February 14, 2019

Life Jacket Strategies for Times of High Stress

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As much as I love being a working mom and wife with a kick-butt career, I value the times I get to momentarily shake off some stress with my gal-pals. My friends are my tribe; they see my vulnerable side and my less-than-fabulous profile. We share in secrets and in successes. Chips, queso, and conversation are always plentiful in my tribe. 

Recently I had a friend talk to me about a personal stressor she had in her life that seemed to keep her down. She said, “Anissa, I can really relate to being in a dunking booth, but instead of wiping my face off and getting back on the bench when I fall, I get another ball thrown at me that keeps me in the water and I can’t stop it.” 

When Stress Starts to Drown You
We can all relate to a time (or several times) in our lives in which an occurrence has created a stress that starts to consume us. I’m not talking about a rough-day-at-work stress. This is the kind of stress that seems to grow over time, filling our heads with pain and worry and depleting our lungs of oxygen to breathe fully. This is the kind of stress that makes you feel like your water in your dunking booth is about to go over your head and you can’t find your footing (see my previous blog for stress strategies when you still have your footing: When Adults Need a Time-Out: Slowing Down When Life is Speeding Up). We’ve come to understand that most of the time the stressful event will pass or work itself out, but in the moments of that debilitating stress, we’re drowning in our own worry. 

Grab a “Life” Life Jacket!
Long-term data that has been compiled by the US Coast Guard indicates that wearing a life jacket dramatically increases your chances of survival and buys you time until you can get ashore or someone comes to help. A blog from the Coast Guard Compass states:

Falling into the water without a life jacket requires you to exert energy to keep yourself afloat while you await assistance. Wearing a life jacket nearly eliminates expending that energy, as it does the work for you.

In thinking of this analogy, consider how much energy you expend on stress. Of course, you may kick and scream just as if you were literally drowning, but what else can you do? What are your life jacket strategies for handling stress? Here are some strategies to consider: 

  • Anchor yourself. While you can’t control what others may be doing around you, take comfort in knowing that you’re in control of your own body. Try anchoring strategies like putting yourself in your favorite place every single day during the stressful event. This slows your body down a little to take some deep breaths. This could look like diverting your dinner schedule by half an hour to go sit on the porch, meditate, or look through a photo album. If the source of the stress is family-related, simply looking at favorite photos every day of happier times or positive interactions can create reassurance…..and visually remind you that friction may be temporary. 

  • Call for help. What’s the first thing you do when you’re in over your head? Call for help! Phone a friend, and stress the urgency to get some undivided, un-timed attention. This life jacket strategy works both ways, so be proactive and talk to your tribe about the difference between calls for help and your typical vent sessions via text.  True help comes from sit-down, hear-it-out, talk-it-out support from trusted friends or family members. When I was going through cancer treatment, the stress and worry would build up so much that I had to “dump” it somewhere, and meeting with friends to drain some of those negative emotions helped me make room for the positive ones to flow in. Don’t be afraid to bear your heart to lessen your stress, because by doing so you’ll be making a commitment to others to do the same for them when they need it. 

  • Lighten your load. What if you were drowning and you had weights on your ankles and back? You’d take them off if you could, right? Of course, you would! Now think about the burden of a stressful, consumable occurrence paired with all of your regular duties of work or school, spouses, kids, taking care of a home, providing for aging parents, etc. If you can’t change the stress and you can’t put it down, what else can you put down? Try writing out all the commitments you have on a piece of paper. Then look at the list and think about what could be eliminated first. Could the world go on if you ordered out a few nights in a row or delegated dinner to a spouse or child? (FYI, cereal night is not the end of the world!) If you chose to take a temporary leave from being PTA treasurer, would they find a replacement? (hint, YES.) As much as you may value giving to others, you may find that people are understanding if you say “I have a lot on my personal plate right now. I need to focus on my [family/career/self] right now.” 
  • Get out of the water. I talk throughout my blogs about living life in a dunking booth; you signed up for this life, it’s for a good cause, and from time to time you’re gonna have balls thrown at you and fall down. But sometimes you have to recognize when to get out of the water totally for a little while and move away from the source of the stress. This is the hardest strategy of all, but it may be needed to catch your breath. For example, if you’re having ongoing stress at work due to a boss or coworker conflict, you have to determine 1) if you have physically and mentally done everything you can do on your part to alleviate the stressful relationship and 2) made attempts to involve others to support you. If these action items have been exhausted and the stress is affecting your ability to perform as your best self, then you make a determination to move to another team/department or company entirely. You can’t change others’ actions, but you can change your own actions. 

A Life Preserver is a Life Preserved
Do a final activity for me: draw a life jacket or even a life preserver (those are easier for non-artists like me!) on a scratch sheet of paper. Then, write words or word phrases that help keep you afloat (ex. “my children’s hugs”, “faith in God”, “funny movies”, etc.) Post this on your refrigerator, at your desk, on your bathroom mirror, or other place you would look each day. Read it and feel anchored in all of your strategies.....you may find that the source of your stress starts to sink instead of you.