We may not be able to control what’s happening around us, but we can determine our reactions. That is one of the primary ways to cope with stress, whether it’s brought on by sudden illness, a hurricane or job loss, says Ruth McKay, a medical family therapist who has worked at Upstate eight years.
She says the people who fare best under stress possess these traits:
* They have a level of intimacy with their friends and family so that they feel comfortable asking for help.
“For some of them, that’s really hard to do because it’s a change in their identity, and that can get in the way of dealing with stress – and can be a source of stress, too,” says McKay. “If your identity is that you’re a do-it-yourself, independent person, if the time comes that you need help, it changes your sense of who you are. And it can really change your sense about how the world is, too.”
Friends and family may offer to help. McKay suggests having a list of things you can ask people to do for you.
* They accept that they have emotional reactions. Rather than beat themselves up for feeling angry or scared, for instance, they acknowledge their feelings and let them pass. They regularly make time for personal reflection or “time in.”
Stressful situations may tempt a person to ask: why me? “Some people go to that place, and other people don’t. If you’re somebody who is used to being more reflective, it’s less difficult when an existential kind of crisis comes up,” she says.
* They maintain routines as much as possible, sleeping and eating at the same times each day and continuing exercise regimens. McKay explains this provides comfort, “and it’s really good for mental health.”
* They create workable plans for what they need to do, breaking tasks into manageable parts.
* They know whom they can talk to, and when and how.
“It’s not enough that you talk to people. Somebody could think ‘well I’ve had my vent for the day.’ But that’s not the same thing as being able to tell your whole story about what’s bothering you to someone who is really listening and who is giving you the time to finish talking,” McKay says.
* They take “mini-vacations” without leaving., They train themselves to take a deep breath and clear their mind every time the phone rings. Or, they think about nothing during their shower other than the warmth of the water and the smell of the shampoo.
* They sleep. Some people under stress need to sleep longer and can accomplish this by going to bed earlier. Some struggle to fall asleep because they can’t turn off their minds. McKay recommends a relaxation tape. “If you listen to it every day for two weeks, it starts to become a routine.”
* They know what they can do, immediately, to calm themselves. It may be taking a deep breath or letting down a ponytail, or sitting down instead of standing up.
* Overall, they make more positive comments than negative. McKay explains that humans have a survival mechanism that brings our attention to negativity because we needed to be alert to danger when we were living in caves. In modern times, we have to train ourselves to look for the positive.