“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” ~William James
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt your world was ending? When the stress was overwhelming and you were so miserable, all you wanted to do was wallow in it and growl at the world from underneath the bed covers?
Or maybe you worry about things that might happen in the future. Do you see a minor accident on the road and have those flashes of imagining that your partner or your child died in a car crash?
Does your imagination crawl in horror over how you might survive such a terrible event?
Or maybe your cousin has had a stroke and you wonder if it runs in the family and you’re next.
Do you wonder how you would cope if that were the real situation? Do you think that you have resources and strategies you need to get yourself through the crisis?
My coping mechanisms were severely tested recently. Here’s my story and what I learned about gratitude and coping with stress.
Waking Up with Only Half My Face Working
Three weeks ago, I woke up to find I was suffering from semi-facial paralysis. My right eye did not blink or close. My mouth could barely open on the affected side. And when I tried to smile, I could only manage a very crooked grin—the right side just didn’t move.
The pain was bad, shooting up into my head like an electric shock landing in the center of my brain.
I woke up my husband. The ambulance came and I was rushed off to A&E or ER or, in my case, in Portugal, the Sala da Emergência.
I thought I’d had a stroke. I lay on the trolley, feeling sorry for myself and wondering what kind of life I might have by the end of the day.
How Learning to Cope with Stress is Like Learning to Fish When Hungry
Some people seem to cope effortlessly with whatever life throws at them—maybe it’s genetics, maybe it’s upbringing. But most of us struggle. We have to work hard to find peace amidst a storm of chaos.
Sometimes it feels too overwhelming and we sink into despair, anxiety, depression. We turn to crutches such as comfort food, sleeping pills, or alcohol.
But a crutch is a temporary fix, to tide you over. Long-term crutches can mean you forget how to walk. We need to embody skills that work for the rest of our lives.
It’s like teaching a man to fish. Show him how to use a fishing rod and he has a means of getting food for the rest of his life. It’s the same for coping with stress. We need skills, strategies, and tools we can use on a daily basis so that when the blows strike, we’re ready and resilient.
So where can we look for the skills and fishing rods that help us cope with overwhelming stress?
Learning to Use 5 Fishing Rods That Hook You Away from Stress
Here are basic skills that I drew on when I was waiting to hear the medical verdict in hospital.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an expert on any of these skills. But these are the ones that worked for me. There are others. But maybe you wouldn’t have thought of these basic things as skills or tools that actually work to cope with life-threatening events.
1. Breathing is the simplest tool.
Yeah, well, we all do that all the time, don’t we?
Yes, we do. But stress tends to make us breathe more shallowly, so getting into the habit of regular deep breathing when you’re not stressed can help dissipate the crippling effects of stress when it strikes you hard.
Deep breathing triggers your parasympathetic nervous system and quietens the fight or flight response. (I did deep breathing in the MRI machine.)
2. Meditation is another.
Down the millennia, learning to meditate has started with concentrating on breathing, but you can take it further. With practice comes peace and transforming happiness. It takes time and regular practice. Then meditation gives you a place to go to find the calm to cope with harrowing life events. (I used this as a means of getting through the pain to sleep.)
When you’re feeling that miserable, the last thing you may feel like doing is to go out walking or running or down to the gym. But exercise triggers endorphins in your brain, so it’s a great tool to help you cope with stressful events. It can be as effective as drugs in controlling pain and stress.
See it as a tool you can use to lift a mood, even just a little bit, and soon you’ll see exercise as a great stress buster. (Actually, I didn’t use this tool, as I could barely walk because my balance was affected. But I’m starting to use it as I improve.)
4. Talk to friends and family.
Just telling people about a problem can help you. You’ll feel supported if you feel someone’s listening. Feeling acknowledged gives you strength to cope. Developing your social network is a vital life skill. (Can’t thank my friends, neighbors, and family enough for the support they’ve given me. They were wonderful!)
