How do you manage during prolonged periods of profound stress?
March 12, 2018 1:26 PM   Subscribe

The last few years have been really, really hard. Stressors, grief, and disappointment have been relentless and it feels like one more thing just might break me. How do you get through periods like this?

The past few years have been really hard, and the stressors show no sign of stopping. Thankfully, my spouse and I are maintaining a solid and loving relationship and are relatively healthy. That said, we've dealth with unemployment/underemployment, cross-country moves/loss of community, chronic/terminal illness (including addiction) of parents and loved ones and subsequent end of life care/decisions, repeat pregnancy loss, debt/massive financial stress, and even a near-fatal accident (thankfully now recovered but still reeling from it). I'm sure there's lots more but I'm so exhausted I can't even think about it.

It's starting to feel like a cruel joke, where nothing ever will go right again. I keep plodding and suiting up with my thickest armor, but there's disappointment around every corner, and every hill we climb reveals another mountain behind it. I'm functioning at a basic level, but I'm losing hope in the face of defeat after defeat after defeat. If we have one more death/illness/accident/etc. in our family, I really don't know how I would cope. I'm even starting to get a bit overanxious (e.g., worry when spouse is travelling that they'll be involved in an accident).

I am trying to take solace in the goodness that is my marriage but don't want to put all of the weight on that axel. Thankfully have a few good and kind friends but don't want to burden them, either, and am wary of being the friend who never has anything happy to report. I can't take a break from work, though I would love to. Therapy is not an option for Reasons right now. I have been exercising more when I have time but I'm really scraping the bottom of the barrel for energy and motivation these days. I try to do things that are happy like growing plants or cooking more elaborate things but they end up costing money I shouldn't spend and really only barely scratch the surface of the stress I'm dealing with. Even sleep is plagued by stress dreams, early waking, and tossing and turning.

It feels like I'm treading furiously but barely keeping my head above water. How do I go on when it really feels like I can't face another day, or like the world is just torturing me with heartbreak? Every time the phone rings, it's another terrible message about something that's gone wrong. I know I can't control the future but how can I get through the present? I don't have any money to throw at this. My work is in a helping profession with people in great need (>40 hours per week) so volunteering is off the table right now, as I don't have the time or emotional energy to do any more support of anyone else. I used to love nature but am now living in a big dense city and that sort of solitude is very difficult to access. I love reading and have been trying to escape into novels but the stress has really done a number on my attention span. Ditto podcasts. Please tell me if you have gotten through periods like this, and please tell me how you survived! Thanks in advance.
posted by robertthebruce to Human Relations (14 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
This is a tiny thing, but can you take any time off work to chill out at home, go for walks, rest, watch funny movies?
posted by kapers at 1:46 PM on March 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Have a thing, ideally every week, to look forward to.

I got through the most stressful time in my life (coming out to my parents, moving with my partner across the country, then more than two years of unemployment, then an exceedingly crappy food service job while she finished her dissertation) with something to look forward to every Saturday: going over to our friends' house for Dungeons and Dragons, lots of Settlers of Catan, and a decent hot meal. Maybe a little Venture Bros afterwards if we didn't have anything else going on.

The primary benefit to seeing them every week was that it was never so long since we last saw each other so we never felt the need have to "catch up" and vent about what's going on.

Partner and I have since moved again, but we still have a "regular thing": lately that's been game nights we run through church and my work at the library; playing tons of Magic: the Gathering at the club she advises through the university she works for; and "storytime" at night where I read her aloud picture books I take home from work.

(Speaking of storytime, may I specifically recommend Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books? As someone with anxiety, I find Toad's anxiousness humorously comforting.)

I feel like I'm rambling a bit and not articulating this very well, but tl;dr: I have been in a very similar position to where you are now and I found having something to look forward to most helpful, particularly if you have a friend who's also doing that thing.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 2:04 PM on March 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

Here are a few things that have helped me in the past:

If you can't get to nature, can you bring a bit of nature to you? Last year in a very stressful period I made a tiny container garden with just a few plants and the difference it made was great. I live in a very small space but I made it work and it took very little $ to put together. Failing that, nature docs that explore beautiful places, or even just a free white noise app on your phone that has ocean wave noise?

Getting to bed at a decent time is paramount for me during times of intense stress.

Taking small pleasures like sensory things, even as small as smelling the flowers in the grocery store floral dept.

Keeping up on a journal, expressive writing can be really effective in helping us process in a healthy way.

Keeping as much of a routine as possible, and including moments of quiet and moments of connection.

I track in my journal 5 things that I know will keep my MH in a better place: bedtime, wake up time, did I eat a snack AM/PM, and did I have social contact that day.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 2:10 PM on March 12, 2018

I'm thinking you can start with a little casual mindfulness meditation. Narrate to yourself silently or aloud and the game is the story can't include anything that is abstract, intangible, or inaccessible within immediate range of your senses. Try to go to a favorite room or a nice outside spot for this. Notice the colors, textures, and smells you have access to. Tour your body top to bottom and think about how each part is feeling now. Instead of setting a timer, set a goal to keep going until you successfully forget about what's bugging you the most for a short period. Avoid getting moralistic with yourself about doing this the "right" way --- just do it in whatever way seems natural.

If you don't have any control over something, you are removed from any reasonable obligation to worry about it. You can live like it's not happening, at least for a few minutes here and there. That's how you breathe, emotionally. No one can fault you a little therapeutic dissociation when you're checking off all of those wise choices you've listed here to try and deal with this.

