Unavoidable life events are like roadblocks on our continual path toward peace and happiness. They get in our head, bring us down, and without the right stress relief methods, it can seem like there’s nothing we can do to regain control.
I’m not a psychologist. I didn’t even take psych in college. I cannot give you statistical or textbook advice on how best to manage a difficult situation. What I can do, however, is speak from experience and research.
I think we all know what it feels like to be worn down by life. Maybe you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, going through a divorce, or are simply overwhelmed by situations beyond your control.
I’m here to say that I know how you feel. There is no magical cure that will take away your stress and anxiety, but there are ways to pull yourself up.
Here are a few things I’ve done that help me handle stress and anxiety during especially difficult life events.
1. Take moments to acknowledge your feelings…seriously.
This is one tip we’ve all heard over and over again. We’ve heard it so many times, we tend to tune it out. We think, “Of course I’m acknowledging my feelings! Why else would I feel so terrible??” I’ve said those exact sentences, but I’m here to say that acknowledging your emotions isn’t the same as letting yourself feel sad or stressed or upset.
Clinical psychologist Christina Hibbert, Psy.D, says truly feeling your emotions isn’t the same as thinking about them, wallowing in them, or replaying events in your head. Stress is most often the result of several different negative emotions rolled into one. You have to let yourself loose and experience what sadness, fear, uncertainty, or whatever else you’re dealing with really feels like.
Hibbert suggests setting a timer for 15 minutes and using that time to talk, write, or create. Once you acknowledge what’s going on, you can take further steps to deal with your emotions.
2. Make a list.
If you’re not a list person, feel free to skip this one. I’m including it here because I’m one of those people who survives on lists. I have a daily to-do list, a goals list, a grocery list, you name it. Lists help me stay organized and in control.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I make it a habit to list everything that’s on my mind. Sometimes my lists are neat and organized into categories, and other times it’s more like a collage of random words. Getting everything out of my brain and onto paper helps me look at the situation from a different and more beneficial perspective.
Whatever your list looks like, I suggest separating it into things you can control and things you can’t. I’m willing to bet that most of the things you’re worried about are beyond your control. With this list in your hand, visualize yourself letting go of those uncontrollable things. Rip up the paper or burn it if that helps. When you take that weight off your shoulders, focus on a list of things you can control.
3. Talk about it.
I’ve been guilty of expecting my husband to “just know” when I’m suffering from extreme stress and anxiety. He knows me so well that I think I shouldn’t need to say anything to him to let him know how I’m feeling. But even though we’ve basically shared the same brain for the past 11 years, that kind of thinking isn’t fair—to either of us.
I always feel so much better when I just come out and tell someone exactly what I’m feeling. I don’t even need them to offer advice or try and solve things. All I need to do is be open and honest about what’s going on inside my head. Talking about how you’re feeling won’t solve all your problems, but it’s definitely good stress relief.
4. Get out of your head.
While I fully believe in the first tip on this list—that you have to let yourself feel your emotions—I also believe getting out of your own head helps deal with stress and anxiety. Dwelling on everything that’s stressing you out will only make you feel worse in the long run.
Self-care is especially important for stress relief when you’re going through something difficult. You might be busier than normal and feel like you don’t have time to take care of yourself, but you have to realize that your state of mind will affect everything else you do. If you’re not in the right headspace, you won’t be able to help yourself, let alone anyone else.
When I need to get out of my head, I exercise. I work out so that I’m focused on my sweat and burning muscles and not on whatever it is that’s stressing me out. I also put headphones in and blare some good music. Reading can help, but I have to be careful with what I read. When I was dealing with a succession of deaths in my family, for example, reading a book where my favorite character suddenly died did not help my mental well-being.
Find something that requires your full focus to give you a break from your stress and anxiety.
5. Take action.
I don’t know about you, but I always feel better when I take real steps to solve a problem. Sometimes the solution to a problem simply isn’t in our control, but taking actions to solve a different problem can be an important part of stress relief.
For example, I can’t cure a loved one’s cancer. No matter what I do, their health is out of my control. There are other actions, however, that are within my control. I can visit them to try and lift their spirits or make them a meal. I can also donate to a charity that funds cancer research or volunteer with an organization that helps others in my situation.
Throwing a little positivity out into the universe always helps me feel better. The hardest part is mustering up the energy to take that action.
Stress and anxiety are unavoidable parts of life. They’re always lurking around the corner prepared to bring us down. And when life gets especially difficult, they don’t even bother with the lurking. It’s like those negative emotions are trying to take over. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, know that you’re not alone. There are plenty of other people dealing with the same thing, and we’re all here to lift you up.