Last week I posted some of the more commonly recommended interventions when life hits you really hard, things like deep breathing and going for a walk. But what about in between the bad times? What can you do to increase your resilience to stress during the good times, so that when the inevitable stressors come you are ready for them? Here are some things to consider doing when things are OK. These are disciplines that can help you develop resilience for the long haul. Like last week, it’s not a huge to-do list, but more like a menu. Pick one or two to start with and give them a try. Maybe even print out the list and come back to it periodically so you can slowly try all of the different approaches. There has to be at least one thing here that will make a difference for you!
What can we do to build resilience over the long haul?
Heart care, Head care, Body care, Soul care (need all four)
- 1. Pray, read Scripture, worship. These are the fundamental spiritual disciplines. Think of these as the first priorities of spiritual health. These disciplines will require a lifetime of practice, but they will pay off in ways you never dreamed possible. You can start (or re-start) today!
- 2. Exercise – aerobic or strength, anything. There is good scientific evidence to show that exercise of any kind not only helps us to “blow off steam” and feel good about ourselves, but it also brings about chemical and structural changes in the brain that can undo the “damage” of stress, anxiety, and depression as well as protect against further damage. Exercise raises our level of tolerance for stressors so that when the inevitable challenges and struggles come, we can handle them in much healthier ways. We are designed to move! Start simple: walk around the house every day for a week. Then build slowly from there. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else – the process is what matters, not the product.
- Challenge inaccurate or unhelpful thoughts. No one has more influence over our lives than we do, because no one talks to us as much as we talk to ourselves. We often tell ourselves inaccurate things – outright lies or half-truths that keep us stuck. Sometimes we tell ourselves the truth but in unhelpful, mean-spirited ways, over and over again. We need to learn to recognize those inaccurate or unhelpful voices in our heads and challenge them with truth and helpful statements. This takes time and practice, but is very important if we are to find freedom from our mental and emotional struggles.
- Be present in the moment. This practice, often called mindfulness, is becoming a very popular strategy among therapists for helping us to get out of our heads and into the real world around us. When we are playing the same tape over and over again in our minds, replaying a conversation or telling ourselves the same inaccurate or unhelpful things about ourselves and our situation, we need something to snap us out of it. Learning the practice of mindfulness, returning to the moment, to the sensory information from our eyes, ears, noses, mouths, and skin, can be just what is needed to break the cycle of stewing, ruminating on unhelpful thoughts. And besides, nothing else in life exists outside of the present moment, so why not live in it?
- Deep breathing exercises. It turns out there is a direct connection between our breathing and our levels of anxiety. Think of it this way: The brain is constantly sending signals to the autonomous organ systems – breathing, heart rate and circulation, digestion, and alert level – keeping them functioning in ways that are appropriate for the situation. At the same time, these systems are sending information back to the brain, telling it how things are going. The two go back and forth to come up with the appropriate physiological responses. The only one of these you can consciously influence is your breathing, and by intentionally slowing it down, the brain gets the message that the situation is safe and sends out signals to the other systems to slow down. By controlling your breathing during an episode, you can bring calm and clarity back to the situation. By regularly doing deep breathing exercises, even when you are already calm, you can raise your tolerance for stress and stay calm more readily in the future.
- Medication. People have mixed opinions about the value and ethics of taking psychiatric medications. My personal opinion as a scientist is that medications are appropriate when chemicals in the brain are not functioning as they were designed to function. Just as insulin may be required when our sugar processing chemistry is not working properly, psych meds may be helpful when our brain chemistry is malfunctioning. My only advice here is to discuss the possibility of medications with your doctor so you know what your options are.
- Talk therapy. Talking with an objective counselor, someone who has no bias in your situation, someone who has been trained in human emotional struggles and has literally seen it all, can be one of the most beneficial tools in your toolkit. There is absolutely nothing you can say that will shock your therapist!
- Educate yourself about your struggles and your options to manage them. There are some good books out there, and there are some weak ones too. Be especially careful with what you read on the internet, since there is no accountability for what people can post. Choose what you read carefully, but do all you can to learn about your own personal struggles and your options for managing them. Knowledge is truly power when it comes to your personal wellness.
