“I’m so busy I don’t even have time to think.”
“This new job is killing me.”
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead! There are too many things I have to focus on right now.”
“If I don’t get this done, I’m going to fall behind. Everyone else is working so hard, I’ve got to keep up.”
How many of us have ever said one of these things to a friend or colleague in passing? Stress. It’s in our culture. There’s an over-glorification of busyness in our world, a chronic case of overwork that has infiltrated our schools, workplaces, and society as a whole. In this day and age, if you’re not worked to the brink of exhaustion, you’re not as good as everyone else.
And then there’s all the negativity in the world. How many of us have avoided making eye contact with the television so we won’t see the updates about the presidential bloodbath or the literal one in Syria? How many of us are dealing with family issues, job woes, faith crises?
We live in a world that is hard. For all the technological and educational advancements we’ve made, we are the most overworked, fearful, and anxious generation. And no amount of Netflix, alcohol, carefully curated social media posts, or other attempts to self-medicate will cure it.
Today, I want to talk about mental wellness. As someone who would put a checkmark next to all of the statements I made above, I’m surprisingly hush-hush about my own struggles with stress and anxiety. I would like to think that it’s because I don’t want to add to the overwhelming negativity out there, but in reality, it’s a mechanism of self-defense.
After all, nobody wants to admit that they’re struggling. That’s not condoned by our society. And yet, it exists. One in four U.S. adults struggles with a mental illness. I am and have been one of them. And I guarantee that each of us, regardless of whether or not we have a diagnosable illness, have found ourselves pushed to the brink of our emotional and mental capacity.
So for a moment today, I want to create a space to discuss my own struggles with stress and anxiety, and a few ways that I have found to live joyfully in spite of them. My hope is that we can come to understand that dealing with stress and anxiety are real facts of life, and that we are not weak in naming and identifying them. In fact, by being honest with ourselves, we can actually create space to share our burdens, and by doing so, make them a little lighter. Here are four ways that I’ve been able to find joy and peace in the midst of enormous stress—I hope they’ll be helpful to you as well.
Connect with professional help. I put this point first because I cannot stress how important it is. A counselor, therapist, life coach…whatever you call them, find one. You may be thinking “No, I’m not really that bad off. Therapy is for those crazy folks.”
Listen: I was a victim of sexual assault and was subsequently diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. In this situation, a therapist was incredibly helpful. I have also dealt with the stress of family, school, work, “normal” things. In this situation, a therapist was equally as helpful. Fine, call me crazy, but the rest of the suggestions in this post were developed through therapy, and I am more well for having pushed past the stigma in order to find help.Some of you will read this and start making excuses in your head: I don’t have enough time/money/I’m afraid/etc. But therapy is an investment in your most important asset: your mental health and well-being. We will spend hours at work or working out, but devote little time to what holds us together. If finances are an issue, there are free therapy sites and hotlines out there. If you’re afraid of opening up, realize that you have the opportunity to be your most authentic self with someone who doesn’t know you from Adam. And, if that person and you don’t click, try someone else.
Therapy is helpful for so many reasons, but to me, the most important is this: it allows me to be my most honest and authentic self with someone who won’t judge me and may help shift my perspective. It’s only when we’re most honest with ourselves that the hard and necessary work of addressing our heart and mind issues begins.
Know and identify your support network. Sometimes it helps me to think about my stress and anxiety as an other self (maybe that devil on the shoulder kind of thing) that is constantly trying to trip me up. The first thing this Other Self likes to do is get me alone—so that it can tell me the lies that will keep me in a constant state of stress and anxiety (more on this below).
