10 Essential Coping Secrets For When Life Feels Overwhelming

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stressed man working

We’ve all been there — that moment when stress and anxiety have you feeling so overwhelmed you feel absolutely certain that with the next crushing blow, your carefully constructed self will not only teeter but come crashing down in flames.

In times like these, you want to sink to the floor forever. Whether it’s receiving a scary diagnosis, finding out about a heartbreaking betrayal by your sweetheart, or reaching the end of a job, there comes a time in everyone's life when it all just feels like too much.

Because life comes with a guarantee that such overwhelming circumstances are sure to arise, one of the best things you can do for yourself and the people you love is to keep a handy list of healthy coping skills, strategies, and mechanisms somewhere you can turn to for guidance when you need it most.

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I felt that way when my first marriage was disintegrating. I sought counseling and bargained with God. I twisted myself into knots to make the situation feel okay.

But deep down, I was terrified.

My life as a married mother of two small children was dissolving under my feet. Then one day, I saw a book cover talking about “unmanageable” living.

“That’s where I am,” I recognized. "This is unmanageable and I’m unraveling, day by day."

Recognizing my situation was the first step, but there was more to do from there.

Here's a list of 10 essential and healthy coping skills, strategies, and mechanisms you can look to for help during times when you feel overwhelmed.

1. Recognize what is happening and that you are important.

Once you have acknowledged to yourself what is going on, understand that you have to keep yourself functioning before you can help anyone else.

Resolve to do what you need to.

2. Write it down

If you haven’t used a diary or journal before, start. Find ten minutes each morning or evening and let words flow — what’s happening, how you are feeling.

Emptying your mind will release energy and give you insight.

3. Ask for help

Other perspectives can steady you. If you have access to an Employee Assistance Program or counseling, take it. See what an objective person says about your situation and your options.

No one else will make decisions for you, but skillful support can equip you to make good ones.

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4. Take care of your body

How does your body feel? Slow down and check. Where do you register anxiety or pain? In your heart, or stomach, or shoulders?

Ask your body what it needs. The first answer may be cookies or wine, and that’s fine for a bit.

Longer-term, make sure you are getting sleep, exercise, and healthy food with protein, fruits, and vegetables to sustain your strength.

5. Mobilize your support system

We’ve already talked about professional help, but your friends and family are critical, too. Choose your steadiest, warmest friends and relations and ask for what you need.

A listening ear over coffee? Child care for a day? They can’t help unless they know what is happening to you.

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If one person isn’t able to say yes, then ask someone else.

6. Forgive yourself

It’s easy to feel like a failure when your life is collapsing. Everyone else seems to be coping, so why is it so hard for you?

Remember that every life has hard patches, and people get through them. Think, “This too shall pass,” and see what you can learn from what’s happening.

7. Go outside

Whatever the weather, there’s something healing about being under the sky and seeing trees, rivers, or even frost on the ground.

Take a walk every day, if you can. If not, at least step outside and breathe.

8. Find a source of written support

This could be the Bible or the Koran, a spiritual writer like Pema Chodron or Eckhart Tolle, or a poet like Mary Oliver.

9. Make a plan

As soon as you feel a bit of stability, sit with a piece of paper or computer and map out your plan for one week, one month, and six months. Include everything you can think of, for yourself and for those who may depend on you.

Have “steps to do”, “when” and “resources needed to do this” columns. Fill it out as best you can, and revisit it each week.

10. Keep your eyes on the next step

Don’t look too far forward. In times of upheaval, focus on what you need to do for the next day and week. Once in a while, think bigger, but mostly keep your energy for the short term.

There are too many unknowns to spend energy worrying about what might happen. Do what you can each day, and take heart from what you can do.

I survived my rough time to build a new future, and believe that you will, too.

“You are free to choose, but the choices you make today will determine what you will have, be, and do in the tomorrow of your life.”Zig Ziglar

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Karen Kristjanson is a co-parent and author of Co-Parenting from the Inside Out: Voices of Moms and Dads who supports other co-parents through life coaching and writing. For more, check out her website.