Clinical psychologist Christina G. Hibbert, Psy.D, knows a lot about tough times. Her youngest sister died from cancer at 8 years old. In 2007, another sister and her sister’s husband died within two months of each other. At the time, Hibbert was just several weeks away from giving birth to her fourth child. Almost overnight, she inherited her nephews and became a mom of six.
“I have been a daughter in grief, a sister in grief, and a mother raising kids in grief. I know it is not easy.”
But when you do the work to overcome your difficult experiences, you can heal. “And, when we choose to do it together, our families really can become even better in the end,” said Hibbert, also author of the forthcoming memoir This Is How We Grow.
Maybe you’re going through a similar experience or are grieving another kind of loss: a romantic relationship, a friendship, a job, a house. Or maybe there’s a completely different kind of stressor in your life. Whatever you’re struggling with, here are 14 expert tips to help.
1. Acknowledge and feel your feelings.
“Avoiding your negative emotion may feel like an effective stopgap measure, but in fact it simply postpones, and perhaps escalates and exacerbates, a flood of negative emotion sometime in the future,” said John Duffy, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the book The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens.
Ignoring your emotions is “like trying to run away from something that’s right on your shoulder. The only way to truly be free is to stop and face your emotions,” said Hibbert, who also specializes in women’s mental health, postpartum issues and parenting.
Still, you might worry that your emotions will be too overwhelming. While this can happen, people tend to get stuck because they’re actually not feeling their emotions, Hibbert said. “Instead, they think about, wallow in, and replay events. But they are not letting themselves really feel the pain, loss, sadness, anger, that is lurking within.”
Hibbert developed a method called TEARS – “Talking, Exercising, Artistic expression, Recording or writing experiences, and Sobbing” – to help individuals cope with their emotions, particularly with grief. “These five things can give us something to do when feeling overwhelmed by life stress.”
She also suggested clients set a time limit to feel their emotions every day. Even 15 minutes can help to process your emotions.
2. Talk about it.
“When people bottle up challenging situations, the problems grow and mutate into horrible worries and anxieties,” said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the blog “In Therapy.” Talking about your troubles, however, helps you better understand your own fears and get valuable feedback from others, “who have probably experienced similar levels of distress and can give you the perspective you need.”
3. Try to see past the hardship.
When you’re in a crisis, it’s hard to see any upside. But, with some distance, you may be able to see the situation in a different light. According to Howes:
You lost your job? Well, you’ve lost some in the past, and always landed on your feet. You had a fight with your spouse? Well, historically, you tend to bounce back. You had a panic attack? Most of your life hasn’t included panic, so we can assume most of your future won’t as well.
Some lost jobs lead to better jobs, some broken relationships lead to relationships that are a better fit, and some panic leads to finally getting the help you need.
4. Prioritize self-care.
“[Self-care] is absolutely necessary to survive tough situations,” said Marter, who also pens the Psych Central blog “The Psychology of Success in Business.” “[Y]ou won’t be of any help to others if you are incapacitated,” Howes said.
While you might not have time for your usual healthy habits, you can still take good care of yourself. For instance, if you can’t prepare a nutritious meal, keep protein bars in your bag, she said. If you can’t go to the gym for an hour, take a 10- to 15-minute walk around the block to “relieve physical tension and clear the cobwebs in your mind.”
Ten minutes of meditating or a 20-minute power nap also helps, she said. Remember that a stressful situation isn’t a sprint; sometimes “it may be more of a marathon. [You] need to pace [yourself] and take the necessary time to rest to reboot your mind and body.”
5. Consider if you’re experiencing a catastrophe or an inconvenience.
Sometimes we magnify problems, turning a fixable concern into a calamity. Jeffrey Sumber, M.A., a psychotherapist, author and teacher, shared a family lesson about viewing issues more accurately.
My great grandmother gave our family a very important key to coping with difficult situations in life. She suggested that if anything can be fixed with money, it is not really a problem. This rule has been very important in my life as a reminder that so often we create catastrophes where there are sometimes inconveniences.