One of the best ways to stop this Other Self in its tracks? Finding the people that love you and sharing those thoughts with them. I can GUARANTEE that if you tell your best friend that you feel like you’re never going to do anything worthwhile in life, they’ll probably give you a shove and tell you to stop being so hard on yourself (heck, if they won’t, I will!) Even if your friends and family can’t fix your problems, they can at least remind you of the good in yourself—maybe things that you’ve never seen on your own. One more thing: although your friends and family might want to help, sometimes, suggestions can do more harm than good. Here are a few things that might help those relationships. First, realize that we are broken humans trying to help other humans, and just because someone may give you totally unhelpful advice or say something that hurts doesn’t mean they aren’t trying their best to help you. Secondly, it doesn’t hurt to identify 4-5 people in your life and figure out what they’re good at/what you can count on them for. A phone call along the lines of “Hey, I’m struggling with ________ can you give me some advice/let me vent for a second/distract me with Netflix and ice cream?” I’ve dealt with some pretty rough stuff in my life, and letting my support system know how they could help me during those times took the strain of “solving everything” off of both of us.
Explore Your Narratives. One of the biggest personal stressors for me is sticking to a fixed narrative. When a problem arises in my life, I tend to create an incredibly narrow-minded opinion of the situation, one that tends to be less-than-kind to myself or others in the situation. Statements tend to arise like:
“This person always has to get his/her way. I’ll never get them to listen to me. This whole relationship is pointless.”
“I’m entirely inadequate. Everyone around me knows what they’re doing and I’m sitting here confused. I’ll never do anything meaningful with my life.”
“People don’t really care about me. No matter how hard I try, I’m going to end up alone.”
You’ll notice that these statements include a lot of definitive words: always, never, entirely, etc. When our brains create fixed narratives like these, we close ourselves to the possibility that life could be any different. Life is not black and white, and if we take a second to consider that, we may be doing ourselves a huge favor.
One of the first things I do when I’m stressed or emotional over a situation is write. I’ll jot down all my feelings and thoughts, many of which include these fixed narratives. Then, I’ll go back and try my hardest to consider an alternative explanation to the situation. Using the example above…
“This person seems to get his/her way a lot, but maybe it’s because they’re really passionate about this issue. I bet if I can find something that they have in common, they might listen to me. Even if they don’t, the way they treat me isn’t a reflection on who I am.”
“Even though I may be confused at this point in time, that doesn’t make me inadequate. My worth as a human being is not dependent on what I accomplish. Each of us has our own journey, and mine is just as important at this point in time as anybody else’s.“
“Even though I may not feel cared about by this particular person/relationship, that doesn’t mean I’m not cared about. There are other people who care about me in a lot of different ways. I’m going to try to notice and appreciate them more.”Going through this process does two things: it allows us to be real about our emotions (instead of pretending they don’t exist or stuffing them) and it also forces us to think about things in a new way. Exploring our narratives helps us to avoid spinning our wheels in a one-way track of thinking that only compounds our problems.
Have a Feel-Good List. Sometimes we can’t solve our problems right away (in fact, a LOT of times we can’t deal with them right away) and are kind of stuck dealing with our emotions associated with that event. In situations where I can’t do anything to fix the situation, it helps to have things I can do to improve my mood. A few off my personal list:
- taking a long, hot shower
- ordering an extravagant cup of coffee at my favorite coffee shop
- leaving my phone at home, taking my dog on a walk, and spending some time just observing where I am and what I’m doing
- making lists (of things that are going right, of things I’m grateful for, etc.)
- doing a mini-binge on Netflix (anything more than 3 hours and I end up going back to feeling blah)
- grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s
- working out (kickboxing and running are my favorites)
- writing poetry
- getting in my car and driving to a place I’ve never been before and playing tourist
While these things aren’t permanent fixes, they do help us along the long (and sometimes difficult path) of dealing with the struggles we face. And if we can just have enough courage to get through today, perhaps we’ll find ourselves in a better place tomorrow.
So, there you have it. I’m not sure if this was helpful to anybody, but as someone who knows how hard it is to deal with things we’d rather not talk about, I wanted to add my voice to this conversation. I hope you’ll feel a little less alone and a little more empowered to deal with the struggles and sorrows in life, and maybe, find joy and blessings in the process.
You are powerful.
You are capable.
You are loved.