- Set and keep good boundaries. Good boundaries are like the GPS on your phone. They keep you on the right road when you’re not really sure where you are. Learn to say no to requests (or demands) placed on you by others that take you off course. Sometimes this means saying no to things that are essentially good, but not for you right now. This allows you to say yes to the things that are most important to you. No matter what you’ve been taught throughout your life, you have every right to set boundaries around your own life. This is a basic right given to you by God Himself, and no one has the right to take that from you. It requires some assertiveness, and it may produce conflict. But in the long run, clarifying your values and setting boundaries to protect them is a critical piece to your story of personal wellness.
- Choose joy, peace, and fun. The key word here is ‘choose.’ You have the right to be happy and enjoy life. But if you’ve struggled for long, you may have come to believe that those things are for other people, not you. You need to begin looking for opportunities to laugh again and to enjoy each day, and then act on them. What did you used to love to do? Find a way to do it again. If you can’t go back to those old activities, then it’s time to create new ones. Joy, peace, and fun are not merely the products of your circumstances. They are the products of your choices.
- Make good sleep a priority. There are few more important ways to care for your mental and emotional wellness than getting a good night’s sleep. For some reason, our culture has demoted sleep to a minor need at best, and often it is viewed as a weakness. The truth is, though, that God designed us to need sleep, and without it we do not function properly. Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and each individual falls someplace specific on that scale. So, if you need 8.5 hours, 7 hours will not be enough, despite it being within the recommended limits. Let me challenge you: make good sleep a top priority for one week and then decide if it makes a difference in your ability to cope with stress and your emotional outlook on life. This comes with a money-back guarantee – what do you have to lose?
- Invest in relationships with God and other safe people. We were designed for relationships, first with God and then with other human beings. Yet, when we are struggling, our first inclination is to isolate ourselves. We convince ourselves that no one could understand what we are going through. We convince ourselves that we are broken and flawed and do not deserve God’s help or the help of others. Nothing could be further from the truth. First, others might surprise you and actually understand. And if they don’t, safe people can at least sympathize with you and lend a shoulder to lean on. Second, our worthiness of God’s love has nothing to do with our brokenness or perfection, but it has everything to do with God Himself. He loves each of us, not because we are perfect, but because He loves us. It’s that simple. Reach out. Pray. Build a safe community around you. You need it more than you think.
- Accept the things you cannot change. The Serenity prayer begins with one of the most powerful principles in personal wellness: accept the things you cannot change. Much sleep is lost over things that are out of our hands: wayward kids, callous spouses, merciless bosses, and terrifying politics. Accepting what we cannot change doesn’t mean we stop caring – it simply means we stop agonizing over those things and give them up to God. How much of your anxiety or depression is rooted in things that you cannot change?
- Change the things you can. It is very tempting to play the victim role. And maybe you are a bona fide victim. But being a victim as a lifestyle has never helped anyone to recover the life of joy and peace that they long for. First, make a list of things you could actually change if you really wanted to – be honest. And then decide which ones you are willing to change. Change usually comes at a price – what price are you willing to pay?
- Give of your time to others. When we are feeling low, it is natural to think a lot about ourselves. We are naturally selfish, especially when we don’t feel right. But staying focused on ourselves and our problems can only make matters worse. Find ways to serve others in your community. Volunteer to greet people in the lobby at your church. Read books to elderly in the local nursing home. Join a park cleanup effort. Get out of yourself and into the lives and needs of other people. You may be surprised at the perspective it provides along with a sense of being OK.
- Develop/maintain hobbies or other activities that you enjoy. When life bears down on us, our activities and hobbies often suffer. We don’t have the time, we reason, for something so trivial with all of the chaos around us. But not only do you need those enjoyable activities, you deserve them. Maybe it’s time to start them up again, or develop new ones better suited to your current lifestyle. Life has to be more than work and struggle. What can you do to begin enjoying life again?