At some point, we all come face-to-face with challenges—some trivial, some tragic; some personal, some global—that throw us off balance. When life falls apart, there’s no quick fix for recovery. However, there are concrete ways to rebuild.
meQuilibrium Chief Science Officer and Co-founder Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., shares how you can help yourself, others, and even the world adjust, heal, and grow when times get tough. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
To Help Yourself: Embrace Unpredictability
According to Shatté, we tend to struggle the most when “our Iceberg Beliefs—those beliefs that loom large beneath our conscious mind, governing our thoughts and reactions—around predictability and control have been fractured.” However, while we need some measure of control to feel safe, we actually like some degree of unpredictability. “When I ask people, ‘If you could know what happens every second for the rest of your life, would you want to know?’ No one says yes.”
If life was completely predictable, we wouldn’t have serendipity, coincidence, or even pleasant surprise—but research shows that when dealing with uncertainty, people tend to overestimate the risks and negative consequences. So, rather than letting fear be your compass, practice making peace with the unpredictable. Make a list of times when things happened that you couldn’t have planned for and it worked out, perhaps better than you could have imagined. Pull out the list when you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Not only will you feel calmer about where you’re headed, you’ll also feel more confident about where you’re at now.
To Help Others: Know Your Role
You can help someone slow down their stress response in the moment by asking them to close their eyes and notice what’s going on around them: the sensation of their feet touching the ground, the weight of their hands in their lap, the quiet hum of an air conditioner or heater. Have them take five deep breaths and offer them a drink of water, which eases an upset stomach and dry mouth.
When they’re ready to talk, be sure to do more listening than speaking. It’s natural to want to fix their problem or take away their pain—but that’s not your job. “A great therapist and supervisor said to me years ago, ‘You got into this business to help others, so it’s natural to feel that someone else’s struggle is your responsibility,’” says Shatté. “‘But it’s theirs, not yours.’”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reach out and offer support when someone you care about is struggling—and don’t let the fear of saying the “wrong” thing keep you from saying anything at all. Instead, he says, “Be a sounding board. Just listen. Ask the questions that will allow the other to talk about their anxieties. At the root of anxiety are thoughts about what could go wrong in the future, and when these future-threat thoughts are bouncing around our heads, they seem very real. Just giving those thoughts a voice lends an objectivity that helps us realize that some of our fears are unfounded.”
To Help the World: Get Connected
The annual Stress in America report from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that regardless of age, more than half of Americans believe this is the lowest point in our nation’s history that they can remember. “The fact that many people are concerned is a double-edged sword,” says Shatté. “It means that our anxieties about the future are probably at least somewhat grounded since, by the law of large numbers, if many people share the same anxiety there’s probably at least some truth to it.”
So, what can you do? “Become a joiner,” Shatté says. “Join like-minded individuals working towards a greener planet or gender equality or whatever issue is causing the greatest anxiety.”
That may mean exercising your civic duty by getting involved in a campaign or contacting your elected representatives. Or it may not be political at all: You can find great comfort and purpose in joining a book club, small business association, or any group that gives you a reason to turn off the news, leave your house, and connect with others.
Terri Trespicio is an award-winning writer, speaker, and a long-time media expert on health and wellbeing. She was one of the early contributors to meQuilibrium, and her work has been featured on Dr. Oz, Oprah magazine, Prevention, and MindBodyGreen, among others. Find her on Twitter @TerriT.