How to Cope When Stress and Worry Overwhelm You

What do we do when we’re overwhelmed by worry or grief? When we’re so stressed out that we want to disappear into our fridge, a book, or the internet? When we need to use every one of our old coping mechanisms to get us through, even if they’re of the wrong kind, and we know it?

How can we handle the stress, not only of the worry itself, but of trying to respond in a new way?

Listen to me carefully: God knows you are dust. (Psalm 103:14)

It’s one of my favourite things to say. I say it to myself, I say it to my friends. God knows you are dust.

He knows your weaknesses, frailties, failures, and He is not surprised by them. He is not disappointed by them. He does not think less of you. And He never will.

Nothing in all creation can separate you from God’s love.  (Romans 8:38)

So the first thing I want you to know is that it’s okay to be a desperate person, reaching out for help in the only way you’re accustomed to. You’re so normal.

The second thing I want you to know is that God is available, always, to help you. If you reach out to Him, He will not leave you hanging. But He knows your problem runs deep, and the fix won’t be instant.

Be as patient with yourself as He is with you.

He will lead you through the storm to healing, if you will let Him. Cling to Him, for however long it takes, and choose to see beyond your circumstances to the end. To heaven. To your real home. To His real purpose for your suffering: refining you into something even more beautiful. Making your heart into one that looks like Jesus’ heart.

He saves every one of your tears.

He doesn’t brush off your hurt or say you’re being silly.

He cries along with you.

I think He’d protect us from all suffering, like a mother tries to protect her child, but He knows, like a good mother, that some lessons must be learned the hard way. But He comes alongside us and walks every step of the way. He cries every tear along with us.

He is the opposite of indifferent.

I believe He feels it even more deeply that we do. After all, we are but reflections of God’s character. If we feel emotions as a reflection, how much more does God feel them? How does He survive the weight of the entire world’s suffering, when we can’t even survive our own?

He knows. He gets it. He’s been there.

And He cares. Deeply. For you.

So take a new grip with your tired hands and stand firm on your shaky legs. Mark out a straight path for your feet. Then those who follow you, though they are weak and lame, will not stumble and fall but will become strong.  (Hebrews 12:12)

Cry out for help, and then cling desperately to a promise from God. If you don’t know yet what God promises for you during your trials, go searching like a gasping man searches for a life raft. Satan wants you to do the automatic thing — reach for a snack, surf the web, play a video game. Those are the numbing things that leave us stuck and full of hopelessness, vague listlessness. We feel less, but we remain dissatisfied because instead of conquering the problem, we hide from it and pretend it’s not so bad.

God wants you, instead, to cling to Him. But how do you cling to someone with no discernible body, no audible voice?

You read His promises until the truth feels more real than the lie.

Until that truth sinks down so deep into your soul that it’s more a part of you than those old, automatic comforts ever were. You read them over and over again, and you choose to act on them. You lean your whole weight against them, hoping against hope that they won’t fail you.

And you pray to see your life from a heavenly perspective. From God’s view. From eternity.

You do everything you need to do to drown out the voices of failure, hopelessness, and not-good-enough. The voices of culture that tell us what timeline we must follow for our development, what we must achieve in order to be successful, and what eternally worthless things we should spend our money on. Our society shouts loudly at us. Read God’s word enough to make it grow dim.

I don’t want to leave you hanging there. There’s still so much more to say on this topic! Since the fix isn’t instant — it’s more like a slow, difficult, yet totally worth it process that will take the rest of your life — we need to talk about these things every day. In my case, I need to read about them and write about them every day. I need to mull them over. I forget the truth so easily. If you’d like to join me in being reminded, and you’re curious about the next steps, I invite you to sign up to receive updates in your email inbox so you won’t miss a single post. If you’ve read this, and you’re thinking, I want to believe these wonderful things, but I need more convincing, then please come back. There will be more. 

If you’re finding hope here, please do share with your friends. It’s amazing how many people are depressed alone, not wanting to admit their perceived failures to their friends. Sharing this message of hope from any source, whether this blog or somewhere else, could be just what someone you love needs to hear.  

How to Avoid The Emotional Train Wreck

I need to talk about the Emotion Train now.

It’s a big deal for me.  Learning this was… eye opening.  Liberating.

I was always controlled by my emotions.  If I was feeling sad, or blue, or angry, or frustrated, or listless, or restless, or just generally on edge, I would wonder, What’s wrong with me?

Surely, I thought, that I wouldn’t be feeling that way unless something was wrong.  But I always assumed that the wrongness had to do with my circumstances, or the people around me, or the heaviness of life.  And I would either try to fix the sense of listlessness by doing something new, like changing my hair colour or buying new clothes; or I would wallow in the emotion, listening to music that echoed my feelings, treating everyone badly, and justifying all my nastiness in the pursuit of making myself feel better.

I was led by my emotions.  I sought them out, like prizes.  If I was upset, I sought happiness.  And when happiness eluded me, I got angry and impatient.  And so I fed my anger, and the whole world reacted badly to me.  So I felt hurt and tried controlling them, so they’d behave in a way that would make me happy again.

Then, one day, I learned the truth about emotions.

