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The First Things to Try When You're Struggling Emotionally

Simple ideas for early intervention.

Key points

  • When someone feels overwhelmed, they may know that there are options for stress relief, but each may seem like it would demand too much of them.
  • Seeing a therapist, for example, may seem like a major commitment, but some professionals will agree to single-session therapy.
  • Similarly, social support need not involve anything more formal than a single walk or phone call to deliver real benefits.
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When you're struggling psychologically, it can be difficult to decide what to try, or every option may feel like it will take more energy than you can muster. Here are four options you can choose from when you're starting to crack under excess stress and want to intervene early. Pick one to try, implement it, and only then consider trying the others. This will help you not feel overwhelmed.

1. A quick bite of therapy.

Deciding to see a therapist can feel like a huge commitment. However, what many people don't realize is that a session or two on its own can very helpful. There's even quite a bit of research on what's known as "Single Session Cognitive Behavioral Therapy."

It's very common for people to wait years after the onset of a problem to see a therapist for the first time. Early intervention usually predicts a good prognosis, so give a single session or two a try. Let the therapist know in advance that's what you're seeking so expectations are clear.

2. Micronutrients.

Psychologist Julia Rucklidge is co-author of the new book, The Better Brain. This is her summary of the latest research and recommendations on using micronutrient supplements to cope with stress:

  • The more stressed or traumatized you are, the more nutrients can help you cope — and the less likely you are to get them, especially if food supplies are disrupted after a natural disaster or you understandably turn to comfort foods for temporary relief.
  • After an unexpected trauma, a daily broad-spectrum multi-nutrient supplement can, after only a few weeks, substantially improve how you feel. This is especially worth trying before turning to psychiatric medication. Nutrients may give your brain the additional boost it needs.
  • A vitamin B-complex supplement (taken with food every morning) can improve resilience to trauma and stress, without any side effects, except your urine may become a brighter yellow from excess riboflavin being excreted.
  • Multi-nutrient supplements can also help you manage the normal, everyday stresses of modern life.

These same recommendations have the potential to help a variety of problems including anxiety, depression, and difficulties with attention.

3. Peer support.

A few weeks ago, I found out that a colleague I knew only slightly had a book deadline around the same time as mine. We were both in the same crunch period of getting it done, and feeling some anxiety about various aspects of it. Since then, we've had two phone calls to support each other through it, and it's been amazing. In the modern world, almost everyone will tell you they feel too busy. Because of this, we hesitate to reach out to others for support, or feel like we don't have time for it ourselves.

What my colleague and I did was to have two sessions—phone calls we treated as walking meetings. This approach can help you not worry that you're going to overwhelm the other person. Like a single session of therapy, a session or two of peer support can do a remarkable job of filling your emotional cup. Go beyond your inner circle: Peer support between people who don't know each other well can be especially effective.

4. Good daily routines.

When we're struggling emotionally, our routines can start to fall apart. You might find yourself stuck in cycles like staying up late so you get some personal time, but then feeling tired and miserable all of the next day. When this happens, we can end up doing behaviors that generate further stress. For example, we overeat then feel depressed about it, we pick an argument with our romantic partner, or we ignore our kids and then they act out to get our attention.

If you can manage it, try having an early night for a few nights in a row and see if this helps you get back into the swing of good routines like exercise, eating well, focusing for reasonable periods then taking a break, and engaging with your loved ones.

When you're beginning to struggle psychologically, don't wait for it to get worse or obsess about the perfect course of action. Give one of these options a shot.