Recently I solicited blog post ideas from you. In response, I received a request to explain how I am able to remain calm and rational in the face of stress and craziness. First of all, thank you, Jessi, for believing I am calm and rational. Feel free to skip to the next paragraph to avoid disillusionment. For the rest of you, in the spirit of full disclosure, I am not always calm and rational. I have cried—at work—in a meeting—with my boss. I have snapped at my husband when he was only trying to help. And just ask my children what I was like when they were young and I was lost or trying to merge on the freeway.
That said, I have survived some craziness and remained sane—for the most part. So while I’m not a mental health professional, I do have some tips that I would like to share, because (and I hate to be the bearer of bad news) if you have not yet, you will someday face, for yourself or someone close to you, a life-altering medical diagnosis, a loved one’s sudden death, a job loss, a crime, a divorce, drug addiction, mental health issues, abuse, financial challenges, or a whole host of other things that this life throws at you. And sometimes, for extra measure, life throws a bunch of them at you all at once. So, based on personal experience, I suggest the following:
1. Focus on what you can control—your own actions, thoughts, and words. Most of the time when I’m really stressed out, it’s because I am worrying about something outside of my control. No amount of worry on my part will cause someone else to make “better” decisions, think more of me, or miraculously get well. I cannot control the weather, prevent natural disasters, or eradicate disease. I can be kind, take care of myself, and treat the environment well. So when I feel anxiety starting, I consciously ask myself, what can I control in this situation? Then let everything else go. Sometimes the “everything else” sneaks back in, and then I gently push it away—as many times as it takes.
2. Accept the past as it is. See #1 above. I haven’t yet figured out how to control the past. It appears that there is truth in the saying, “what’s done is done.” So when I catch myself obsessing over what might have been…if only, I stop and ask two questions (you might recognize them from the title of this blog): 1) So what? What does this mean for me? 2) Now what? Where do I go from here? What do I do with the reality of the present?
3. Breathe. Tips 1 & 2 are all well and good when you have time to stop and think, but what do you do when the craziness is actively upon you? Breathe. Slow deep breaths. Count to 10; walk away if you can; stand your ground if you must; but whatever you do, keep breathing; slow, deep breaths. Sometimes it helps me to repeat to myself, “Just breathe.” “Just” on the inhale, “breathe” on the exhale. As long as you’re breathing, you are surviving.
4. Express the emotion—cry it out, write it out, scream it out, talk it out, run it out—whatever works for you. I find a combination of all of the above usually works for me. My experience has been that expressed emotion dissipates. Unexpressed emotion builds strength. You may not be able to express your emotion as soon as it strikes you. You may not want to sob during an important interview or scream it out in front of the children. But don’t wait too long. Find some time for yourself and let the emotion out.
Those are some of my survival tips for when you find yourself in the midst of a crisis, but even more important is what you do on a daily basis to build your resilience, to prepare for the next crisis.
1. Get sufficient sleep. It is nearly impossible to remain calm and rational when you are sleep deprived. The previously mentioned cry during a work meeting happened when I had gone several days without a good night’s sleep. To be fair, there are times when you truly can’t get the sleep you need. Perhaps you have a new baby, or a loved one is ill, or you are in the final season of a television series you’ve been binge watching. But in truth, most of us can get more sleep, if we make it a priority. It will be worth it, I promise. Everything is easier when you are well-rested.
2. Exercise regularly. When you feel good physically, you are better able to keep it together mentally and emotionally. And physical activity is a great way to burn off that extra stress. As an added bonus, I have found that I feel more confident and powerful in general when when I am exercising regularly.
3. Look for joy in the little things, and embrace that joy. Even when your life is going to hell in a hand basket (where did that saying come from anyway?), there are still rainbows, music, favorite songs, chocolate, hugs. Pay attention to those things. Embrace them. In good times and in bad.
So that’s it. Those are my secrets to sanity. What do you do to keep it together under pressure? I’d love to have some new tools for my resilience arsenal.
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