The truth is this:  Emotions are not the truth.

Let that roll around in your mind for a minute.  Emotions are not the truth.

Too esoteric?  What does it mean?

Let’s imagine a train.  The train has three parts:  an engine, a passenger car, and a caboose.

The engine drives the train.  The passengers are along for the ride, and the caboose brings up the rear, just following along and enjoying the trip.

There are three workers on the train, and they each get to sit in one of those train cars.  They don’t share.  They are Emotions, Thoughts, and Actions.  Only one of them can drive the train.

If you let Emotions drive the train, then Actions follow in the second car, and your Actions are wholly emotion-driven.  Thoughts are hanging on in the caboose for dear life, wondering where on earth we’re going here and hoping Happiness can take over because Anger is a terrible driver.

Let me fill you in on a secret:  our trains were never meant to be Emotion driven.  When we let Emotions drive our Actions and Thoughts, we have no control.  We’re just along for the ride, and it’s bumpy.  Really bumpy.

But when we put our Thoughts into the engine, Actions and Emotions fall into place neatly behind.  And guess what?  We can control our Thoughts.  And our Thoughts, in turn, control our Actions.  Then, our Emotions sit contentedly in their place, merely remarking on the scenery of life.

Try it.  Next time you’re feeling down, ask yourself not “Why do I feel this way?” but “What am I thinking right now?”

If you’re repeating my personal litany of I’m not good enough, I’ll never be good enough, It’s all too much, I can’t handle it, I need help, Why is no one helping me?, I give up, then guess what?  I bet you’ll be feeling horrible.  I know I do when I think like that.

Tomorrow, more on the amazing idea that we can control our thoughts.

The 6pm Meltdown

Supper time is the worst.

I am almost always hungry when I start preparing dinner.  Being hungry makes it harder for me to make decisions, so if I haven’t already planned a meal, just the idea of making dinner makes me crazy.

Then, the kids come in and ask me questions.  Or have arguments.  Or need drinks.  Or they stand in my way, and I struggle not to yell mean things at them for being so thoughtless.

“Can’t you see I’m working here?  Just go play for a while!  Supper will be ready when it’s ready.  No, I don’t know what we’re having yet.  Yes, I know you hate tuna casserole, but everyone else loves it, so too bad.”

Sometimes, the whole production is so overwhelming, I just want to cry.  Or stop.  Or feel sorry for myself that I don’t have enough money to employ a proper housekeeper, like in the good old days of The Bobbsey Twins or Pride and Prejudice.  Seriously, why can’t I have lived in a time where housekeepers were the norm?

When I really think about why dinner time is such a disaster, I can see a couple reasons.

1) My introvert brain can only handle so much input & stimuli at a time.  Too much from outside (kids) while I’m struggling to make decisions inside (my brain), and I feel completely overwhelmed.  Which then makes everything even more of an effort.

2) I should really give myself a pre-supper-making snack.  A really good one.  Like a dinner before the dinner.  But that takes advance preparation, which is not one of my strong points.

3) It might also help if I planned the menu before 5:30pm.  “The crock pot is my friend.  The crock pot is my friend.”

4) My husband is hardly ever home before supper is ready.  I bet an adult helper would come in handy when the kids need things.  Oh, well.  I can’t really change that one.

I guess I could either keep on complaining that I hate supper time, I hate preparing meals, and I hate that it’s the stupid mom’s job, or….  I could just get over it.  It is what it is.  How can I make the best of it?  Knowing my own limitations, maybe if I plan in advance, I could make that time of day less horrible.

The slow cooker is my friend.  The slow cooker is my friend.

How I Cope with Life

I’ve built up a mental list of coping strategies over the years.  These are things I do when I feel like I just can’t take my life any more.  When I remember to do them diligently, life becomes manageable.  When I forget all about them, I spiral down into blahs, tiredness, crabbiness, being easily frustrated and discouraged, and then, if I’m not careful, depression.

I spent years depressed, some of them (once diagnosed) on anti-depressants.  I thought I’d have to take anti-depressants for my whole life, and so did my doctor.  But I am currently living without them, and my life is good.  It is not easy, or simple, but it is good.  And if I guard myself carefully, I can maintain sanity.  Everyone’s body chemistry is different, though, and we all have to make and be responsible for our own choices.  If you’re on anti-depressants right now, why not try adding some of my (or your own) coping strategies to your toolkit on top of your meds?  And remember, I’m writing here from a position of maintaining sanity, not trying to gain it back.  So pick and choose, and don’t feel bad if some of these just aren’t for you.

Take Care of My Body  — These are the basics.  If I miss these, a meltdown is sure to be on its way.