6. Practice acceptance.
“Let go of that which you cannot control,” Marter said. To start, make a list of everything you don’t have control over. These are the things you can stop worrying about.
“During a moment of meditation or prayer, visualize handing those items over to your higher power and letting them go. Then focus on what you can control, like your self-care, your words, your actions and your decisions.”
7. Ask for help.
You might assume that you can and should handle this difficult time on your own. Many people do. But, interestingly, when Duffy talks to his clients, most say they’d never expect others to manage similar situations alone. “We need to relinquish control, ask for help, and receive it with grace.”
When asking for help, you may need to be direct. Let others know what you need, such as “support and compassion,” and what you don’t need, such as “[not] criticiz[ing] my slowness to heal,” said Deborah Serani, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Living with Depression.
Seeking support from your loved ones also strengthens those relationships. According to Hibbert, “[F]amilies and friends who can be there for each other, who can listen, talk about things, and openly feel together, not only help the individuals heal, but protect and strengthen the relationships that, in times of stress, are otherwise too often neglected.”
And remember that there are many kinds of support. “Support may come in the form of family, friends, co-workers, a doctor, therapist, support group or even your higher power,” Marter said.
8. Limit time with toxic people.
Serani suggested spending less time – or no time – with toxic people. These are individuals who are not supportive or reliable and don’t have your best interest at heart. They don’t listen to you, and might even be critical, judgmental or demanding. After being with them, you feel drained and depleted. In other words, they make you feel worse.
9. Stay grounded in the present.
“Practice mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation and yoga, [which] are excellent for the mind and body when going through a crisis,” Marter said.
10. Call an end to the crisis.
“Far too often, we allow crisis to define our lives and mindsets for way, way too long,” Duffy said. We burn out, become more anxious and depressed and have less energy and focus to find effective solutions, he said.
Calling an end to the crisis helps you shift into a calmer and more solution-focused state of mind.
For instance, Duffy worked with a woman who was grieving the dissolution of her marriage and going through a lengthy divorce process. “One day, we agreed that, though she did not have the power to end the marriage in the immediate run, she did have the choice to end the crisis she was suffering.” She still has to deal with attorney calls and paperwork. “But she is not in crisis.”
11. Observe the situation as an outsider.
“Take a ‘crisis break’ in which you relax and observe the situation as if you were an outsider, hearing about the circumstance from a friend or maybe a co-worker,” Duffy said. Take several deep breaths, and focus on your intuition. “You are very likely to derive some useful thoughts you would not have come upon within the midst of your anxious state.”
12. Just take action.
“If you don’t know what to do, do something,” Howes said. “Make a list, make some phone calls, gather some information.” Avoiding a situation only adds to your anxiety and “what ifs,” he said. Taking action is empowering.
13. Remember that you are not your difficult time.
As Marter said, “You are not your problems or your crisis. You are not your divorce, your illness, your trauma or your bank account. Your true self is that deeper entity within that is perfectly whole and well no matter what you are experiencing.”
14. Remember that everyone heals differently.
“I encourage children and adults to remind others that this is their journey and that no one should be clock-watching,” Serani said. “Everyone feels in different ways. And everyone heals in different ways.”
Tough times can feel incredibly overwhelming and exhausting. But there are many things you can do to soften the blow. Plus, if you’re currently not in crisis but have issues to work through, seek professional help.
“It’s best to fix the roof when the sun is shining,” said Howes, quoting the famous saying. “Dealing with our childhood issues, relational issues, or anything else when we’re in periods of relative calm may be the best investment of time and effort we can make.”
And when you’re ready, look for the lesson. As Marter said, “Hardships are opportunities for growth and learning. They deepen our understandings of ourselves, others, and the world around us. There are hidden blessings that come with virtually every hardship, such as strength, wisdom, empathy or openness to a deeper spiritual awareness.”