Stress. This could very well have been the slogan for 2017. The looming tax bill and the politics surrounding it is only the most recent stressful event of this year. Everything from gun violence, racial unrest, sexual abuse scandals, weather induced catastrophes to the intense politics of healthcare have caused a significant amount of stress and distress throughout the country. How are we expected to survive in a period of time that seems determined to cause us significant distress?
We can’t control the news, or the politicians, or the weather, etc. What we need are a set of skills and tools that can help us tolerate what the world is throwing our way; to find a way to be flexible and fluid when something pops up that raises our blood pressure, engenders fear and frustration, and feels intolerable. Here are a few tips to help you get through the current stressors, from the new tax bill to the instability of the current political and social climate.
Know Your Role
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson helped to popularize the saying “Know Your Role.” Taken in a slightly different context, knowing your role is knowing what you have control over and what you don’t. Let’s use finances as an example. This new tax bill has the potential to change the financial plans of millions of people. While there is much that is unknown about the particulars of how any individual will be impacted, that does not mean that you are powerless to do something! Take a look at your finances using tools like mint.com and see where you stand financially. Consult with a financial advisor or someone at your bank to make sure that you are in the right types of accounts or that your money is being invested wisely. Talk to your HR person about what resources are available to you through your work. And budget, budget, budget!
All of the above are examples of things that you can do right now that are in your control and your control alone. Knowing what you can do can help to reduce the distress about what you can’t do and don’t know. And, if there is something that you can do, try and do it! It’s not always comfortable or easy to do, but taking action helps to relieve stress and anxiety in the long run.
One of the most frustrating words I encounter on a regular basis is Acceptance. I find it frustrating because it’s often so misunderstood, and (to be fair) it’s not very easy to define. Put simply, acceptance is allowing a situation/feeling/moment to occur without doing anything to try and change it or change the feelings associated with it in any way. Just letting something be the way it is. Often, that’s interpreted as “letting it go” or “making peace with it,” whatever “it” is. That’s not really acceptance. Acceptance allows you to be frustrated or upset with something, it just takes away the struggle that people go through to make that something feel or be different.
So, what kinds of things should you accept and when does a struggle actually seem appropriate? Refer back to The Rock up above, and know your role! If you have some level of control over something, you don’t have to accept it! If you’re upset about things going on politically, you can work to get new politicians in office (or run for something yourself). You can lobby for a different position, or march for your cause. These are all ways to try and make a difference and are things you have control over.
If you can’t control something, or you’re not willing to act on something that you do have control over, that’s when you work on acceptance. The old saying, “there’s no use crying over spilled milk” is helpful here … crying won’t un-spill the milk. It’s sad, or frustrating, or disappointing, or all of the above when milk spills (or when laws are passed that you don’t support). Acceptance is allowing yourself to have that feeling and then moving forward, again focusing on what you can do to help change the next moment for yourself.
Good Ol’ Fashioned Coping
While taking action on what you can control and working on accepting what you can’t control (and your associated feelings) is a great basis for tolerating a difficult time period like this one, sometimes we just need a bit of that tried and true coping with the problem at hand. Coping skills have been written about extensively, including by me. Still, it never hurts to go over a few specific skills to help you get through and tolerate that really difficult moment.
The distraction and soothing side of coping skills are often the easiest for people to use and the most impactful. For distraction skills, try and find something that will take up your brain’s cognitive power, like counting backwards from 100 by 7’s. It’s hard enough that you have to think about it, but you don’t need an advanced degree in math to do it. Or, if you’re one of those people who have a math phobia, try reciting all of the lyrics to a song. Not your all-time favorite song, that one that is too easy, but rather a song you know, but need to think about. Both of these techniques will help you shut off the endless stream of thought that can make normal worry feel even worse.
As for soothing, try focusing on soothing foods, which for many people are sweet foods (doughnuts are my number-one soothing option) or a favorite from childhood, like a good macaroni and cheese. But, be aware: soothing with food too much can actually cause its own problems. So, mix it up by using some essential oils as aromatherapy, or playing relaxing and soothing music, or even just getting some fresh flowers and plants for the house. Any of those can help you feel a deep sense of calm, which will help you tolerate difficult things much more effectively.
These are crazy days. And, it does not appear that the craziness is coming to an end anytime in the near future. Practicing these skills can help you tolerate the discomfort that comes along with our current (and probably future!) lives.