Top 10 ways to soothe when you need relief

I know a bit about needing relief. I’ve felt that many days, from different sources of stress: relationships, health, financial pressures, uncertainty over a looming decision, all difficult in different ways. Depending on the weight of the issue, sometimes it feels like I can barely function, other times the worry is like an overlay…or maybe an underlay… on top of everything else going on.

When I’m struggling with something heavy on my heart, I need to cocoon and hide myself. In the hardest moments, I want to sleep. I know that’s a sign of depression, and though I’ve never been clinically depressed, I know sleep is a coping mechanism for dealing with difficult emotional issues.

I also find it hard to stay focused and be productive. I’ve learned that action is a good antidote to feeling sad, but it can be hard to jump-start myself.

My automatic response to distress is to mask what’s bothering me…not sure if somehow I think that will make the situation go away, or if it’s a retreat from confronting what’s painful…if I ignore it, I won’t have to deal with it.

My way of describing this is “putting on the face.” You know, when you act like life is normal, you greet co-workers, go through the motions, even manage to smile and do whatever is on your agenda.

But all the time, inside you’re dying. You’re dying to hear from someone, or about something, or afraid of an approaching deadline.

You’re afraid.

Fear and I are old friends. I can tell the extent of my stress by the persistence of the “engine” of fear I feel running in my stomach. You know when you hear references to the feeling in the pit of your stomach? Yes, that’s the one I mean…fear that is so real you can feel it.

It wakes me up at night, this fear. It rouses me from sound sleep to course through me, my mind moving back to familiar grooves as I think about whatever the issue is, once again.

So what’s the answer? Unfortunately, sometimes there’s not one.

Some fears do come true, and there’s no changing that. Tests come back with scary results. People die. Bad things happen.

Some situations are not about circumstances that are beyond our control, but about people who are beyond control. Wouldn’t life be easy if everyone did what I want them to do? Well, that’s not happening either. Or at least, not in a predictable way.

So, how can you find relief, some measure of peace, some way to cope that’s healthy and sustainable?

Because let’s face it, there are all sorts of answers that are not healthy, not sustainable, not realistic.

I can’t sleep my troubles away, don’t want to medicate to handle life, and living in denial doesn’t help either.

So this is what I do…my top ten ways to comfort and soothe when I’m in the valley:

  1. It sounds counter-intuitive, but I imagine the worst. I just go ahead and get it over with. What if my worst fears come true? What will happen then? Of course I can’t foresee exactly what variables could come into play. But by going to my imagined worst-case scenario, I create a vision of what I would do, what I could do. By facing the worst, I can have at least a minimum plan of response. Maybe I’d need to travel, or consider how a situation would impact financially. I try to think through options in advance. Instead of seeing this as dwelling on the negative, I view this as confronting and planning ahead so I’m prepared, as well as I can be.

  2. Once I’ve imagined the worst and think of how I would address it, I imagine the best. What if the best possible outcome happens? What then? I imagine how that result would impact me…even good outcomes can create change, and I want to be aware so I can be prepared for the good as well as the bad. At least this step is positive and more hopeful than the first, so it’s an easier exercise.

  3. I think about things that I can do to soothe in the moment. Sometimes that means doing something physical, like a work out, or just getting out and going for a drive. Other ideas: clean something, paint something, cook something. Do anything that is a positive physical act that gets me moving and helps me feel productive. Stay on top of day-to-day chores. Nothing is more paralyzing than letting go of your physical environment when you’re mentally stressed…if you’re already fragile, living in chaos will only make it worse. Put your mind on auto-pilot and force yourself to keep a routine going. On the other hand, if you can’t do something active, try being still. Meditate and just breathe.

  4. I have a number of “go to” authors that I read when I need encouragement or comfort, or even a challenge to hold on and breathe and be strong. Knowing whose voices will speak to my heart and mind is a good tool to have in my arsenal to ward off sadness and depression.

