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TIPS FOR TRYING TIMES
Perhaps you are struggling through a painful season such as I described in When You Feel Like a Failure. I’d like to share some things I found helpful as I walked through my dark time. First, a disclaimer.
I am not a doctor or a licensed counselor. I’m simply a regular person who has taken a few counseling classes, lived through difficult times, and attempted to encourage others through such times. If you are unable to sleep or eat or function normally please schedule an appointment with a counselor and with your physician. I highly recommend both of these actions. If you are considering any form of self-harm, I beg you to immediately seek assistance. Call your physician, go to an ER, and/or call the Suicide Prevention Hotline immediately at 1-800-273-8255.
Now, here are some things I’ve learned about self-care in times of stress.
Stress takes a huge toll on your physical being. About two years into my “Decade of Trouble”, I found myself bone weary, exhausted, and unwell. When I made an appointment with my family doctor I discovered that I had extremely low vitamin D levels, anemia, low thyroid, a sinus infection, asthma, and double pneumonia (children, don’t try this at home! Stunt performed by professional driver. Not!). This marked the beginning of some long term annoying and frustrating health issues. I began making some slow, steady, long-term resolutions concerning my health and well-being when it finally dawned on me that I’m in charge of my health. No one else is going to take care of me! The day-to-day decisions that I make will impact my health long term. Here are some areas I’ve been working on:
During times of stress, people typically respond in one of two ways in the area of sleep. Either insomnia strikes with its relentless frustration, or we sleep too many hours. I’ve experienced both extremes. My advice is to experiment with your sleep schedule and attempt to discern how much you actually need. I’m one of those people who requires a lot of sleep; anything less than 7 hours, and I do not function well. I aim for 7-8 hours every single night, with occasional sleep-ins that can last 9 or 10 hours. Prioritize your sleep; this is important. You know it, I know it…we all know sleep is important. If you are unwell physically or emotionally, it is in your best interest to stick to your rest schedule. If you’re troubled by insomnia or nightmares, your body still receives benefit from quality rest. Pray in your bed, think of relaxing and happy memories, plan your ideal day or vacation. Rest. Your body will thank you. Your family members will probably thank you, too.
It’s so easy to believe we “deserve a treat” when we’re in difficult circumstances; and there is nothing wrong with an occasional treat! However, it’s important to give our bodies the quality fuel they need. If you’ve fallen into the “drive-through-window-rut”, perhaps you can make small goals that will lead to long-term habits. Choose one area to improve and work on that for a week or two until it’s routine. Maybe you could begin by drinking more water every day, then add an easy go-to healthy breakfast. Next, determine to eat a large salad with a piece of fruit for lunch every day, or only snack at preset times on healthy items. You get the general idea here. Fueling your body with only junk food is not going to help you physically or mentally.
You knew it was coming, didn’t you? There are numerous studies that show a correlation between physical activity and emotional well-being, not to mention the obvious physical benefits. I have a friend who was briefly hospitalized many years ago for severe depression. She attended classes on Depression Management, and one of her assignments was to engage in daily strenuous, sweaty exercise. Now, I hear your objections. When you’re struggling with all the things, the thought of actually gearing up and heading out for a workout probably seems impossible. If that’s the case, start small. Just force yourself to go for a walk around the block. Even ten minutes of brisk exercise is enough to help reduce stress.
Here are a few tried and true ideas I’ve found that help me be in a better place emotionally. We’re all unique; your mileage may vary. However, I think most people will find something of value among these ideas.
To the extent that it’s possible, maintain a routine. Reasonably consistent waking, eating, and sleeping times will not only help you sleep better, but will give a sense of accomplishment. Even if you’re caring for an ill person or a young child or are not at your own home, you can still have some basic morning and evening routines. For example: every evening I do a quick tidy-up of the house, making sure everything is in its place. Then I take my evening vitamins and asthma meds, wash my face and brush my teeth before bed. When I wake up in the morning, I’m not greeted first thing with dissaray, which completely stresses me out. My evening routine takes 10-15 minutes and adds greatly to my state of mind the next day.
Even under duress, I personally find it helpful to create and execute small goals. These can be extremely small, such as writing notes to all the grandchildren that day, doing one household chore, keeping the kitchen counter clutter-free. For me, I get a huge sense of accomplishment from crossing things off my list, and it gives me an emotional boost.
