Coping Strategies

Many of us are feeling the effects to varying degrees of chronic stress.  Given our 24/7 news cycle which rarely has anything positive to offer, it’s not surprising that rates of anxiety have been increasing.  We seem to be fed a constant diet of fear.  If only this or that group was eliminated from our lives all would be well and we would be safe.  Sadly, reality just doesn’t work that way.  Life is full of problems and this is true for every life.  I would challenge anyone reading this to examine their own life and tell me that they have never had cause for anxiety, fear or just plain suffering.  Some of us like to think there was mythical time in the past when life was somehow simpler and easier.  But if you are truly honest, would you really want to go back to that time?  Was it really as great as your hindsight suggests?  And even if it was – for you anyway – the fact is time only moves in one direction.  We can’t go back.  We can only accept what is right now and move on from there.  In the complex world of today there are no easy answers.  Pointing fingers might make us feel good but it solves nothing.

So what is a person to do when faced with our daily bombardment of negativity.  One possibility is to try and ignore it.  Turn off the TV and the computer.  Avoid newspapers, magazines and radio.  Great idea!  But just as we look between our fingers at horror movies, few of us can really stay away from current events for long.  And sometimes it’s not national issues that get to us but something closer to home, like family or neighborhood discord that’s not so easily avoidable.

Another strategy is to pick a problem and find some way to address it with your own time, money and/or expertise.  This can be especially effective at a local level where you can sometimes actually see results from your efforts.  Or even if the results you seek extend beyond your view, you can at least feel like you’re contributing to a potential solution.  Helping others is widely prescribed as an antidote to stress and even depression.  It certainly beats complaining and blaming.

Still the feeling of helplessness in the face of any problem – illness, life changes, loss – can cause stress.  When you’re in the middle of a crisis it can be difficult to see clearly or to remember that all things change and nothing lasts forever.  Although it may seem simplistic, sometimes even  a momentary distraction can be helpful.

One very simple example is breathing.  There is actually science behind the calming power of breathing.  A recent article in the journal Science describes the “rhythmic activity of a cluster of neurons in the brainstem [that] initiates breathing . . . [and] has a direct and dramatic influence on higher-order brain function.”  The article states that “Slow, controlled breathing has been used for centuries to promote mental calming, and it is used clinically to suppress excessive arousal such as panic attacks.”  This study found a physiological and neural relationship between deep breaths and peaceful feeling.  According to an article in Yoga Basics which references this study:

“These findings suggest that the rhythm of our breathing directly relates to our higher-level brain activity.  For example, short, rapid breathing warns the brain that we may be in a stressful situation. . . .In contrast, deep breathing and long sighs encourage the opposite response. These tell our brain that we are safe”

There’s a key – the word “safe”. When we are fearful it is usually because we feel unsafe.  If we can convince our brains that we really are safe, a major cause of stress can be relieved.  A simple practice like deep breathing with a focus on long exhales can go a long way towards achieving that goal.  Now we even have scientific evidence that this reaction is real.  What’s even better is the knowledge that breath is always available.  We take it for granted and often don’t even notice it, but as long as we are alive, we are capable of breathing.  For some of us, breathing is obstructed and difficult.  But to the extent that we are capable of slow, deep breaths, this can be a good coping strategy when feeling stressed.

Another potential fear and stress-reducing practice is to create a gratitude list.  We’ve all heard of these, but how often do you actually remember all the positive things in your life?  Especially when you feel surrounded by a huge seemingly insurmountable problem.  If you can’t think of anything positive, try reading this article from the Chopra Center.  Even the most hard-core fear monger is bound to find something in this list to be grateful for.  Somewhere (unfortunately I don’t remember where) I read a suggestion that when feeling fearful or just overwhelmed to look around you and simply name everything you see.  The goal of this exercise is to bring you into the present moment.  Often what we fear is something from the past or something that might happen in the future but hasn’t happened yet, and, in fact, may never happen.  If we come back to the present moment it will keep us from regretting something we can’t change or anticipating something that may never happen.

Of course, no coping strategy works if you forget to do it.  And all interventions can be easily overlooked during a crisis even for the most stable and centered of us.  But when things seem at their bleakest, sometimes the only thing you can do is find a way to cope.  A little relief might help you to get to through the crisis.  And then maybe next time you’ll remember the practice that helped.  As alway, practice is the key.  The more we practice, the better we get.


Cultivating Calm

We all could use a little help reminding ourselves to relax.  This seems especially true in our 24/7 world where information overload never seems to cease.  There are strident voices everywhere, all of which seem entrenched in their own particular version of truth.  We receive constant messages designed to make us fearful.  Yet we race around our lives at warp speed without really spending the time necessary to evaluate what is or is not worth our concern.  As a result it’s pretty easy to fall into a state of perpetual worry.  Even if we’re not personally affected by some of the larger dangers in the world, there are plenty of localized concerns.  No need to name them; each of you reading this has a list of your own.  It’s no wonder that so many of us find ourselves in a state of chronic stress.