In closing, remember that times are changing big right now, for everyone in every walk of life across our human world. Things are getting harder. You are not weak and you are not alone.

Warmest regards and I hope you can find a small, beautiful moment today.
posted by dissolvedgirl22 at 2:13 PM on March 12, 2018 [7 favorites]

Can you draw strength from your friends in ways that don't feel burdensome? Like, instead of it being "omg my life is so hard, I'm leaning on you," could it be, "Hey, next time we hang out, could you bring a small, whimsical activity for us to do together?" or something else that brings levity and lightness and a reminder that good things exist?
posted by spindrifter at 2:20 PM on March 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have a neat little trick to work meditation into my day and shut my brain off for a few moments. I have a glitter bottle. I have also been having an extended period of one enormous stressor on top of another, like the big "you've got to be kidding me" stuff that wouldn't be believable in fiction but is real life, you know the feeling, and when I can't stop thinking about all the things, this is the one weird thing in my arsenal that lets me step out of my reality and catch my breath for a second. I know other people will have bigger and better ideas, but stopping to catch your breath for a second is important, too. Sending my thoughts for better days ahead.
posted by Ruki at 2:53 PM on March 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Honestly, when I was like this, counselling made a HUGE difference to my life. It was just basic CBT, nothing special, but it really turned me around.
posted by smoke at 2:54 PM on March 12, 2018

I have been going through a similarly awful time recently (divorce, bereavement, career woes). I don't know how I would have coped without meditation, exercise, extreme moderation of intoxicants, a careful diet, and When Things Fall Apart. At its worst, it's just surviving minute to minute, not looking too far behind or ahead, and holding on to the glimmer of hope that better times will return.
posted by Jellybean_Slybun at 3:25 PM on March 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

some things that helped.

trying really, really, really hard not to take on peripheral worries--in other words, try not to take on other people's burdens. you are in a special place right now and need to conserve your energy.

finding some time by yourself to just feel and cry. i used my driving time to just listen to whatever music i needed to and let the tears fall without trying to fix anything.

try to identify one thing that each of your close friends can help you with. It will help to know that when you go to the movies with Jane, she won't expect an update from you. It will help to know that Jeff is the one to help you figure out childcare because he has good ideas. Don't be afraid to let them know that this is what you need from them right now.

be able to tell friends and others that you will take them at their word regarding offers of their time. if they offer and you need it then take the help. know that they are responsible for their own time and would not offer unless they could really do it.

i found a coffee shop that was new to me and would go there at least an hour a week just to drink coffee and read. no one there knew me or my troubles so there were no demands or questions to answer.

thank you for asking this question--it will be helpful to others.
posted by calgirl at 4:51 PM on March 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Radical compassion for myself and my partner really helped. Just acknowledging how incredibly fucking hard and sad it all was. We also watched a lot of mediocre television (Marvel’s Agents of Shield, anyone?) while snuggling on the couch and eating something tasty and not talking too much. We found that knowing we had that to look forward to in the evening, low key as it was, made a big difference.
posted by jeszac at 5:08 PM on March 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

You start out with Thankfully, my spouse and I are maintaining a solid and loving relationship and are relatively healthy. That's huge. It sounds so obnoxious, but be thankful for the things you do have. Some people keep a gratitude list, or do a daily gratitude survey, looking for 4 or 5 things to be grateful for. I just read Nomadland, a terrific book, and it reminds me that while my life sometimes feels bereft, I have more than many.

Congratulate yourself(ves) on getting through everything. It's been shit, and you made it through so far. You are amazing, really.

You sound depressed. For good reason. See your doctor, consider meds. 3 months of an SSRI might be a good respite.

Vitamins D and B12. I eat red meat once or twice a week because it's tasty, but also because a B12 deficiency makes me draggy and (more)depressed. Many people are Vitamin D deficient and the symptoms are diverse.

A couple times a week, take the time to do something special for your spouse. Flowers, a Reese's cup (the eggs are the best), a nice note, a random text to say something sweet. Being good to someone can help you feel a little bit in control.

Your lack of quality sleep is of concern. Can you make 10 minutes to meditate? I posted an that might be helpful.
posted by theora55 at 5:25 PM on March 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

My favorite apps are from The California Academy of Sciences, called "Stingrays" and "Penguins"; they're just livecams of their stingray and penguin tanks. I open them in any spare moment when I'd be tempted to faff around on my phone. Sooooo relaxing. It chills me out just knowing that even though my life is messed up the stingrays are at peace. It eases my pain a bit.

Note: they're livecams, so when it's nighttime in San Francisco you can't see anything. But it's fun to tune in at twilight, the stingrays gather and float super low over the sand, I guess they're sleeping insofar as fish sleep.

There's no shame in calling a hotline when you need someone to talk to; it can be an actively wise choice to keep yourself on a somewhat even keel.
posted by pickingupsticks at 8:00 PM on March 12, 2018 [8 favorites]

A friend once told me that we can survive anything as long as we have someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for. Thinking about this has helped me during my really difficult periods of prolonged stress.

Also therapy and other healthy and not-so-healthy coping mechanisms like journaling, bawling my eyes out, talking to friends, hiding in bed all day reading and ignoring the shit out of my feelings when they get overwhelming, and so on.
posted by MiraK at 9:26 AM on March 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Lower your expectations for yourself. If it needs to get done, do it. If it doesn’t need to get done me, it can wait.
posted by bq at 2:38 PM on March 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

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