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Keep Cool Under Stress
Perhaps it is the woman next door who recently lost her only son in the war. She’s grieving deeply, and you may not know what to do to help ease her pain. Perhaps it is a friend who lost his job of 20 years, and must now, at a later stage in life, face a bleak job market and compete with “kids” with advanced degrees and all sorts of new technology in their heads. Maybe your parent has been diagnosed with cancer, and her new meds don’t seem to be working. She’s depressed, anxious, living several states away and you can’t help but worry about her 24/7.
Or, your child who’s had a hard time in school has just been diagnosed with a learning disorder, and you’re wondering how to prepare him for the challenges that lie ahead. A dear friend of mine had to wait a long time before she was able to become pregnant, a good bit later in life than many. But finally it happened and she was joyous to give birth to twins. It was soon discovered that both boys were severely autistic.
Extreme stress is a part of life, and we can all relate to having moments where everything just feels like too much. Or we feel alone with our burdens…angry, disappointed, resentful. We may suffer a health crisis, a financial crisis or a crisis of faith. Maybe it’s a relationship that’s in peril, hanging on by a thread. We might, for the first time, brush up against feelings of hopelessness, helplessness or feel so overwhelmed that it’s hard to think of anything but our problems. Psychologically we’re stressed out to the max and physically our bodies can’t help but show signs of the wear and tear. These are the chapters in life when we’re most prone to getting sick, and also to having accidents. When I worked full time in bereavement at a Los Angeles hospice, we would tell patients’ friends and relatives to be extra careful behind the wheel of the car, as the deep, mind-numbing heartache of grief can be very distracting. If you’ve ever lost a sig other, you understand what it’s like to stare for hours at nothing.
Coping and Surviving
So how do we successfully cope when the going gets really tough? How do we not merely survive the experience, but develop the skills necessary to continue to fight the good fight—with sound mind and body, staying present, still stopping to smell the roses and feeling grateful to be alive? Do we drink more, drug more, sleep more, shut down, anything to escape? Maybe. There are times when temporary escapes and healthy distractions are helpful. But will these work for the long haul?
When human beings face the really big challenges in life, it is generally understood by healthcare providers, mental health professionals, and others who treat those striving to endure trauma, that there are indeed several characteristics that will help a person make it through the experience intact. For instance:
Perspective, or attitude, is a big one. There’s the person whose house burns down and says, “We’ve lost everything.” And the person who says, “Well, we still have the nails. We can rebuild.” If your glass tends to be half-full under usual conditions, that attitude will serve you well during hard times. As pioneer automaker Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” A wise (and wisecracking) friend of mine put it this way: “Sometimes life is splendor, sometimes it’s shit. It’s all about how you witness it.” (Finding the right mantra can help, too!)
Fortitude, or internal strength, is another. If you’ve seen your parents—or influential others from childhood—struggle and somehow make it, perhaps stronger and wiser for the experience, then you perhaps have learned some valuable lessons about being stronger than you think, and such lessons will come to your aid later in life. The toughest tests show us who we really are, with others, and within ourselves.
Let’s add sense of humor, and belief in oneself, trusting that somehow you’ll be OK. And while we’re at it, belief in the Universe (or in God, or the Creator or however you understand your Higher Power). Studies show that it matters less which Divine you embrace than that you have a belief in the Divine at all. Go to church, hug a tree, howl at the moon, meditate with drums. It’s all good if it helps you feel connected to something greater than yourself.
Externally, it’s important to have a support system: People who care for you deeply, accept you unconditionally, and provide everything from a shoulder to cry on to practical assistance when needed. “No man is an island,” and your support system might include biological family, and/or your “created family” of good friends, be they from the bowling league or synagogue, from school or the neighborhood. It’s important to not only have a strong (not necessarily large, but strong) support system, but also to know when to reach out to them. Knowing how to ask for help is a valuable and healthy coping tool.
A Stress Survivor
In my professional life, I continually feel fortunate and grateful to be a part of others’ life journeys, which include their times of happiness and success as well as tragedy and despair. My role is often to help people develop what I call their “Big Bag O’ Tools,” whether for re-parenting, repairing relationships, renewing the self, insight-building or working on creating a happier life. As I was pondering these tools, and how very important they become during periods of extreme stress, I thought about my good friend and colleague, Craig.