Maybe your own brand of stress has nothing to do with events in the news, local or otherwise.  Yet almost all of us at some point will find ourselves worried about something.  Stress is actually our body’s natural reaction to perceived threats.  It puts us on alert and releases physical reactions designed to help us address the danger, whatever it is.  There are mechanisms within our bodies that help us recognize and cope with threats to our survival.  In small short-term doses, stress can be a good thing.  Some stress can make us stronger by training our systems mentally and physically to handle discomfort.   But too much of anything can cause overload.  Then instead of adapting, the body gets thrown out of balance and many health problems can result.  In modern times, perceived threats to our survival may be more psychological than physical.  Often, if you examine your worries honestly and objectively, you will probably recognize that they are related to something that happened in the past which can’t be changed, or something that hasn’t happened yet and, in fact, my never happen.

Sometimes we don’t even realize how stressed out we are until something happens that becomes a wake-up call.  For example, a sudden illness or injury may help us to recognize that we may need to pay more attention to how we treat ourselves.  If we’re lucky, there will be a chance to turn things around and find ways to cope.  Even for those of us who do not see ourselves as chronic stress sufferers, there are times in everyone’s life when we just need to take a time-out and release tension.

So what can you do if you find yourself all wound up in a state of anxiety? Maybe you feel like you’re lacking something you need, like time, money or control over your life.  Right now we’re entering into the holiday season which on the surface should be a time of fun and joy, of giving and receiving, festive events with family and friends.  Yet too many of us find the holiday season akin to a mine field, laden with hidden traps ready to grab us when we least expect it.

Not surprisingly, my first suggestion for relieving stress is movement.  Think you haven’t got time?  Everyone has time to get up and walk around, even if it’s only for a minute or two.  If standing too much is stressing you out, then sit in a chair and do some easy stretching.  Shoulder rolls and neck stretches can help to relax.  You can, I’m sure, come up with all kinds of excuses.  But I will contend that unless you are a medical professional in the middle of a life-saving treatment, nothing you are doing is so critical that a few minutes of break time will make a difference in the outcome.  All sorts of events may be sabotaging your usual movement routine.  But no matter where you are or who you’re with there is always time for a break.  Make it a priority.  Remind yourself that not only will you feel better, but the world is not going to fall apart as a result.

Still having trouble finding time for movement?  Try breathing.  Whether or not you realize it, you’re going to breathe anyway.  So why not try focussing on your breath for a few minutes.  Just notice.  Slow it down.  Take your inhales all the way into your belly.  Lengthen your exhales to empty completely.  Try it!  Go into another room if you need to (like the bathroom, for example).  You may be surprised to find that whatever was in your head dissolves while you focus on your breath.  It may return afterwards, but you might also find that you are less tense and better able to handle whatever it is.

Another possible strategy is to let go of expectations. A friend recently said, “Every year I tell myself that whatever gets done is fine and whatever doesn’t is fine, too.  And every year that idea goes out the window as I try too hard to do too much.”  Think about it, though.  That’s pressure that we put on ourselves.  Generally, no one else expects as much from us as we expect of ourselves. It’s fine to make plans but sometimes the best laid plans and strategies can be upended in a moment through no fault of your own.  When that happens, it may not be easy to accept a different outcome.  But when you think about it, what choice do you have?  Reality is what it is, even if we were hoping it would be different.  We can blame ourselves or someone else, but placing blame is unlikely to change the situation.  Sometimes a mistake was made that we can learn from and avoid in the future.  But even that is not always possible.  Better to focus on living with the outcome as it is, whatever it is, and moving on from there.  Sometimes you might even find that outcome leads to something even better that you could not have foreseen or anticipated.  Keep your mind open to whatever happens and you just might be surprised by the results.

There are, of course, many articles and even books full of ideas for reducing stress, but here is my final suggestion.  When faced with disappointment or anxiety, making a gratitude list is something that always works.  No matter what is going wrong, there are bound to be things that are going right.  Did that new recipe not work out so well?  Take heart – most likely no one will go hungry because of it.  Were you unable to help out at that charitable event this year?  There are people in need all year long.  Be thankful that you can be generous in a different way another time.  Did you have enough to eat today and a warm place to sleep?  Even the fact that daylight arrived when expected today and you were there to witness it is reason to be grateful.  If you really spend some time with that list, you will come up with many more things to celebrate.  When I’m tempted to regret something from the past or feel insecure about the future, it always helps me to remember that right now – in this moment – I have everything I need.  And if this moment is uncomfortable, it will pass.