There’s an awful feeling that you might know. It comes in different shapes and forms. It brings up different thoughts and stories. And it can be subtle at times and intense at other times. It’s the feeling that you can’t cope.
Whatever struggle we’re facing, whatever situation we’re dealing with — sometimes we just can’t look at the bright side. It’s an awful feeling and it can leave us helpless and hopeless. But there are things we can do about it. Here they are:
First, let’s start with the bad news: We’re in a tragic situation. When we need love the most, the only person who could give it often decides to meet us with criticism and insults. But before you get angry at this person, hold on for a second… Because this person is you. Don’t add another round of self-criticism just because you’re not treating yourself right.
In our most dreadful moments, what we need most is to make friends with ourselves. We need to realize that this awful feeling that we have (the one I talked about in the introduction to this post), isn’t unique to us. It’s a feeling that’s so common and fundamentally human that every person on this planet knows it (except a handful of psychopaths, admittedly).
In those moments of highest anxiety or lowest mood, realizing that you’re not alone in feeling this way is the first step. What comes next is to be kind to yourself and treat yourself nicely. Imagine you were your own best friend and treat yourself accordingly. Make sure you don’t punish yourself harshly but face this awful feeling with the loving attitude you need right now.
Next one: Ground yourself.
No, I’m not recommending to confine yourself to a room like your parents would do. This is not a punishment. Rather, grounding means getting in touch with your five senses and shifting your attention from thoughts to your sensations and other sensual experiences.
In a way, you ground yourself in the present moment like a lightning rod grounds a house. Like lightning, unpleasant and repetitive thoughts can come out of nowhere. But as you focus on your sensations and your other senses, the thoughts can be let go. No need to dwell on them.
Grounding can be done in a variety of different ways. It usually involves connecting with each of your senses. For example, you could start by listening for five different sounds. Then touch five different things and pay proper attention to the sensations this gives you. Next you’d find five things you can see. And if you’re really ambitious, you can also try to find five things you can taste and smell. Then you continue with one more round, this time finding four things with each sense. Then three. Two. Eventually, one. You get the point.
What this does is activate your para-sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for calming you down. Instead of racing ahead, your nervous system will find it easier to put your foot on the brake. It’s great for times of intense anxiety. Even during panic attacks this technique can be helpful.
For some of us, writing is a great outlet. While it might not be the best strategy if you’re in the middle of a full-blown attack, it can be a fantastic way to deal with negative memories. But writing needs to be done the right way. People who talk about things over and over in the same ways don’t usually get better. The same is true if you always write about things in the same way.
The way to benefit from writing is by focusing on how you could draw meaning from your experience. James Pennebaker, a well-known social psychologist, showed in a series of studies how beneficial writing can be. He typically asked his research participants to write for twenty minutes, four days in a row. And he used prompts like this one:
Write about your deepest thoughts and feelings about the trauma or emotional upheaval that has been influencing your life most. In your writing, really let go and explore this event and how it has affected you. Today, it may be beneficial to simply write about the event itself, how you felt when it was occurring and how you feel now.
As you write about your upheaval, you might begin to tie it to other parts of your life. For example, how is it related to your childhood and your relationships with your parents and close family? How is the event connected to those people you have most loved, feared, or been angry with? How is this upheaval related to your current life — your friends and family, your work, and your place in life? And above all, how is this event related to who you have been in the past, who you would like to be in the future, and who you are now?
It makes sense to tread with caution when dealing with severe traumatic experiences. And sometimes our negative thoughts don’t involve the past at all but are concerned about the future. But writing can, for many people and in many instances, be a really helpful tool.
Let’s end with the most obvious strategy (it’s obvious but important so bear with me!). Sometimes — when things are really awful — the best thing to do is to try to take your mind off your stress completely.
But not every way of distracting yourself is good for you. Smoking, shopping, drinking and binge-eating are classic strategies people use. But those not only harm you in the long-term but make you also feel bad about yourself soon afterwards. Who has ever woken up happily after a day of heavy drinking? Or went to sleep pleased after a binge-eating session?
When you distract yourself, do it right: Go for a run, read a book, call a friend. Clean your apartment, do a workout, watch tv if you must. Help at a homeless shelter, sing in a choir, do some work. Anything that takes your mind off the thoughts will do.
So when this feeling comes up again, you’ve now got some options to choose from. Try which one works best for you. Combine them if you need to. And whatever you do, remember this: Even though the feeling might be awful, you’re not helpless.