Those of you who have followed “Shrink Rap” in this paper over the years might remember Craig, who has helped us all with his attitude, fortitude, spirit and his understanding of the importance of a solid support system. Craig is an occupational therapist, which means that he helps people build life skills and develop practical tools to healthfully survive life’s myriad challenges. He works mainly with veterans who are struggling with psychological and physical issues and limitations.
But his work is not what made me think of Craig. I thought about him because of his personal life journey. Craig is a survivor extraordinaire. He is a heart transplant patient, as well as an amputee who must use a wheelchair to get around. He takes a truckload of medication daily, and spends a lot more time in hospitals than he’d care to.
He is also one of the most spiritual, loving, upbeat, authentic and generous people I know. Recently, I found myself calling the hospital after I heard that his kidneys shut down. All his loved ones were pretty nervous about this recent decline. “How are you feeling, Craig?” I ask. “Well, not too bad today,” he says. And then he tells me a humorous story about an encounter with an uptight nurse and his lack of hospital gown. I figured that if Craig can navigate his challenging life with a positive attitude and mischievous sense of humor, then he probably has a few things to say about what it takes to survive hard times.
So I asked Craig what he feels is our most important survival tool. His answer: Hope.
Craig: When you hear, ‘Go home and take your pills—this is as good as it gets,’ that’s a diagnosis that takes away your hope. Without hope, the major force in your life becomes, “What’s the point?”
With hope, your life becomes more about what you want. What do I want? A cure? Maybe, but what if there is no cure? I may still want to live life to the fullest. Today is all I’ve got. Hope is empowering. Everything changes with hope. This is true of us as individuals, but also as a society. Society at large needs to feel hopeful.
Dr. Rick: So we all need hope on a daily basis, but it becomes even more important when we receive bad news, or suffer a loss or some sort of tragedy.
Craig: Hope helps us focus on something more positive than the ugliness of our lives. Our lives can be pretty harsh. This doesn’t necessarily mean hoping for a miracle [to solve your problems]. It means hoping for a positive outcome. That may be just getting a good night’s sleep for a change, or being alive another day so I can say “I love you” to the people in my life. We pin hope on all sorts of things—events, objects, people. When I’m not doing well, I may need to give my hope to someone else to hold for a while, until I get back.
Dr. Rick: What’s it like for you during those times when you lose your hope?
Craig: Not having hope is a kind of emotional fatigue. Everything’s exhausting. It’s a good time to turn to a professional and talk it out. See, I don’t think that happiness is a “state of being” as others say. I think happiness is a decision, a choice. If I wait to be happy, it may not happen, ever. But if I decide not to be bitter and miserable, I can be content. I think contentment is the real state of being.
Dr. Rick: What role does your spirituality play in maintaining hope?
Craig: That’s the great gift from spirituality —hope of something better on the other side, hope of becoming one with the Universe, etc. If your chosen spirituality, whatever form that may take, is not instilling hope in you, it probably isn’t your best choice.
I often talk about a person’s “highest self,” his or her most wise and compassionate self. If you know someone who is suffering, and you don’t know how to help, I invite you to focus on just being present with them. “Compassionate presence” is a hallmark of unconditional love, and can often do more good for someone who’s hurting than words can. Don’t know what to say or do? Just be there. From troubled chess genius Bobby Fischer as he lay on his death bed: “Nothing is so healing as the human touch.” So perhaps your kind presence, your warm smile, the love in your heart, the hand you hold…perhaps this is healing in its simplest, most profound form, undeterred by old wounds, complicated pasts, unfinished business. Work to forgive. Because all you have is right here, right now.
I’ll close by sharing some insights with you about compassion and suffering from Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most respected and recognized Zen teachers in the world, as well as being the author of more than 60 books, a renowned poet, peace activist and human-rights advocate. The following is an excerpt from his book Peace Is Every Step:
“Love brings peace, joy, and happiness to another person. Compassion removes the suffering that is present in the other. We all have the seeds of love and compassion, and we can develop these wonderful sources of energy. We can nurture the unconditional love that does not expect anything in return and therefore does not lead to anxiety and sorrow.
“The essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material, and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves ‘inside the skin’ of the other, and witness for ourselves their suffering. [When we do this], compassion is born in us.”