There is a lot to be stressed about these days. Nature has been on a record-breaking rampage the world over with monster wildfires, ravaging hurricanes, massive earthquakes, devastating monsoons, and killer heat waves. If you've been personally affected by any of these catastrophes, you may be experiencing traumatic stress. Even if you’re not directly in harm’s way, you may know someone who is, or you may be deeply affected by images and stories of devastation and suffering, such that you're experiencing vicarious trauma, otherwise known as secondary traumatic stress. If you're feeling overwhelmed, you're not alone.
Along with nature's destruction, you may be distressed by the ongoing, unprecedented political strife and social uncertainty. Perhaps opioid epidemic sweeping the land may is contributing to your stress. Indeed, the epidemic itself is an indication of how stressed—and unsupported—people are feeling. And then--unrelated to national or international events--there's regular life, which can be extra challenging at times.
Whatever the source, mounting, ongoing, or traumatic stress can make you feel uncommonly anxious, irritated, worried, exhausted, and unmotivated. Here are ten tips for constructively dealing with overwhelming stress during trying times, so you can prevail and live fully.
Know what stress is. Stress is a result of your physiology. When your brain detects a threat (such as a loud noise, being criticized, or a spider on the wall), it sends a surge of stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline) through your blood stream. This ramps up your heart rate, breathing, and tension in your body. Perceiving many threats can result in feeling “stressed out,” which takes a toll on your physical and emotional health.
Know that stress is unavoidable. Don’t try to banish it from your life. Stress happens. Your goal is to manage it.
To manage stress, focus on calming your brain and body. A chronically stressed brain/body is more prone to being overwhelmed, even by tiny stressors. It’s as if you lose perspective. For example, recall how you’re even more irritated by a long line at a traffic light when you’re already stressed out by the fact that you’re running late. Or recall how you’re more irritated by your partner or your children when you’re hungry or tired or “too busy.” If you can habitually focus on doing what calms your brain, you’ll be more resilient and able to go with the flow and not sweat the small stuff.
Seek out multiple ways to calm your brain. Multiple ways means you have multiple tools at your disposal and multiple opportunities to do what you can, when you can. And the more practiced you get at calming your brain, more you’ll benefit. Examples of things you can do everyday to cultivate a calm brain include being outside in nature, engaging in regular social activities, getting adequate sleep, being physically active, and eating nutritious foods.
Learn brain-calming techniques. Specific brain calming techniques include meditative breathing, yoga, and being a mindful observer of your thoughts and feelings. The better skilled you become at calming techniques, the more easily you can employ them when you need them most—during stressful moments.
Get the support and nurturing you need. Research shows that deprivation leads to desperate measures and destructive behaviors. For instance, addiction isn’t a moral failure or personality disorder—it’s a result of being deprived of social support and engaging activities. Likewise, maladjustment and destructive behaviors are often a result of not knowing how to deal with stress or being unable to heal trauma. By getting the support and nurturing you need, you’re much better able to seek out and take the high road.
Get therapy. A qualified therapist can be an effective source of support and nurturing, and guide you in adopting skills that help you cultivate a calm brain. With this support, you can learn to manage your stress in ways that improve the quality of your life, including productivity, creativity, relationships, and physical health. Here and here are the websites of two therapists I know and respect— you can get an idea of what therapy can do for you, and what a qualified therapist’s approach looks like. Use Psychology Today's "Find a Therapist" to research therapists in your area and find a good match for your needs.
Learn Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR teaches you how to minimize and manage stress. See IntoBalance.us for more information on mindfulness, meditation, and an 8-week MBSR course. Try their breath meditation.
Seek brain-based treatment for trauma or overwhelming stress. If you're feeling traumatized (you’ve had a scary or troubling experience that sticks with you, including being a witness to someone else's trauma) or if stress ever overwhelms your ability to cope (such as panic attacks, a generalized feeling of anxiety, depression, impaired judgment, troubled relationships, or addiction), your brain can benefit from professional attention. In particular, you may benefit from a therapeutic technique called EMDR, which enables your brain to process and file traumatic memories, instead of keeping them on the desktop where they can cause intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and panic attacks. Because EMDR is so effective, many therapists are trained in this technique ... ask around. Also, look here.
Tap into resources. There are many resources to help you cultivate your emotional well-being. All of the resources listed below reflect the new research on how stress affects our brains, and how to strengthen your ability to manage stress. As always, see what resonates with you, try something new, and use what works.
Read books that offer information and insight into how our brains work and how to cultivate calm and resilience:
Watch YouTube videos (see which ones appeal to you):
Here are some of my other blogposts on the topic of managing stress:
Life can be a challenging journey at times, but you are strong enough, smart enough, and resilient enough to manage and thrive!