Mindful stress management in times of uncertainty and challenges
Part 3 of a 3-part series
As we discussed in part one of this series, we need to recognize that in all the challenges we face in life, we can always choose how we wish to respond.
While there are many things we simply cannot control, we do have the capacity to choose how we act versus react to life. Toward this end, I have compiled a number of strategies that can be used to mindfully manage stress during these times. Not all of these are best for everyone.
Manage your emotions
One hallmark of resilience is the ability to manage our emotions. As you recognize that anxiety, anger or other difficult emotions begin to arise, recognize that this is happening, and take a moment to stop, name the emotion (this can be a challenge for those unfamiliar with mindful strategies, but essentially it is the old adage of counting to 10, but adding a recognition of what the true, underlying issue is that you are dealing with), breathe slowly and deeply, and then give yourself a little distance from it so that you don’t identify with the emotion.
I often work with youths who are struggling to manage emotions and ask them to use a simple phrase to replace identifying with an emotion. For instance, instead of saying “I am angry,” I ask them to substitute, “I am having an angry feeling.”
At first they feel this is strange, but with practice they begin to realize that this gives them the opportunity to get some space from the emotion and therefore, the opportunity to make a different choice in how they want to act versus react to the situation.
More importantly, it allows them to exercise choice and to recognize how they can be in charge of their emotions, rather than being driven by their emotions. Having agency over our emotional lives is a significant factor in managing our stress.
RELATED Part 1: Mindful Stress Management in Times of Uncertainty and Challenges
Laugh every day
When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer she asked me to be certain to make her laugh at least once every day. Not only did this help her, but it gave me a way by which I could be active in her health care in a positive way. It is also a great way to counter the negativity that so often emerges in times of crisis.
Research has shown that if we can shift our focus from the negative to the positive — at least a 3-to-1 ratio of positive to negative statements, we can reduce our stress. There is a caveat here, however. Negative humor — making fun of people or denigrating others has the opposite effect. So, look for ways to laugh at the situations and issues we’re dealing with — the opportunities are there if you look.
RELATED Part 2: Mindful Stress Management in Times of Uncertainty and Challenges
Pleasure vs happiness
At this time when we may not be able to access the things in our lives that we enjoy, it is an excellent opportunity to take stock of what truly brings us happiness, versus those things which may only bring us pleasure. While these are not mutually exclusive — I find pleasure in being with my grandson, and it gives me happiness — sometimes we search for happiness in all the wrong places.
I think of happiness as contentment, and often find it in the simplest things in life. We can set a daily intention to recognize those things that bring us true happiness and let go of some of those things that truly do not. In stress management we talk about the “hedonic treadmill.” We strive for those things we think will make us happy — the next shiny object, so to speak, to find that once we possess it, we find that we are looking for the next thing to buy.
Taking a step back and recognizing the difference between pleasure and happiness can provide us the means to manage our lives in less stressful ways.
Finding the joy in things you can control
As mentioned earlier, a lack of control in life is a significant factor in stress. Many of the above practices are things we can actually do and have control in so doing them. This also means that we need to develop an awareness of those things for which we have little or no control and let them go. I realize this is can be an exceptionally challenging practice, and one participant in my stress management classes people struggle with all the time.
Once in my class a person was struggling with this concept and suggested an alternative way of phrasing this — let it be (I think she was a Beatles fan). I like her take on this. It might be too difficult to “let it go” as it seems to linger, sometimes even stronger, in our minds. This admonition to “let it be,” may be less challenging and maybe even more relevant. It isn’t gone, but I’m going to relegate it from the passenger seat to the trunk — and this lets me be in charge of the drive.
We are all resilient
As the saying goes, “You have survived 100% of the things life has given you.” We may come out different, but we all have the ability to survive, and maybe even flourish. Each of us possesses the ability to manage our stress and to grow from our experiences.
We hear much about post-traumatic stress, and it is a tragic experience for far too many people. However, the research is also clear that many people experience post-traumatic growth. By taking control of our emotional lives we can better protect ourselves in time of uncertainty and change.
Steven Hoover retired after 29 years from St. Cloud State University as an emeritus professor. He served as a professor in the Community Psychology, Counseling and Family Therapy Department. Hoover directed the SCSU Employee Mediation Program and as interim associate provost for Faculty and Student Affairs, interim dean of the School of Education and interim director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. He teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, serves on the St. Cloud ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Collaborative and presents often on trauma- informed practices. He has a Wellness Coaching Certificate from the Mayo Clinic and consults with schools and businesses on stress management and life balance.