen many a 15-minute interval elapse

Find what works

There are obviously more than just five ways to cope when you can’t cope. You could meditate, do a brain dump, journal, or love on your dog. You might exercise, have a bubble bath, or take a nap.

The key is to find what works for you. Not what works for your best friend, your mom, or even me. Because while a lot about depression is the same, a lot about it is very different. Me, I’m an ice cream and Netflix kind of girl. (Gives new meaning to Netflix and chill, doesn’t it?)

There are two crucial things to remember as you deal with depression. First, that it’s okay not to be okay. And second, that it’s okay to ask for help.

Whether you get your help from water on your insides or outsides, from happy or food in your face, or from doing anything at all for 15 minutes, you’ve got a few solid tools to help you cope when you can’t cope.