Difficult times may call for acquiring new coping skills. Here's some advice on how.
During recent thunderstorms I was watching the reactions of my two dogs as we sat outside under shelter. My senior pup, Betty Lou, is pretty fearless, and she comforted herself by curling up at my feet, receiving the occasional scratch behind the ears, then lightly snoring.
Our new rescue pup, Lily Pad, was another story. Lily was shivering and looking up at me with big, worried eyes. She needed the comfort of being on my lap, petted and calmed, and told that everything’s OK. Then she was fine. One more rescue pup hurdle overcome.
Takeaway: These wonderful, lovable creatures each learn their own coping skills for taking care of themselves. While Betty’s enjoying a long life of feeling secure and loved, Lily is just beginning to know security, as her life began without enough attention or care. She doesn’t have too many tools yet. And while she’s a feisty, aggressive little gal when she needs to be—loudly telling huge neighborhood dogs when to back off—underneath all that bravado is a pup who shivers during thunderstorms.
We all have what I refer to as a “Big Bag O’ Tools” for coping with life’s challenges. Hopefully, it includes what we need to help us handle our usual everyday stressors. Examples of healthy tools might include knowing when to ask for help, engaging in physical exercise, meditation/yoga/journaling, communing with nature, etc. Different tools work for different people, of course.
Less healthy tools may include, for instance, over-drinking, drugging, gambling, smoking, and engaging in whatever addictive or harmful behaviors you turn to, often without much thought.
Healthy personal growth can be defined as the conscious process of reducing the damaging tools in our tool bag, and increasing the beneficial ones, so that we make healthier and healthier choices. We learn, over time, to take deep breaths and go for a walk instead of polishing off the Oreos. We call a friend or go to a 12-step meeting instead of yelling at our partner or kids. You get the idea.
But what happens when life throws us extra curves, challenges beyond what we’re used to dealing with?
“Maggie” tried for a long time to get pregnant, through countless fertility treatments and years of disappointment. Finally it happened. She gave birth to twin boys, although they, too, came with some disappointment: both boys were autistic. Over the next several years, the incredible stress of navigating her sons’ educational, behavioral, emotional and therapeutic needs proved to be too much for the marriage, which soon dissolved. Now Maggie was left a grieving single mother of two special-needs boys, and not much support. Her “village” was sub-par, her needs were great, and her coping skills were pushed to the edge.
“Jesse,” a 40-year-old man on a very promising professional path had always been a hard-working, likable guy. His career was demanding but satisfying, his relationships with family and friends were solid. Then, slowly but surely, Jesse started to feel less motivated, often tired, and began experiencing unaccountable aches and pains. After a year of numerous consultations with physicians, Jesse received a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, a condition that includes great physical and psychological challenges: all-over nerve and muscle pain; tremendous fatigue; sleep disturbances; mental confusion; depression. Suddenly, Jesse’s work and social life came to a crashing halt. His rise up the corporate ladder was replaced by medications and doctors’ visits.
So how do we cope with overwhelming stress, when it’s not “business as usual,” as in the examples of Maggie and Jesse? When we experience tremendous challenges that go far beyond day-to-day?
My suggestion is to first and foremost acknowledge that this is not business as usual, and therefore the usual bag of tools may not be enough. In Maggie’s case, she eventually came to understand that she couldn’t do it all on her own. Through support groups and new friendships she was slowly able to improve her village, and better meet her children’s needs as well as her own.
And Jesse, while dealing with myriad life adjustments, realized that in order to get back in the driver’s seat, he needed to do lots of research, and open his mind to alternative healing therapies that complemented his medical path. His new bag of tools included not just medication, but wellness workshops, psychotherapy, and pain-reduction exercises, to name just a few.
For many, it’s difficult to ask for help, to acknowledge feeling helpless, overwhelmed, over-stressed. But when life becomes too hard, the first step is admitting it.
Remember: We’re all in this together, and if we can’t help each other along the way, what are we doing here?
Until next time: “Change your thoughts, change your life.” — James Allen
Dr. Rick Pimental-Habib, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, author, minister, and educator in private practice in Chattanooga. Contact him at DrRPH.com, visit his wellness center at WellNestChattanooga.com and follow his daily inspirations on Twitter: @DrRickWellNest