Life is unpredictably challenging. Relationships are a rollercoaster. Work can be endlessly frustrating. Stress is exhausting. How many tools do you have in your kit to help you cope? Try these.
1. Are you in a dreadful situation with no way to escape? While you go through the motions, put your mind somewhere else. This simple technique has rescued people in situations of mortal danger and extreme torture. Transcend your discomfort by imagining yourself on an island in the South Seas with a lagoon. Recall a wonderful family vacation in the Poconos. Think of a moment of bliss with a loved one. Your object is just to tune out until the agony has passed.
2. Still in an awful situation, maybe with physical pain keeping you anchored in the horror? Give yourself a pep talk. Tell yourself, “You can do it! Piece of cake. This isn’t so bad. You’ve gotten through worse stuff many times. This will be over soon. Think how great it’s going to be to have this experience behind you” (and so forth). Repetition is okay. This approach is good for weathering the cortisone shot and the root canal. If you are lined up for major surgery, your first enemy is anticipation, which usually aggravates anxiety. Don’t forget about the anesthesia. You won’t be there for the operation! Imagine that you are mailing yourself a letter for arrival after the procedure. Your goal is to get to the point where you go to sleep. When you awaken, the ordeal will be past.
3. If you are stuck in an excruciating, dead-end job, get out your calendar and set a date by which you will be somewhere else doing something else. Count the days, then number the sheets on a small pad. Each day, rip off the top sheet, crumple it, and hurl it into the trash. How many days remain? Then find time to create a plan, working backward from the appointed date, so that you take small but regular steps to make a solution happen. If need be, get a friend to help you brainstorm.
4. When you are suffering through a meeting that is dull and frustrating, try deep breathing and progressive relaxation. Breathe in through your nose and into your stomach to a count of three. Hold the breath for one count, then release it slowly through your mouth to a count of three. Repeat. Progressive relaxation involves tensing and then relaxing body parts. Starting with your toes, scrunch hard. Hold for a few seconds, then relax. Flex your ankle hard. Hold, then relax. On to your calves, your thighs, and your knees. Advance bit by bit from down below all the way up to your head.
5. In a stultifying workshop or training, look for creative ways to engage your mind. Plan ahead by scaring up some word or logic puzzles at the library or online. If you’re stuck without supplies, see how many capital cities of the world’s countries or states of the Union you can name. Draw three rows of three dots aligned horizontally and vertically so that they form a square. Now see if you can connect all of them using three straight lines drawn without lifting your pencil from the paper. In many settings, no one will think it odd if you are madly scribbling. They are more likely to hassle you if they catch you peering at your cell phone or tablet.
6. When you feel angry, go for a run or a bike ride. Or hit the gym and work out hard. While you do this, think about the stuff that has you bummed out. Reward yourself for making exercise a regular habit.
7. Bad day? Go home, put on some music, and dance. Standing in front of a mirror you can refine your moves.
8. If you are preparing for an interview, an exam, or a performance, rehearse ahead of time in circumstances as much like the real McCoy as possible. Do it again and again, until the patter and the gestures start to feel routine. Familiar stuff provokes less anxiety than the unknown.
9. When something really bad is coming—someone’s illness or death, a day in court, the threat of bankruptcy or foreclosure—remind yourself that there will be life on the other side. Put on mental blinders. Slow down. Focus on the day and the hour at hand and not on what lies ahead. Think of all the trials that you have survived. Have faith that this too will pass.
10. When you feel scattered and distracted, tackle a job you always avoid. Attack the mountain of office busywork or the worst closet in the house. Clean out the garage. Pull together stuff for a tag sale. When you organize your surroundings, you feel less overwhelmed.
11. If you are irritable and dejected, go work outdoors. Rake leaves, prune, mow the lawn, weed the garden, plant flowers, and pick fruit or vegetables. Nature soothes and distracts.
12. Sick at heart but no garden? Head for the nearest reservoir or state park. Walk in the woods, listen to the birds, and watch the wind ruffle the water. Like a tuning fork, the natural world will improve your pitch.
13. When you feel isolated and alone, plan at least one nice thing you can do each day for someone else. Simple kindnesses pull you out of your body and away from your sorrows.
14. Woe is you? Read the newspapers. Focus on the international news. Do you come away with a heightened sense of gratitude for your home, job, loved ones, safety, and health?
15. If you have trouble standing up to bullies and overbearing relatives, consider a martial arts class. Try kick boxing. As you build physical strength, you will increase your courage, your mental equilibrium, and your fortitude.
16. If you’re in despair and thinking, “What’s the use?” consider the possibility that your body is sending you an SOS. Revisit your diet, your exercise regimen, and your sleep schedule. Find more ways to be around people you enjoy. Take yourself out on a few dates. Volunteer your services or join a club. Start meditating. Explore new churches. Pick up a hula hoop. Set yourself a challenge and a deadline for meeting it.
17. When you feel overcome by shame and disappointment in yourself, figure out what you would need to do or have done to regard yourself with love and admiration. Recall the people who have been important role models in your life. Identify the qualities you want to exhibit, and choose ways of displaying them. Do things that will help make the world a better place in however small a way. Salute yourself after each good deed.
18. When your mistakes through the years have you writhing in bed at 3:00 am, remember that we have all acted sometimes in ways of which we are not proud. No one is perfect, and there’s no room in the world for people who think they are. Make amends where you can, be a force for positive change, and recognize that your fallibility is just more evidence of your humanity.
19. To help you wind down, turn to activities that make you feel good. Maybe you play an instrument. Or you have a delightful puppy or cat. Perhaps you bake cakes, do Zentangle, string beads, take photographs, or write songs. We all have three or four pursuits that absorb us to the point where we forget who we are, where we are, and what time it is. After doing these things, you feel deeply restored. See how many you can find. Not sure where to look? Review your life. What have you most enjoyed doing? These are your passions. Usually, too, they are things you do well.
20. If you feel that your life is not getting anywhere, ask yourself what you have accomplished so far. Of what achievements are you especially proud? Be careful not to focus on the $60,000 debt that you got when you wanted a million dollars in assets. If your life didn’t go according to plan, play detective. What themes catch your eye as you look back? What recurring attempts and desires? Do you see the spiritual and other sorts of growth for which you never gave yourself credit? Start patting yourself on the back now.
21. If your best friend were to do something wonderful for you right now, what would it be? Once you know the answer, go and do it. Always be your own best friend.
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