  5. I think about who among family and friends I can reach to, not necessarily to talk about what’s troubling me, but just for the connection. When I can have a “normal” conversation about the day-to-day, it reminds me that there are a lot of wonderful people and good things in life beyond the concern of the moment, and it helps to distract me for a while, at least on a surface level.

  6. I talk out loud to myself, usually while I pace, or drive. This one may seem strange, and I don’t do it when I’m with anyone else, but it really helps me to work through my plans, fears, hopes, etc., to hear the words out loud. It’s almost like I can move outside myself and get a little perspective.

  7. I try to get out and meet a friend, have dinner with someone, do something to break my day or evening, change the conversation going on in my mind. That can’t happen every day, but having something on my calendar helps me to look forward to a change of pace, and something that is uplifting. This also includes things like doing something helpful for someone else…anything that gets me out and connecting with other people is a mood lifter, and a distraction, and that’s healthy. I try to do this even if I’m not in the mood to do it at the beginning. Acting my way to feeling better is a positive way to improve my mindset.

  8. I write. I’m a writer, so that’s therapeutic for me. If I can put what bothers me into words, I can get a better grip on the whole thing. I can vent, rant, be sad, talk it all out on paper, and oddly, writing through an issue gives me a different perspective than talking it through out loud or with someone else. It also gives me a record to review down the road. It’s a good check to see if I’ve sorted myself out and resolved what’s troubling me. I don’t try to keep a daily journal when I’m stressed, I write as I feel the need. But I do keep what I write, sometimes just until I have an answer, and sometimes longer if the issue is deeper, and something I may need to visit again.

  9. I talk it out with a trusted soul. Depending on the issue, everyone in my life may know what’s going on, or only a select few. I don’t like to air my issues casually, but being able to open up to the right person or group can do a world of good.

  10. I pray, if possible, out loud, or I sometimes write my prayers. If you’re not a praying person, this one won’t help. For me, there’s relief in taking my heart to God, and believing that he hears and cares about what hurts in my life.

So that’s it. I hope, next time you feel your fear, some of these ideas will help. And if you have a great strategy for dragon-slaying, please share…I can always use another weapon in my arsenal!  ~ Sheila

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Take back your life

A friend of mine is in trouble. Her marriage is in ruins, and she is in the midst of a dysfunctional divorce process. She’s uprooted, disheartened, lost. And I can only begin to imagine the effort it costs her to get out of bed each day and get her kids going.

I’m sad for her, and I’m at a loss. This has been going on for almost two years, and the path seems to be a downward spiral. She can’t seem to break free, to reset.

I know something about sadness, and life not working out the way I thought it would. I don’t have visible tragedy in my life;  I have the drip, drip, drip of missed opportunities, lost dreams, or no dream at all…just a kind of wandering in the wilderness, wondering, even as the externals of life look pretty and orderly: “is this all there is?”

My husband and I have had it all, and at times we’ve known that, and celebrated it. And we’ve had it all, and at times, thrown it away with both hands…couldn’t grasp the goodness that was in front of us for looking at what was wrong. That’s an easy trap to fall into, one that I think most people are guilty of sliding into on a regular basis. Isn’t that what movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” are all about? The reminder that with all the negatives, life is still pretty sweet…well, we know it. But how hard it is to live that reality day by day! No matter how often I re-learn that lesson, I find it waiting around the corner again. And each time, I have to internalize it like it’s new knowledge. Some things take an eternity, apparently, to really sink in.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think this is one of the most common failings of modern life, modern Americans. Maybe people in general… I don’t know…is this just a common human trait?

This morning I was thinking about my friend. She doesn’t have a job, because bringing in her own income impacts the settlement she is able to get from the divorce. She’s depressed, understandably so. She’s lost in regret for the past, and regret for the future. She’s mourning the loss of life as she knew it, and life as her kids knew it.

