I woke up this morning qestioning my coping strategies. I know that they work beautifully for me when I'm functioning as an individual. There's another dimension to stress when you add a partner. How can I develop effective strategies to handle relationship stress? In challenging times I want to put more focus on asking for help.
We've been working hard these past few weeks. There have been rehearsals nearly every night. We've worked on the weekends. And more rehearsals for me during the day. My husband is up before the crack of dawn every day to teach school. It's been tough to talk and to connect. And even tougher to reach out.
I'm managing my stress during the day yet when evening comes around it feels familiar to retreat into my separate self. Hiding in my tortoise shell I feel lonely and alone. Despite my list of coping strategies and my best intentions somehow fear clouds my thinking.
This is exactly the time I could ask for help and receive much needed support. And I can do that if I plan ahead. I'll set an intention to make a request and trust that my needs will be met. Some gently whispered words of encouragement are what I need most. After a long day and an even longer night, when he's trudging up the stairs to fall into bed, I'll ask for help.
The third Coping Strategy is "Getting Outside". I did my morning journaling outside on the deck today. It was the first time since last fall. Glorious! I spent the late afternoon yesterday sweeping away the dead leaves and the aspen tree caterpillars. Spring cleaning outside. Clearing the withered foliage makes space for new growth.
All the outdoor tasks help to soothe my aching heart. I just passed the one month anniversary of my mother's passing. Now that a month has gone by I feel the loss more deeply. I measure time by reliving every moment I experienced a month ago. As if recalling will somehow reconfigure the past. I long for the numbing effect that comes with startling news.
Getting outside helps a little if I let it. It allows me to feel in a gentle way. Sitting outside listening to the birds and bugs, I attune to all the life buzzing around me. Walking my dogs, I view the world through curious noses and happy tails. Turning the loose soil in the vegetable beds, I anticipate a fruitful summer. The rhythms of life bring me back to the now. And I find my heart's ease in the beauty of the earth.
Diversion. Distraction. As a new mother I learned to say "jump up," when my toddler fell. Now more than two decades later, I'm telling myself that the fall didn't hurt so much. I'm really ok. I just need to brush the dirt off my knees, get a quick hug and keep on going. This isn't about ignoring real pain--it's shifting my attention towards higher ground.
When I hit a real rough patch, nothing says Taking Care like calling my VIGs--my Very Important Girlfriends. Even though inertia may be working against me. Even though the last thing I want to do is get dressed and leave the house. Even though I think I'd rather sink into my sorrow. If I pick up the phone and call on my VIGs, I can instantly create the most pleasant diversion.
Creating something to look forward to is the key. Last week during one of those really rough patches I sent some emails and made some calls in spite of a deep, dark funk. They all said to call if I needed them; and I needed them. Of course, because they're my darling VIGs, they all said yes. We had lunch. We went to the movies. In one instance a VIG and her baby even showed up on my doorstep! And let me just say that nothing takes away the blues like holding a baby.
I also tried a new Taking Care strategy last week--the art of distraction. Before the girlfriend dates were set, I noticed that crying more than a couple of times a day made me label the whole day as bad. What if I made a list of all the good things I do for myself every day? A Taking Care list. Even if the list had only one thing on it I figured I was ahead. Did you get out of bed? And eat breakfast? Write it down. Did you take your vitamins? Write that down too. Did you walk the dogs? You get the idea.
By the end of the week I had seven slips of paper that proved I could get through a moment... and then an hour... and even another day. I surprised myself by how many good things I could do for myself in a day. A distraction. Now all the days feel like good days with some crying thrown in. Maybe even a lot of crying. It doesn't matter now. Because I've shifted my focus towards Taking Care of me.
Start the day with a good breakfast. Drink at least 8 glasses of water a day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. And get a good night's sleep. For those of you who haven't clicked away from this page--just kidding. We already know about taking care in those basic ways. We figure out what works. We do what we think is important and filter the rest of the advice. I'd like to suggest a way to take care of yourself that involves something a little more subtle--the power of word choice.
In my original Coping Strategies post I briefly mentioned the difference between saying I need to or should do something and saying I want to do it. If everything on your task list is a should message or a have-to then nothing really feels like a choice. Yes, I know that I should get up early to get some chores done before I leave. If I say instead, that I want to get up to get a good start on the day then I've easily made a positive impact on my life. I allow myself to make positive choices.
The most powerful example of language was explained to me by a counselor several years ago. It has to do with the way we talk about our feelings. I have feelings yet I am not my feelings. I may feel sad. And sometimes I feel angry. But those feelings are not me. I retrained myself to avoid saying, "I am angry, or I am lonely." It's all in the power of the statement "I am."
Positive feelings are the ones I want to embody. So for those ideas I use "I am" statements. Yes, I am happy and I am courageous and maybe I am a bit sassy from time to time. I Take Care of myself by taking charge of the language that defines me. It's all in the power of the words I choose.
How do you cope with life's ups and downs? It can be a tremendous challenge to stay on track when you feel low. Through several years of trial and error I've developed my own personal tool kit of strategies. Coping strategies come into play for me when an entire month is over-scheduled or when I'm hurting from disappointment or loss. Wouldn't it be great if we could teach our kids some tools to help deal with the tough times they'll face now and as adults?
Here is my basic set of tools:
Take Care of Myself
Ask for Help
Be Gentle. This is number one on my list because it's the toughest for me to remember. When you live by the calendar and the schedule and the clock it's easy to push yourself too hard. And that's precisely why we need extra special self-care. For me this can mean anything from closing my eyes and taking deep breaths to taking the time to sit down and eat slowly. In the smallest way I try to slow my pace. In addition I focus on the voice inside my head and switch my internal soundtrack to a more forgiving channel.
Take Care of Myself. A recent addition to my tool box is separating my "want to do" list from my "should" list. This category also includes a few details that assure life is running smoothly in spite of any outside chaos. I regularly stock up on healthy foods so I have good choices available at home, in my handbag and in the car. Often I'll make a big pot of stew that I may end up eating all week. And I make sure I have a couple of fool-proof outfits in flattering colors clean and ready to go. That way I know I'll look better than I might feel.
Get Outside. There's nothing like taking a walk to keep me quite literally grounded. I may not always have enough time to work out or I may not even feel like exercising--but I can usually find the time to take a short walk or sit on the deck.Being outside helps show us where we fit in the world. While walking I can look down and see the tiniest beetle; then look up and see the expansive mountains--and know that all is well in the universe.
Ask for Help. This one has also been hard for me to learn. I started small--my journal is full of little prayers asking,"may I have help with that?" What assures me is I always receive an answer. After loads of practice asking God, now I reach out to people too.
Be Creative. Stress and loss and pain feel destructive. When I direct that negative energy towards creating I gain a positive outlet. For me, creativity can be small like placing wildflowers in a vase or bigger, like making a shrine of mementos and photos. One way I multi-task my coping strategies is to make soup--I'm creating and taking care of myself at the same time.