Getting Through Tough Times

Cope more effectively with these five tools.

Posted Jan 05, 2020

Times of trouble are a part of life, and none of us escapes without experiencing moments of grief and sorrow, despair, and hopelessness. Whether it’s a traumatic loss, a serious illness, family conflict, or a financial downturn, sometimes life hands us a difficult stretch of road. Bouncing back from these experiences is what resiliency is all about, and it is clear that there are more and less effective ways to approach setbacks. When we are going through tough times, what we do matters. Although many of us resort to numbing our minds with drinking, shopping, or electronics, most of us also recognize the limitations of these coping tools. Other than our addictions, where can we turn when we need to find peace and solace in the face of suffering? Here are five solid candidates to rely on when the going gets tough.

Kirsten Bradbury
When times are tough, reconnect with your spiritual beliefs.
Source: Kirsten Bradbury

1. Faith and Spirituality

Perhaps it will seem obvious, but when big themes come up like mortality and loss, pain and suffering, it’s often useful for us to turn to our religious and spiritual beliefs. These beliefs can be a safe harbor in a churning sea of despair, a light in the darkness. Communion with the sacred or the divine, whatever that means to each of us personally, can soothe and reassure.

Prayer and meditation, spending time in sacred spaces, and seeking the wisdom of trusted spiritual leaders are all valuable tools to have in your life-or-death coping kit. People have a remarkable capacity to find meaning in adversity and appreciate what really matters. Whatever you believe our existence represents in the larger context of the Universe, place what you’re facing in that framework. Faith in something bigger than we are, whether God, Love, or Nature, can help fill our hearts with peace, hope, and gratitude, even in the toughest times.

Kirsten Bradbury
Nurture interconnection at community events.
Source: Kirsten Bradbury

2. Community and Connection

In times of turmoil and upheaval, it is especially important to seek out connection with other humans. Crises cause us to have immediate— and sometimes protracted — increases in our practical and psychological needs. At such times, we all need friends and neighbors who will bring over a casserole or watch the kids, give us rides to doctors’ appointments or help us up the stairs. We need people to care. We all need a support system, a community, to fall back on when we can’t do everything we usually do for ourselves.

If you’re lucky enough to not be in need currently, now is the time to give and build: invest in reciprocal, supportive relationships and nurture these connections like your life depends on it. This universal need for support from others is also why we need to build a more compassionate society, one in which all of us, including those among us not lucky enough to have neighbors bearing casseroles, are meaningfully protected and cared for in times of loss or crisis. If you can, give generously of your time or money to organizations that provide compassionate help in your community.

3. Creativity and the Arts

Experiencing art, as a consumer or a creator, allows us to touch life and death themes through deep emotional expression. Art can accommodate all the stages of grief. Art can soothe or inflame: it has the power to possess us fully into another reality and alter our perceptions and consciousness. It can help us transcend the banal and face the moments of greatest impact in our lives. Even when you can’t find time or money to attend live cultural events, look online for dance and musical performances, plays, and operas, or even virtual walk-throughs of museums and exhibits. Give art a chance to move and inspire you.

 Kirsten Bradbury
You do not need any particular artistic talent to benefit from creative expression as a coping tool. (A recent doodle by the author.)
Source: Kirsten Bradbury

Making art can also be therapeutic and growth-enhancing; you may fear this isn’t in your skillset, but if you’d feel too silly taking a dance class or throwing pottery, try singing in the shower, or let your inner child doodle with a super-size box of crayons. No one has to see or hear the creations you produce, and anyone can express emotion through sound, movement, and visual arts. Skills in the kitchen, the garage, or the garden can provide opportunities for artistic expression. When confined to a bed or otherwise restricted in your normal activities, give your phone a rest and pick up a sketch pad and a pencil, learn knitting or embroidery, or otherwise try a little creativity. In times of trouble, finding a way to express yourself through art can have a wide range of benefits.

4. Adaptation and Change

No matter what type of trouble you’re facing, your ability to cope relies in part on your ability to make adaptive changes in response to what has happened to you. Maybe there are ways to approach this time in your life, decisions to be made and changes to embrace, that will enable you to minimize the damage of this misfortune. If you can respond actively rather than passively, you may be able to prevent secondary problems. Seek out trusted confidantes and hear their advice. Find professional counseling resources and support groups. Learn about how others have managed what you’re going through, and copy their best ideas.

Kirsten Bradbury
Adaptation allows us to maximize our effective coping in the face of difficult change.
Source: Kirsten Bradbury

Sometimes adapting to a major upheaval requires being willing to engage in problem-solving and try new things. Adaptation can be painful: We tend to resist change, especially when we feel vulnerable or threatened. But adaptation is a powerfully liberating process. Remain open to radical reorganization as well as smaller changes. The more you adapt to your situation, the more effectively you will be able to cope with it and move forward.

5. Self-Care and Self-Compassion

Times of grief or struggle bring new barriers and challenges to self-care, even though these times are exactly when we most need self-care for its stress-reducing effects. Even if you are usually good about taking care of yourself, meeting your self-care needs during a crisis will be imperfect, and that’s OK. If you find yourself unable to do your usual stress-reduction activities, try to replace them with something you can do now, given your current realities. Trim down to basics and focus on sleep, nutrition, and activity level to whatever extent is realistic. Simplify and adapt your self-care routines as much as necessary to rise to the challenges of your current predicament, and endeavor to be gentle with yourself.

Self-compassion in times of trouble is at least as important as during good times. Compassion for yourself will not diminish your capacity to care for others. Indeed, practicing self-compassion tends to increase our capacity for more compassion toward others. Give yourself some kindness and understanding.

Kirsten Bradbury (public artwork by Drib)
Don't give up!
Source: Kirsten Bradbury (public artwork by Drib)

These strategies cannot keep the wolf of hard times from blowing at your door, but they can help you minimize the extent of the damage. When crisis turns your life upside down, you can bounce back by reaching for a few key tools: spiritual beliefs and practices, relational and practical support, adaptation and change, artistic expression, self-care, and self-compassion. Using these tools can help you persevere until the storm has passed and the next patch of sunshine arrives.