Coping with Dysphoria
While transitioning does a great deal to alleviate gender dysphoria, it does not completely eliminate it. Some transgender people may also be unable or unwilling to transition – perhaps because your parents disapprove, or it goes against your religious beliefs, or it would require greater sacrifices than you are willing to make, or you are medically unsuitable for the treatment you desire. If so, you would need other ways to cope with gender dysphoria.
Coping methods generally involve either distraction or finding other outlets where you can be yourself. We provide some suggestions below, based on our own experiences, with the caution that everything should be done in moderation:
- Work. Delving deeply into your schoolwork or career is one way to keep your mind off your dysphoria as you pour your energies into being an excellent student or employee. Many trans people go through phases of overachievement because of this. The natural upside is greater success, which for working adults can come with a financial boost that would also help you greatly if you eventually transition in future. However, workaholism has the downside of creating stress that – especially over the long term – can have damaging effects on your physical and mental health, so this is more of a short-term solution.
- Creative endeavours such as writing, music and art can give you something enjoyable to focus on, cultivate your talents, freely express yourself, and provide outlets of escapism – for instance by creating elaborate fictional worlds and characters to immerse yourself in whenever the real world gets too much to bear. If you get good enough, you may also be able to turn it into a career in future, enabling you to make a living out of something you enjoy and are good at.
- Charitable work such as volunteering can bring new perspectives on your own pain as you help others who may be more needy than you in other areas of their lives. You may find reassurance in the ways you are ‘normal’ compared to others, and realise that perhaps nobody is normal, after all, and that doesn’t make them any less worthy of love. In focusing your energy on others rather than yourself, helping to shoulder their burdens in life, you might find that it draws attention away from your own burdens, and cultivates a sense that we’re all in this together.
- Role-playing games of any sort can be a great way of coping with dysphoria, as they let you live vicariously through your character and interact with its world and/or other gamers through an identity (and gender presentation) you have full control over. Live-action role playing gives you a space in the real world where you can have others engage you as your gender, no strings attached. Acting and cosplaying can do the same as well.
- Getting obsessed with a celebrity (or other public figure) of your gender whom you identify with or view as a role model can serve a similar purpose. Many details of celebrities’ lives are open to the public these days, making it easy to find out the minutiae of their lives and live vicariously through them. Through this, you can get the chance to see the world through their eyes, and experience being a man/woman/other in second-hand if you’re unable to do it first-hand. However, do set out boundaries and know where to draw the line. Celebrity obsession in particular has a bad reputation for getting out of hand. It may help to find a trusted friend who can tell you when you’re going too far.
- Religion. If you have a personal faith, you may find it a comfort to turn to, allowing yourself to feel less alone, appreciate the bigger picture of existence, transcend the concerns of the physical world, surrender your pain to a higher power, and comfort yourself in the thought that your small life is not all there is in a universe far older and grander and more mysterious than we can ever possibly imagine.
Try to stay away from any transphobia within your religion, even if you may personally agree with it, and even if it’s the main reason you have decided not to transition. Focusing on that will only bring pain that isn’t going to do anything more than make you miserable. Focus instead on the good that your faith brings into your life, and the greater peace and purpose you may experience in it.
- Transgender men in particular often find that working out is a good way to deal with dysphoria, as it serves multiple roles as distraction, obsession and a way to put on muscle and directly masculinise one’s body. This can stem the feeling of helplessness and lack of control over your body.
If this is an option you’re considering, be sure that you’re following a healthy routine. Transgender people are at disproportionate risk of eating disorders that result from body hatred and desperate attempts to masculinise or feminise themselves by either starving (so that breasts or muscles shrink) or overeating (so that you look like a sexless lump). Please do not do this. It is extremely unhealthy, and might counter-productively result in even more dysphoria (being thin accentuates your bone structure; being fat can add to body image issues especially for trans women, given the social ideal of slim women, and for trans men results in larger breasts and higher estrogen levels). It may cause major health problems that could make you medically unsuitable for hormone therapy in future, if you plan on doing so.
- Some transgender people may find that counselling and comforting other people suffering through bad periods of gender dysphoria eases their own. The advice you give them might also help you, along with the knowledge that you’re not alone and others understand what you’re going through. You may also wish to become a mentor to younger transgender people who are able to transition, and through that find happiness in helping others to have the life that you are unable to.
Others may, however, find that doing these things worsens their dysphoria, as it reminds them of their own discomfort and brings that pain into focus; seeing other people happy can also cause bitterness and jealousy. Know yourself and what works for you.
- Get out into nature – if you can afford it, set aside some time to stroll through the Botanic Gardens, go cycling at East Coast, wander through the forests of a catchment area, get lost exploring Pulau Ubin, watch the sunset from a beach, and so on. Realise that you’re a person in a body in a world far bigger than yourself, and that even in the midst of all the darkness and ugliness that surrounds us every day, there are still moments of beauty to be found in this world. And maybe, one day, everything will be okay.