Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©
During one period of time after I moved from Bend to Portland, I experienced a series of minor frustrating circumstances. It lasted for about two months. I called it problems, setbacks, and barriers. Sometimes we have a series of two or three, or even more events that take place during a short period of time. They can be frustrating, irritating, and/or costly. They bring us down and detract from what we would rather be doing. Sometimes they are minor frustrations and not really costly. But sometimes they are major events that are costly and traumatizing.
Fortunately it is usually infrequently that we face a tragedy, a serious accident, or one or more losses of someone close to us. But whether it is a series of minor frustrations or a major event, it can cause us serious stress and profound emotions.
When this happened to me, I decided to try to be proactive. I started my list: Do not catastrophize!! Then I tried evaluating my problems on a scale of 1 to 10. Usually our everyday problems are only at a 1 or 2, and just realizing that brings us back to reality. It takes an earthquake that ranks 9 on the richter scale or having your house on fire to qualify for a 10! Most of our problems range from 1-4. It takes being seriously ill or having a loss in our family to get the scale up to 6-7.
To manage stress and deal with negative emotions, there are a number of things you can do on your own. During that period of time I worked on all of these!
Resources: There are a number of different resources we can draw on for help: family, friends, religious or spiritual community, agencies, the internet, and the library. Family and friends have the advantage of the history of relationship, caring, and support; but they might have the disadvantage (as all of us have found out on occasion) of personal bias. Religious and spiritual communities give us the opportunity to draw on our faith for support and to find solace in religious rituals and worship. The internet is of course a primary source of information, as is the library if we prefer articles and books in hand!
The Basics: I call one of the first steps, “The Basics”: sleep, nutrition, and exercise. We know we need sleep, good nutrition, and exercise, but it’s just when things are frustrating or stressful that we don’t take time to maintain these efforts. We need between six and nine hours of sleep a night. When we are upset, various kinds of sleep disturbance are common. If this becomes an ongoing problem, it’s best to contact your medical doctor or check in with a psychologist. For nutrition we generally know what we need to do. We just have to take the time and make the effort to maintain at least a minimal level of healthy eating. Or we might consider going more extreme on diet or nutrition. Exercise takes time and that’s just what we don’t have when we’re experiencing problems or setbacks. If we can get ourselves to take the extra time for our health club, our favorite sport, a walk, or yoga, all of these can help reduce stress and minimize negative emotions.
Cognitive Restructuring and Mindfulness: Sometimes, it helps to work on the way that we are thinking about things. Both psychological interventions and also the spiritual method of mindfulness help us to become aware of our thought patterns. In therapy we can learn the techniques of cognitive restructuring – rephrasing sentences that are negative, judgmental, perfectionistic, or self critical. When we realize we are obsessing on our problems, or even on other mundane matters, we can work on refocusing our attention in therapeutic ways. With mindfulness we can learn to avoid focusing on the past and the future, but rather to focus our attention on the present moment, to unite ourselves with the natural environment, and to increase appreciation and gratitude.
Methods to reduce anxiety: There are many specific methods to reduce anxiety, but the reason that we don’t find them helpful is that they take time, discipline, determination and effort to practice them. Here are a list of techniques that you can learn through research, in meditation groups, or in psychotherapy: progressive muscle relaxation, breathing techniques, lying still, visualization, journaling, mindfulness practice, and short or longer sitting meditation. Each of these can have amazing and immediate effects on relaxation and stress reduction if we just practice them on a regular basis. These can all be practiced during therapy sessions, and therapy can also help you develop a regular home practice of some of these techniques as well.
Activities and creativity: Taking part in community activities can be extremely helpful to balance our lives when we are dealing with problems. Improving a language skill, developing some new skill, beginning to take part in a sport, learning a martial art, or participation in “meetups” can all be helpful if we take the time to pursue them. Creativity is also an effective and magical way to balance stress, counteract our problems, and reduce negative emotions. Therapy can also help us to forge the motivation and discipline we need to continue with our creative efforts.
Meditation: Meditation is a practice that requires discipline, determination, and effort. We now have an amazing amount of research on the beneficial effects of meditation. Changes have been shown in physical, cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our lives. Research even shows that the very form and structure of our brain is affected by a consistent practice of meditation. In the book, Happiness, by Mathieu Ricard, the author specifically addresses the changes that can take place with meditation, and Chapter 16 particularly addresses the neurological changes.
Psychotherapy-When we have a series of minor difficulties that we are not handling well or when we encounter more serious levels of accident, illness, or loss, it is helpful to go into therapy for a period of time. It is meaningful to have a skilled therapist share, understand and validate our experience, listen to our stories and frustrations, provide helpful suggestions, and speak from a reservoir of knowledge that is known to be beneficial. It is a very unique and special relationship that is created by the parameters of confidentiality, in which we can experience a caring and supportive psychotherapeutic relationship.
I hope these suggestions will be helpful to you. I know they have been for me and they continue to enrich my life.