How to Manage When Things Get Tough
By: Ginger Morgan, Director of Candid.
I am not sure how things are going for you, but I can say that I am feeling pretty worn down by #saferathome by now. The first month we were all adjusting, things were unfolding fast and felt new and our brains were feeling alert and ready for anything. In fact, that’s exactly how our brains and bodies are wired to react to stress (and threat), and our brains and bodies complied. We made adjustments, we started online classes, we FaceTimed or Zoomed with friends or family. Maybe there were even some things we enjoyed about the changes we were forced into (maybe doing class in pajamas is still a plus).
The difficulty comes as we realize that this situation is continuing, and we have no idea how long it will go on. That alone can wear us out! Additionally, while we are glad to connect virtually with friends, we discovered that we get worn out by it. Turns out that our brains don’t register and process our “virtual connecting” (via technology) the same way it registers in-person connecting (you can read more about that in this really good article from Psychology Today). So, I’m not surprised that people are restless, maybe even angry about being asked to continue on as we have been. If you are anything like me, you may be increasingly feeling fatigued, frustrated, blue, angry, sad, worried…perhaps some combination of all of that playing on what seems like an endless loop.
I Just Don’t Feel Like It…
Most of us know what to do that would be “good for me.” Things like:
- Good night’s sleep (not too much, not too little)
- Healthy meals
- Regular exercise
- Keep up with homework
- Do something creative
- Meditate, pray, practice mindfulness
But, let’s face it. Sometimes we just don’t feel like it…
If you’re feeling this way, you are not alone. Turns out that this can be a pretty normal reaction. It tells us that our supply of will power and discipline and good intentions is just about all used up. So, pay attention. Having a low level of will power is not a crisis, but it is a very important piece of information. If we completely deplete our reserves, then we are running on adrenaline and cortisol and our capacity for resilience (bouncing back) and persistence (pushing through) can suffer. So, what can you do to manage when things get tough and your reserves feel low?
First, tell the truth about how you are feeling.
I learned a long time ago that our worst fears are much more powerful when they live inside your head. Sometimes our fears are rooted in our past, and do not really correspond with the realities we are facing today. Sometimes, what we most fear are our own strongest feelings. Either way, if you can identify and name how and what you are feeling, you can get some perspective and some relief. Sometimes simply naming/saying your feelings out loud can be enough to help you move through them. Sometimes, you need to get a bit more physical about it by letting feelings come out. Find somewhere you can scream or yell. Put on a sad song and let yourself cry. Pound a pillow or a punching bag. (Disclaimer: by suggesting you physically express your feelings, I am inviting you to do so in healthy non-destructive/non-harmful ways.) Sometimes writing down how we feel gives us a new perspective about what’s really going on, so we have a better handle on how to move forward. Often, acknowledging and accepting our feelings as a part of our life is a key first step to reclaiming our energy and getting unstuck.
If this isn’t something you do easily, here are some simple ways to connect with your feelings:
- Do a body check
- If words about feelings don’t come easily, check in first with your body.
- Energy level: hyper? tired? low? normal?
- Thinking: clear? sluggish? foggy? sharp? circling?
- Stomach: relaxed or tight? hurting or normal?
- Throat: feeling closed up?
- Shoulders: tense or relaxed? (jaws are good to check, too)
- Breathing: shallow? deep? rapid? slow? normal?
- Any pain?
- Consult a Wheel of Emotions
- Which words on the wheel correspond to how you are feeling?
- Are those feelings familiar to you or new to you?
- Are there feelings on the wheel you think are “bad” to feel and therefore hide them?
- What is prompting that feeling? What is connected to that feeling for you?
- If you are an introvert or don’t have easy access to someone to talk to, you may want to consider journaling. I find it helpful to answer basic prompts or questions like:
- Right now, I am feeling… because…
- What is making me uneasy right now?
- The last time I felt this way was…
- PhotoVoice Journaling
- Walk around (outside would be great if that’s an option; if not, inside works too)
- Find an object or image or something that connects with how you are feeling
- Take a picture of it
- Make an audio recording on your phone of how that image or object makes you feel
- Optional: share the image and your feelings with someone you trust
Once you are clear about how you are feeling, you are in a better position to deal with how your feelings are affecting you. One of the conundrums about feelings is that they are tied to how we think and what we do (heart, mind, body connection). Here is a surprising thing about how these connections work: we can actually change how we feel by using our bodies. For example, did you know that if you smile or laugh (whether or not you feel like it or not; whether or not there is something funny going on), your brain releases happy chemicals like dopamine and serotonin? So, that brings us our next strategy:
Use your body to complete the stress cycle and change your mood
- If you are feeling afraid, anxious, panicked or stressed, there is a natural stress response cycle your body needs to move through to release and discharge the stress. If you’ve ever watched a dog or cat catch another animal, you might notice that (assuming it survives) once it is released, it may kick it’s legs vigorously for awhile before it gets up and moves away. That animal’s body is discharging the excess “flight” energy built up from being caught and afraid. Our bodies release similar sets of chemicals, but we don’t always allow our bodies to move to release those chemicals and our excess energy. We can do that in a variety of ways:
- Go for a fast walk, a bike ride, a run
- Tense your fists, arm muscles, and shoulders, hold while you count to 10, then release
- Put on some fast music and dance it out, or pound your fist to the beat (and sing if you want to!)
- Do a round of yoga (I particularly like Yoga with Adriene videos)
Adjust Your Stress Mindset
Not only can our bodies shift how we are feeling, so can how we think about things. For example, if we believe, think or say: “Stress is bad; stress is tearing me down; stress is hurting me”, then in fact stress will be more harmful to us. There are, in fact, two conditions in which stress is bad for us: 1) when it goes on too long and 2) when we perceive stress as bad for us.
Research on stress suggests that the more we think of stress as helpful, good for us, a sign that our bodies and minds are capable of responding to the conditions of life — the better we are at building stress resilience. Changing how we think about stress requires interrupting old messages and beliefs that “stress is bad” (literally in your mind press the pause button) and replacing them with a new possibility, that “stress is good” (press play on that message, and repeat). Experiencing stress means we are alive.
When things are tough and your reserves to cope feel low:
- Pay attention to your feelings and be curious about them; feelings are often messengers to let us know that we need to pay attention to/address something.
- Connect to your body and give it a chance to complete the stress cycle/release tension.
- Remind yourself that stress is good; it helps keep you safe, accomplish things and respond to the world around you.
Pro Tip: Smiling and laughing (whether you feel like it or not) will help you feel better.
And remember, if you’ve done what you can do (or can’t manage to do anything at all) and you can’t shake feeling depressed or anxious, please reach out and get some additional support. We all need help sometimes.