  • Eat consistently.  If I skip meals or snacks, I crumble quickly.
  • Drink enough water.  Being dehydrates makes me feel very tired and sluggish, and then it’s hard to accomplish anything.
  • Get sleep.  If I stay up too late, I find that I’m very grouchy about everything the next day, and my patience is short.
  • Nap if I really need it.  Some days, there’s nothing to be done but get some extra rest.
  • Shower.  I always drag my feet, but then I feel so much better afterward.  Refreshed and ready to take on the world.
  • Smile.  The physical act of smiling, whether I feel like it or not, releases happy brain chemicals.
  • Take a walk.  Being outside, under the sun, especially where I can see grass and trees and the horizon, makes me take deeper breaths.  I feel less weighed down under a blue sky, or even a dramatic, overcast one.
  • Avoid the foods that make me worse.  In my case, it’s sugar.  I discovered, by accident, that if I avoid sugar altogether, I can cope.  When I eat too much of it one day, I have a huge meltdown the next day.  (I was really encouraged to find an article recently on the Forbes website that backs up my claim.  I realize quitting sugar won’t necessarily help everyone, but if it means I can live without anti-depressants, sobbing, and hopelessness, I’m happy to leave it behind forever.)

Nurture My Spirit — These are both icing and cake.  If I indulge too much in them, they backfire, but in just the right amounts, they lend sweetness to my life.

  • Have fun.  So often, I’m too busy feeling resentful about the things that “must be done” that I forget to include fun in my life.  Let supper be something “fun.”  Go sledding.  Take a walk.  Tickle my kids.  Laugh.  Build a fort.  Swing on a swingset.  Try a cartwheel.  (I did that.  It hurt, but it was exhilarating.  Soon, I’ll be too old and it might risk breaking a hip.)
  • Give myself a treat.  In my case, that’s not something sweet.  But maybe it’s a latte, or a trip to the bookstore, a new skein of hand-painted yarn, or just 15 extra minutes in the bathroom to shave my legs and paint my toenails.
  • Give myself permission to take the day off.  Purposely allowing myself to set aside my responsibilities for the day and do something I enjoy — without guilt — can be a lovely mini-vacation.  (I can do this sometimes because I’m a stay-at-home mom, and what I’m taking time off from is feeling bad about not cleaning or stressed about homeschooling.  I say yes to my kids’ fun ideas instead of “later,” or “finish your work first.”)
  • Say no to condemnation.  I don’t have to let that negative tape play in my head.  It’s not helpful or healing; it’s destructive and discouraging.
  • Paint.  I love having a brush in my hand, whether it’s painting a canvas or a wall.
  • Knit.  I’m not sure what it is about yarn and needles, but they are so therapeutic, especially once you get good at it.  When my brain is too muddled for something complex, I choose a simple, repetitive pattern.  And I always use beautiful yarn and slick needles.
  • Read a good book.  I mean, a really good book, that makes you wonder and laugh and think about interesting and lofty things.  I avoid sad endings at all cost, and I can’t stand reading tragedies.  I’m already depressed enough, thank you.
  • Listen to music.  Some days, I forget to turn on the radio, and all I hear all day are the theme songs for Max & Ruby and Spongebob Squarepants.  That’s enough to drive anyone crazy.  Putting a favourtie, uplifting or thoughtful CD in the player makes a HUGE difference.  Even doing the dishes can be fun when Superchick or Relient K is playing.

Renew My Mind — These are like water.  Even if I take care of myself physically, when these things are lacking, I feel dry and brittle.

  • Read my Bible.  It really is living and active, and sometimes a verse I’ve read over and over again will pop out with a previously-unnoticed nuance.
  • Read the 12 steps and the 8 Recovery Principles from the Beatitudes.  (The 8 Principles are part of the Celebrate Recovery program.)  They’re great reminders and come in small bites for easy digestion.
  • Read the Serenity Prayer.  It’s awesome.  When I read it, or recite it in my head, I suddenly find myself taking deeper breaths and calming down.
  • Fill my mind with good things.  So often, I have a negative recording playing over and over in my head; I need to actively toss it out and replace it with good and true things.  Those things can be Bible verses I have taped up around my kitchen sink or memorized, blog posts from other writers I love (the Sober Boots blog is a-MAZ-ing), podcasts (I’m currently enjoying Joyce Meyer’s Enjoying Everyday Life podcasts), small daily readings (I love My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers), or whatever inspired or uplifts me.  As long as I can fill my mind with truth, I can recognize and toss out the lies.
  • Stop being mean to myself.  This kind of goes with the point above.  But it’s a good, small phrase that I can easily remember when I feel like I’m drowning.  “Stop being mean to yourself.”
  • Go to a recovery group of some sort.  Or some small group where people are real, honest, and accepting.
  • Keep the remorse, but toss the shame.  I do wrong things.  I mess up.  But if I beat myself up about them, I can’t move on and get better at stopping doing them.  I remind myself that His mercies are new every moment.  (I know the verse says “every morning,” but I think moment is just as real, and way more encouraging.  I need new mercies every. moment.)
  • Gather up some catch phrases.  In recovery, there are a bunch of itty bitty cliches to help us along.  They seem silly at first, but they’re basically just condensed bits of truth.  My favourite is about acceptance:  It is what it is.

I’m sure I must have more coping strategies than these, but you get the idea.  And it’s been a great reminder for me to write them all out today.  I think I’ll go listen to some good music and do some dishes.  Now that I’m not beating myself up about being a bad housekeeper, life doesn’t seem so bad.

What are your coping strategies?  I’d love to add more to my list!