No one can change any of that, and what’s done is done. No going back. But I want to tell her there is still an option to go forward. I’m not sure she can hear this. But this is what I want to say to her:

Get up! I know you’ve been paralyzed by everything that’s happened. But you can’t live in that state. You have to begin. Begin today, this morning. Set the smallest of goals, and mark it off your list. Then set another. Keep setting them until you’re really moving. It doesn’t matter what the goal is. What matters is that you see what you do as accomplishment, movement, and an act of will…your will. Energy and accomplishment produce more energy and accomplishment.

Look for a job. I know that may be against the advice of attorneys, but having your own income is liberating, and will give you renewed self respect. What if you eventually don’t need alimony? What if you could stand on your own? How sweet that would be! Going back to the work force when you’ve been a stay-at-home-mom for many years is challenging and intimidating…and invigorating. It will bring new people, new experiences, new thoughts to your life. It will broaden your horizons. It will give you a goal, and foster ambition. And it will give you money in your account.

Start a gratitude journal. This may seem like salt in the wound, to even suggest this. But I believe so strongly in the power of attitude and the healing that a thankful heart can experience…I don’t think a wounded soul can move forward without this step. Yes, life is unfair. Yes, life is hard. But we don’t complain when we are “unfairly” gifted. We just accept it as a natural thing, that we should be healthy, have food, have a roof, have healthy kids. Open your eyes, open your heart!

Finally…and again, this may seem like salt in the wound…I would suggest connecting with a women’s shelter…volunteer for an hour or two, or more, each week. This is not about building one person up by looking down on the misfortune of others…this is about recognizing that we all have something to give, even when it seems we have very little. And giving is the best cure for our own heartaches. Yes, there is a need to receive, and to cocoon, and to lick our own wounds. But that works better when we’re also giving, reaching out, making ourselves go beyond the comfort zone.

My route to work in Ketchikan takes me past a women’s safe house. When I’m distressed, I often think about the women who seek haven there. My problems become much more manageable when I recognize: no one beat me up, or threatened my kids, or blew money for this month’s bills. Does that mean I don’t have legitimate issues? No. And certainly my friend has sorrows that are real, and wounds that will take years to heal. But I’m reminded that things could be worse. You have to begin somewhere. I choose to begin with acknowledging: even when I’m struggling, I have people in my life, things in my life, that bless me. I have a place to start. And so does she…she just can’t see it yet.

I want to infuse my friend with determination, and to say: don’t let this sorrow, the end of your marriage, and the way you’ve been treated, don’t let it rob you of what you can do for yourself, for your children. Starting over is hard, and I understand the paralysis that comes with depression. So get help for depression if you need that. But act! Move! Get up! Do it for your kids, if not for yourself. One of these days, you’ll realize you are doing it for yourself as well, and you’ll all benefit in the end.

Even as I write this, there’s a little voice inside my head that says it’s never as easy as it reads. No. But what’s the alternative? She’s already lost two years of her life, and her kids’ lives, to turmoil and anger and sadness. How much more will she give? Eventually, it is counterproductive to mourn. It becomes a way of life; but not a healthy way to live. I’ve learned this for myself, and I know how hard it is to make that shift in thinking. I’ve done it. My circumstances were different, but in their own way, no less debilitating. But I don’t know how to jump start someone else. Sending her a to-do list, or a book to read, or listening to her, or suggesting that she see a doctor and go on anti-depressants…are these just band aids? I can’t put my hands around what she most needs. I’m at a loss for her. I keep coming back to the same thing. She has to reach down inside herself and want to take her life back. She has to want control enough that she pushes through the barriers. She has to want it. Others around her have wanted it for her. We’ve been sad, and seen the legitimate distress of her life. But now it’s down to her. Really, rock bottom, down to her will, and her strength.

I  choose to live by choice, not by chance; to make changes, not excuses; to be motivated, not manipulated; to be useful, not used; to excel, not compete. I choose self-esteem, not self-pity.  I choose to listen to my inner voice, not the random opinion of others.