5. Choose your reaction.
You may have no choice about being flung into a stressful crisis, but you do have the choice of how you’re going to react. Our immediate reaction might be fight or flight followed by a large dose of panic. Much better to pause and engage the brain to give yourself mental space to concentrate on choosing how to react.
Mastering the Skill of Choosing Your Reaction: The Power of Gratitude Journaling
What I have found hardest is the skill of choosing your reaction.
For the last year, I’ve grappled with the concepts and practice of gratitude journaling. It seemed such an alien practice to me; kind of false and insincere, merely going through the motions. In a half-hearted way, I’ve kept a gratitude journal.
On the other hand, there is a lot of science as well as celebrities endorsing its effectiveness.
It’s dead simple: All you do is write down three to five things for which you’re grateful or thankful or that brought you joy. You can do it every day or every few days—just do it regularly.
According to the science, it opens your mind to looking for the positive in everything. It trains your mind not only to look for happiness, but actually to be happy with what you already have. It stops you taking what you have for granted. You learn to appreciate people, possessions, and events in new ways.
Eventually, it alters the structure of your brain and even changes your personality to one more positive in outlook.
It takes time, but the benefits abound—better sleep, better health, better social relationships, less pain, lower blood pressure, more energy.
So, does it really work? Let me take you back to the hospital where I was lying on the trolley feeling miserable.
Not Dead Yet: The Tide of Gratitude Turns
After I’d seen the triage nurse and been sent for blood tests, I started to realize I couldn’t just wallow in self-pity. Okay, I was sick, very sick, but not dead yet.
I started to look around and see how the hospital system worked. I saw how the truly kind staff worked so hard to make everyone comfortable. I watched and marvelled at their skill at changing beds with patients still in them. I saw the care they put into dealing with a fractious old lady. (No, it wasn’t me!).
They sent me for a CAT scan. I marvelled at the machines that helped find a diagnosis, at the pain relief from drugs. I could see the system working, for others and for me.
Suddenly, I was able to rise above the misery of my own illness. It was a shift in perception. All these people and all these facilities surrounding me were devoted to helping me and the other patients. And help me they did!
Boy was I grateful!
I felt better, even though I couldn’t close my eye or blink, my sight in that eye had faded, I couldn’t hear in one ear, and my speech was slurred and sitting or standing up saw me in a tizzy of vertigo.
I was so grateful for a health system that could deal with my emergency.
The Flood of Well-Being from Gratitude
As I was flooded with this powerful feeling of thanks, I learned that you have to dig deep into the emotions to reap the benefits of gratitude, to feel the benefits of optimism. But when I needed it, it came bubbling through.
And that flood of well-being hasn’t left me. I’m slowly and cheerfully recovering.
Yes, it will take time, but already my smile is returning as the paralysis recedes. Each day I’m grateful for my happy life in this lovely country I’ve recently moved to.
I realized that all the effort I’d made trying to reap the elusive benefits of gratitude journaling did actually work. I chose to look at my own situation, to reject the self-pity, and see the positive. I chose my reaction to my crisis and it pulled me into recovery.
Stress Busting: Practice Makes Perfect
So how about practicing the skills for when you need them?
Take a few deep breaths every day so that when you start to feel stressed, it’s natural to start breathing that way.
Put the effort into supporting your friends and family. Maybe try a bit of meditating.
Take the time to keep your gratitude journal. Just write down a few things you’re really grateful for: the splash of cheerful color from that flower blooming in the garden, the chatty email you got from your friend, the delicious piece of cake your neighbor brought you.
Then, the next time that disaster scenario leaps into your imagination, imagine how you’ll choose your reaction. You won’t go into panic mode. See yourself using the skills that you’ve been honing, dealing with the crisis in a positive way or even preventing the crisis in the first place.
Then imagine that it happens for real: You scarcely need to think of the skills you need, as your daily practice makes it natural for them to kick in straight away. That’s just the way you operate these days.
Starting with a few words that recognize a benefit and pleasure that you’ve enjoyed, you’ll learn a skill that can in the end, make a difference to your whole life.
Get writing today.