~Take a Vacation from Worry~
This sounds ridiculous, but I’ve found it helpful. I “allow” myself to fixate on my problem at a set time for a certain amount of time. When I’m under a lot of stress, I find that I generally cry bountifully when I’m praying about the specific problem. So, I tell myself that’s okay. Then, when I’ve finished my prayer time, I “take a vacation” from worry. I tell myself that I’m not allowed to dwell on the problem any more until my next prayer time. I tend to be a ruminater…I can chew and chew and mull and obsess and agonize over a problem from every possible angle from now until the cows come home. Giving myself firm parameters concerning when I’m allowed to ponder my problems is an effective technique for me. What this looks like in my life is this: every time I start agonizing over a situation, I remind myself that if I’m worrying, it’s time to pray. I take myself pretty firmly in hand with this rule, or I get into trouble quickly.
Now, I know we just talked about choosing to eat healthy, but I do think it’s fine to treat ourselves well. I’m gradually retraining myself into the realization that not all treats have to be food (this is a novel concept for me!!). Maybe you can take some time to make a list of small indulgences that perk you up. My list includes unsweet iced tea from Sonic, a cup of quality hot tea, a bubble bath, extra reading time, fresh flowers, meeting a friend at a coffee shop, a trip to the bookstore, a nature walk, time for arts and crafts. And of course, chocolate. My favorite indulgence is walking with a dear friend. We make dates to go for long strolls; I get needed exercise and vitamin D from sunshine, plus encouragement from our socializing.
Purposely look for ways to cultivate joy in your life. What indulgences would bring you joy? Make a list and try to schedule one indulgence for this weekend.
For me, when I’m struggling emotionally I tend to also have difficulty spiritually. I don’t focus well on my Bible reading, I feel like my prayer time is dry, I just want to curl up in a ball and cry and watch mindless television: forget spiritual disciplines (or any disciplines, for that matter). Focusing on my spiritual disciplines can be challenging, but I’ve always found it rewarding for me in the long run.
Sometimes when things are not right, it’s hard to know how to pray. I keep a list of specific Bible verses to pray for each of my loved ones. Especially when I don’t know what to pray, I pray these verses. I pray for spiritual growth, wisdom, wise relationships, increased faith. This helps me stay on track and not get lost in a sea of my desires.
Prayer also is a good emotional release for me, since I often cry as I pray for difficult situations. If you can find a trusted prayer partner, I’ve found that praying with others brings deep peace.
I work hard at continuing with my Bible reading and study even when things are going crazy. I’ve found time and time again that I come away with exactly the encouragement I needed, often in the most unexpected places in the Bible. I follow a yearly read-through-the-Bible plan, but in times of trouble I also add extra reading in Psalms.
Sometimes when everything is falling apart, I absolutely dread going to church and being forced to interact with others. It’s agonizing to know what to say when people ask how I’m doing; I’m afraid I’ll cry in public and people will notice. But I’ve never regretted going, and I encourage you to stay the course, even when things are rough. I try to ask myself: tomorrow when I look back, what will I wish I had done? Then do that thing, make that decision: the decision that I’ll be satisfied with when I look back. Every time I look back, I’m glad I chose to participate in corporate worship services.
I have a few resources that have been helpful to me in hard times, and I’d like to share them with you.
A dear friend gave a copy of this book to me in the early days of a long, difficult trial. My copy is highlighted and written in and well used. This is an undated daily devotional book written by a woman who lost two young children to a horrible genetic disease. It has a daily Bible passage to read, as well as additional verses listed for further study. It contains questions for contemplation and prayers. I’ve given away numerous copies of this book to people going through a wide variety of struggles, often in the beautiful leather-bound version that is also offered.
The Valley of Vision is a collection of Puritan prayers and devotions. When I don’t know how to pray, I often pray these beautifully deep and poetic prayers. This book also comes in a leather-bound version, which I would have purchased if I’d known how much use the book would receive.
It would be impossible to overstate how life-changing this book was for me. When I was absolutely stuck in the pit, God used this book to help me gradually find my way up and out. Ann Voskamp’s writing is poetical, lyrical, and has rather a mystical quality to it. I can see that it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was light-bringing to me. She writes about looking for the good in the midst of the ugly and finding God at work. I purchased a beautiful journal and immediately started keeping a gratitude journal, a practice I’ve continued for over four years. Looking for the good, the beautiful, the praise-worthy has become a habit for me now. There is also a companion devotional book to go along with the book, which I will link below. Whether you purchase these books or not, I highly recommend you begin keeping a daily gratitude journal. My prayer for you is that it will change your perspective as much as it has changed mine.
I would love to hear from you! What small indulgences bring joy to you? What resources have been meaningful to you in difficult times? What encouragement would you offer to someone struggling? Have you ever taken a “Worry Vacation”? Please share in the comments. I would love to create a caring community full of people who offer compassion and grace and point others to God in their time of trouble.