Fine-tune your coping skills for when life gets difficult

Here are four ways to develop healthy ways to deal with the stress that inevitably comes our way.

Many of us have anxiety, which is struggling with intense and uncontrollable feelings of anxiety, fear, worry, and/or panic, which may stem from the uncertainty of the future. None of us know what tomorrow will bring. This was true throughout human history. Stress often comes from these external causes — work challenges, relationship concerns, the breakdown of mechanical things we depend on, hurricanes, tornadoes, windstorms and global warming, to name a few. Most internal stressors come from health problems that suddenly arise or existing health problems that worsen.

All these causes and conditions make demands on our ability to negotiate and mitigate these stressors effectively. This is what we call coping skills.

Sarah is losing her job at a high-tech company and worries about finding a new job. Bill’s wife is angry with him because of his lack of reliability. Ann’s refrigerator just stopped working. Joe’s rent just went up 15%. Libby’s back went out when she was lifting her toddler. All these circumstances create challenges. How will we manage? How do we keep our calm? How will we solve these problems? How do we retain our equilibrium?

Most of us have a toolbox filled with strategies to cope with stress. Unfortunately, many of these tools are unhealthy. Sarah’s stress default is hitting high-calorie, high-sugar, high-fat snacks. Bill has more than a couple of drinks after an argument with his wife. Joe buys lottery tickets by the dozens. Libby gets frustrated and angry and binge-watches Netflix. These coping mechanisms may temporarily make us feel better, but they generally have a downside. They don’t help us focus on solutions. They don’t bring well-being. They don’t foster inner peace.

So, what are some healthy coping skills?

Acknowledge how stress affects you. When I was stressed at work or was doing too much, my back would go out. Ouch! It took me a while to figure out that stress was the culprit. It was a signal from my body that I needed to pay attention to taking better care of myself. I also noticed that stress would make me grumpy — or at least, that’s what everyone around me observed. They were right. Take an inventory of how stress affects your mood, emotions and body.

Note how you cope with stress. Write down how you ordinarily cope with life challenges. Which coping strategies are healthy? Which ones aren’t? Be honest with yourself. Consider which ones you want to keep and which ones you want to lose.

Express your concerns. Many of us keep a lot inside — our fears, worries and insecurity. When it comes to the uncertainty of the future, we’re all in the same boat — and it can be leaky. Sharing your thoughts and feelings with friends and family takes those concerns out of the closet into the light of day, where everything looks different.

It can be helpful to keep a diary and write down your concerns, hopes, successes and challenges. This is another way of taking thoughts and feelings out of the closet of your mind.

Find healthy releases of tension. Meditation, exercise, prayer, breathing, listening to music, dancing, walking in nature, swimming, biking, skiing, yoga, Tai chi, martial arts, massage, crafts and art are all ways of releasing tension. Developing a regular practice of meditation trains your mind and body to release. It’s very helpful when times get tough. But it’s hard to start when you’re in a crisis. Develop a practice during good times. It will be there when you need it when life goes upside down.

Social support is powerful. We are not islands — we need each other for comfort, companionship, and love. So, when times are tough, reach out to family and friends for support.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. healthwellness-library.html.

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