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5 Ways Not to Make Things Worse When Stress Is Overwhelming

Extra stress can show up anytime, so have strategies in place for handling it.

Petukhov Anton/Shutterstock
Source: Petukhov Anton/Shutterstock

The past few weeks have been especially hard for me. I’ve been chronically ill for many years. That in itself makes every day a challenge. Then, suddenly, this was added to the mix: Without explanation, my dog Scout started getting painful spasms in her back left leg. For 10 days, she was either crying out in pain or was lying on her bed, not wanting to move (no doubt because moving might set off a spasm).

As you can imagine, caring for her was emotionally stressful and used up what little physical energy I have. I just about had to carry her when she needed to go outside. I was feeding her by hand on her bed and also gently massaging her leg to help her muscle relax when a painful spasm started. For me, all of this added up to a flare in my ongoing illness and pain levels.

After examining her thoroughly, the vet said she didn’t think it was systemic — that Scout must have moved in some way that set off the spasms, and that we should simply wait it out and give her some pills for pain relief. But the pills didn't appear to help. We tried waiting, but after another three days with no improvement, the vet prescribed an anti-spasmodic drug. Thankfully, two days after starting that medication, Scout suddenly got better.

But I didn’t.

That flare in my symptoms took another week to subside. In retrospect, I definitely could have handled what happened better. First of all, I could have re-read some of the advice in my own books and posts! I did finally get around to that, but until then, I did an excellent but unadmirable job of making a bad situation worse.

And so, here are five ways in which you should not react like I did when extra stress unexpectedly pays a visit.

1. Don’t take the stress of the present moment and project it into the future.

Many of us have a habit of taking what’s happening now and then worrying about how it will impact the future. This is one of my habits, and I’m trying to break it, because it makes life harder for me. It was difficult enough tending to Scout in the present moment without projecting that moment into the future and coming up with worst-case scenarios, such as hospitalization, permanent loss of the use of her leg, etc. You name it; I projected it!

In addition, I exhausted myself doing research on the web about possible causes of spasms, diagnostic tools, treatments. (If you want to know the proper use and approximate cost of doggie x-rays, ultrasounds, CT scans, or MRIs, I know about them all — and now have no use for all that knowledge I gained at great cost to my health.)

Bottom line, I’d have handled the stress much better if I’d stuck to the present moment, as in: “My dog is in pain. The vet thinks it’s not systemic. I’m doing my best to make her comfortable. That’s all I can do.”

2. Don’t put off resting in order to distract yourself from worrying or from your physical symptoms.

Being under extra stress is not just exhausting mentally; it’s also exhausting physically. What I needed to do was take extra rests. Instead, I kept at my computer, even though I could feel my body crying out for me to stop. I didn’t stop, because I didn’t want to “be alone” with my worries, and I didn’t want to tune in to my physical symptoms. When I finally did lie down, my emotional stress and my physical symptoms were 2-3 times worse than they’d have been had I heeded my body’s pleas to rest.

3. Don’t treat everything as a top priority.

Why did I do two unnecessary loads of wash during this stressful period? Why did I feel I had to answer every email promptly? I was busy enough being chronically ill and trying to take care of a dog in pain. This was the time to give myself every break I could think of by putting off non-essential tasks.

I wish I’d limited myself to two priorities: Scout-care and self-care.

4. Don’t ignore your own emotional well-being.

I often write about self-compassion as my “go-to” practice when things get rough. Unfortunately, I got too caught up in taking care of Scout to remember that my emotional well-being needed attention too.

It took over a week, but finally that self-compassion light bulb came on in my brain. When it did, I started silently speaking gentle words to myself, such as, "No wonder I feel extra sick right now. This is really hard and really stressful." Sometimes as I did this, I’d stroke one arm with the hand of the other. These words and actions were the soothing balms I needed to start feeling better emotionally.

5. Don’t forget that you can’t expect life to always go as you wish or as you plan.

Unfortunately, I did forget, and so I kept asking, “Why?” “Why did this have to happen to Scout?” “Why did it have to happen when I’m already so limited in what I can do?” As I wrote in my book, How to Be Sick, asking “Why?” in a circumstance like this is not a skillful use of your energy — especially if, like me, those energy stores are always low.

Asking “Why?” is rarely fruitful, because there’s no way around the human condition: Life is unpredictable and will always be a mix of successes and disappointments, easy times and tough times. The more we’re able to accept that life often doesn’t go as we wish or as we planned, the more we’ll be able to roll with the punches when unexpected difficulties arise. I could have done a better job of keeping that in mind.

And now, I’m going to give that doggie a treat and then lie down to rest.

© 2018 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. These might be helpful too: “Have You Listened to Your Self-Talk Lately” and “Lovingkindness Practice.”

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