In the many years I have worked as a counselor, I often talk with people about the challenges they struggle with and what goals they have to work through such challenges. When asked about these goals, I find that many people’s first inclination is to just say, “I wish I did not have to face this difficulty at all.” I can’t blame them for being honest, and I can’t disagree with their sentiment. After validating that very real desire, our next course of action is to typically focus on a more realistic goal. Since we can’t directly change what causes us stress, how can we find ways to cope with it?
The ability to cope often starts with acknowledging the very real emotions that arise when we face hardships. A few years ago, our family drove to stay with relatives for the holidays. Unfortunately, near the end of the visit, our relatives were not feeling well. Hoping to spare ourselves from potential illness, we decided to leave a day early. This hope was in vain, however, as my husband (and our trustworthy driver) started not feeling well, requiring me to take the wheel. I needed to get this miserable little group trapped in a minivan home, and it seemed I counted every mile and stopped at about a hundred gas stations before we finally made it there. In order to channel the resources I needed to help me through a highly undesirable drive, I needed to take a few moments to feel the disappointment and anxiety topping my long list of negative emotions. I reminded myself that it was natural to feel the disappointment that comes with cutting time with family short, as well as the anxiety that comes with being trapped in a minivan with someone who is ill and possibly contagious. I deserved to take a little time to feel those concerns, even as I reached for the pump of hand sanitizer every few minutes.
When acknowledging these emotions, I find it helps to remember the power of one little word: “and”. I felt negative feelings as we prepared to drive home from our family visit AND I possessed the power to focus on things within my control to make my way through that dreadful drive. Along with dousing myself in hand sanitizer, I used one of our gas station stops to grab a cup of coffee to keep me alert. I tried to break the drive down into two-hour increments to make it seem more manageable and to give myself a mental boost when I reached each milestone. I visualized myself going to the store to pick up the necessary items to make my husband feel better and keep the rest of us healthy. Whether our stressful situation is relatively small and temporary, or bigger and more ongoing, it helps to remember that we are working towards an acceptance of the situation, so we can move towards an action phase. Acceptance does not mean we prefer the current circumstances – I know I certainly would have chosen a tropical family vacation over a moving infirmary rolling through the bleak winter landscape – but I needed to recognize the current reality to cope as best as I could with it.
We also can increase our ability to cope by decreasing negative anticipation. I talked with a friend recently who told me a story of being asked by her boss on a Friday to come to a meeting first thing Monday morning. Unfortunately, my friend did not get a chance to clarify the purpose of this meeting with her boss and as she headed home, she immediately began anticipating scenarios which invariably ended with losing her job. She worried her way through the entire weekend, sleeping little, and walking into the meeting on Monday with hunched shoulders and an upset stomach. Fortunately, as she happily relayed to me later, her boss was only hoping to give her some specific direction regarding a new project. Having negatively anticipated many a scenario myself, I understood her anger and frustration that she had spent so much time and energy assuming the worst. We certainly deserve some time to pay attention to our worst fears, but they also do not deserve a starring role in our lives; we cannot ask ourselves to cope with something that is not actually happening.
Another essential element to successful coping is opening ourselves up to connection with others who can support us through these difficult times. A few months ago, we said good-bye to our cherished family dog of over 14 years. Although the sadness and heartbreak tempted me to isolate myself more, I decided to reach out during this painful time by posting a short tribute to our dog on social media. I shared how much I missed this sweet creature who had played such a vital role in our family’s happiness for so many years. Nothing was going to completely erase my melancholy mood, but the well wishes and caring comments from others truly eased some of my sorrow. Many people mentioned their own experiences with losing a beloved pet, which reminded me that others have faced this experience and found their way through it. The power of connection to help us cope exists even if we share our story with just one compassionate and trusted person, as it reminds us that we are not alone in our experiences.
Coping involves reassuring ourselves that, despite troublesome issues, we have the ability to respond and make our way through these challenges. Whether confronting unexpected circumstances, daily work stressors, or deeper feelings such as grief and loss, that old phrase “it is what it is” rings true, but it feels insufficient. Perhaps it only needs a few more words to be complete: “It is what it is AND what are you going to do about it?”
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.