I get it. It’s hard to keep calm when the world’s falling apart. It doesn’t even have to be the s*&$ hitting the fan. It can be a job loss, a death in the family, or an election that’s ripped your country in two. How can you keep your cool when everything comes crashing in?
This is a really important topic to me. I suffer from clinical depression. I’m really lucky in that it’s a mild case. Mostly I manage it with exercise and getting plenty of time outdoors in the sun and/or vitamind D supplements (I have a diagnosed low vitamin D level – it’s not a panacea for all depression sufferers, please see your doctor if you’re depressed frequently). When I have episodes I am lethargic, anti-social, and hopeless. To make it worse, episodes are often triggered by stress. So when I most need my calm, cheerfulness, and optimism, my brain decides to step in and say, “uh-uh, everything stinks, you’re rotten, no one loves you, and it’ll never get better.” Needless to say, it makes the stressful situation that much more stressful.
But you don’t have to wrestle with depression for stress to knock you on your tuchus. As humans we’re programmed to like things to stay status quo – it makes life easier and safer for us. Unfortunately, life just doesn’t seem to stay status quo. People die, governments do stupid stuff, jobs come and go. Even good things like a new house or a new baby upset the apple cart and until you settle into a new normal you’re still dealing with the extra stress of the change.
Many of us aren’t taught how to cope with stress. I certainly wasn’t – not through any deliberate neglect of my parents, I’m sure. Just I don’t know that it was ever a topic to discuss. I turned to eating and reading. I would eat until the food pushed down the emotion (hence my journey to lose weight from a high of 310 lbs) and I would hide in a book with people who were nicer than the big scary world outside. It wasn’t until I was nearly 40 years old that I started to realize that those really weren’t the greatest coping mechanisms out there. So I learned some new ones and I’m going to share them with you.
You don’t have to try or use all of these – they’re suggestions. Some won’t work for you. You may have ones I’ve missed. But these are good places to start.
A lot of people these days meditate, but many still look think of meditation as something only granola-crunching, hippy tree-huggers do. Meditation is just the act of calming your mind and your body and letting the stress float away. You can do it with the stereotypical “ohm” or sitting staring at a candle flame. You can do moving meditation like walking a labyrinth. Or you can use the Quaker method of sitting in silence and allowing inspiration to come to you. I’ve used all of these at different times.
I used to joke that I’d only ever run if zombies were actually chasing me. Now I love to run (I’m still not good at it, but that’s another story). It gets my heart rate up and my endorphins going. I also love to dance. No, I’m not great at it – in fact I look like a cross between someone having a spastic fit and a waddling penguin. BUT, I love it anyway. I often will take a “dance break” during the day just to get up and move for a few minutes at a time. Movement not only changes what you’re doing, but it activates “happy” chemicals in your brain. If you exercise outside you also get the benefit of sunlight and fresh air.
I clean when I’m angry or sad. You can always tell when Mr. WPW have had a fight because the house freaking gleams. Some people bake, some make art, others write. But getting something done when you’re stressed can give you a win. It can also give you a small corner of your world over which you have a little control. You can then use that corner to branch out, getting other areas of your world under control, too.
We’re so lucky to have music at our fingertips these days. I have over 38 days worth of music on my iTunes alone (yeah, I like music), much less adding in CDs, Pandora, the radio, Spotify, and Amazon music. But we may not always have access to electronic music. In the case of an EMP or Carrington event our electronic devices might not work anymore. Or, you may not have your device with you for some reason.
Learn to sing a few songs, learn to play a guitar or a piano. You don’t have to be any good. Despite our insane culture which makes fun of poor singers on shows like American Idol, anyone can sing. It’s all about finding joy in the music. Sing with your family, too. There is a bond that’s built when many people sing together.
Why do you think the song “We Shall Overcome” was so powerful during the civil rights movement in the 60s? I love to listen to music as a way to express and manage my emotions. Music can express your anger (“Bodies” by Drowning Pool) or lift you up (“Abide With Me” by just about anyone, but especially the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards). Sometimes I like to put on music just to dance like a fool (“Shake Senora” by Pitbull).
We’re creatures of habit. Crises break those habits. It can be really hard to find your feet when you don’t know what time your next meal is, or what’s next to do. Try to keep a consistent routine. Have a weekly date with your spouse or family game night. Eat at about the same time each day. Give yourself a rhythm to keep and you’ll more quickly adapt.
I work from home. Many days I don’t even want to get out of my pajamas. Sometimes, that’s just the break I need, but more often it’s a day when I’m not as productive as usual. I find the days that I get up, get dressed, and even put on makeup though I won’t see another human being until Mr. WPW gets home from work, are the days where I’m able to get more done.
It’s not just part of keeping a routine, it tricks your mind into thinking it’s time to be productive. If you lost your job, give yourself a week or two of sitting on the couch in your sweats, eating bon bons and watching Dr Phil. Then get out your work clothes, get dressed, and sit at the table and send out resumes. Getting dressed, and wearing certain clothes, can have a huge psychological impact on our attitudes.
Whether you talk to a therapist or just a good friend, sometimes talking about your problems can be very helpful. I’m not talking about constant complaining or worrying out loud. That is dwelling and is what you’re trying to avoid. But, it can be helpful to talk out what’s going on in your head.
For me this is a dangerous coping mechanism. As I said above I used books to hide. I still love to read and always will, but I have to be careful not to use books as a replacement for reality. However, if you’re looking for an hour or two outside of your own head, a book or a movie, or playing a game with your family can be just the thing.
Even when things are bad, you’re allowed to laugh and feel good. Take a break from whatever crisis and do something non-critical. Paint your toenails, have a scavenger hunt, curl up with a book. Relaxing is important.
We don’t get enough sleep in the first place. Add in stress and worry and it’s hard to even get to sleep, much less get enough sleep. But your body and your brain desperately need sleep. It’s how you get the energy and stamina you’ll need to get through your tough time. Plus, your brain does a lot of emotional processing during dreaming. You can’t fully come to terms with whatever you’re facing if your brain isn’t able to work through it. If you can’t sleep through the night, take naps. Even 15 – 20 minute catnaps can help. Also, I know I get cranky without enough sleep – naps keep me calm.
When to get professional help
Feeling sad or angry when things are bad is normal. But when it goes past that you need to get professional help. Here are some of the symptoms that say you NEED to get to your doctor.
- Sadness lasts for two week or more
- You’re thinking of harming yourself or others
- Emotions are negatively affecting your life (making it hard to work or care for your kids, for instance)
- You have trouble getting out of bed and/or out of the house
- Loved ones and/or coworkers are starting to express concern about you
- You’re self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, or food
Believe me when I say I understand these symptoms, and how hard it is to motivate yourself to get to the doctor when you’re dealing with them. But it’s possible. Talking to my doctor made such a difference for me. I honestly believe without her support I wouldn’t be where I am now – down 110+ pounds, writing this blog, and managing my depression despite some really tough stresses in my life.
Always remember the oxygen mask metaphor. When you fly they tell you to put on your oxygen mask before assisting your kids. Self-care, or dealing with your own stress, is your first responsibility. If you’re not calm, rested, and able to handle the stresses of life, how can you help your family and friends?
While we all face the uncertainty that is the next few years, take care of yourself. In the words of my very favorite propaganda poster, “Keep Calm and Carry On”.