How to Take Care of Yourself During Hard Times
Published: July 17, 2015
Life is unpredictable. One thing is for certain: all of us will experience some rough patches (probably several) throughout the course of our lives. Whether it’s a death in the family, divorce, job loss, or illness, these tips will help you make it through.
Reframe your thoughts
Psychologist Heidi Grant has made a living of studying how people respond to challenges. She describes a growth mindset as being crucial to coping with life’s curveballs. Simply put, people with this mindset believe that they will be able to get through tough times. Compared to the less optimistic among us, these folks’ “down periods” are shorter because they have the energy to do what needs to be done.
This concept is aligned with the cognitive behavioural psychology model, which describes how our thoughts, feelings and actions interact in a cyclical manner:
- Thoughts lead to feelings
- Feelings lead to actions
- Actions result in outcomes
- Outcomes lead to thoughts
Let’s consider an example of how this cycle can run rampant and wreak havoc. One year ago, Bob’s wife filed for divorce. Despite this passage of time, he is still unable to move on. If we could peer into Bob’s mind, we might see something like this:
- Thought: Bob thinks that because his wife left him, he is “unlovable”.
- Feeling: Bob feels poorly about himself.
- Action: Bob pushes away anyone who tries to connect with him because he is unworthy of love.
- Outcome: After repeatedly being pushed away, others stop trying to connect (or alternatively, his mindset makes him completely blind to their attempts)
- Thought: Bob thinks that others have rejected him because he is unlovable.
- Repeat ad nauseum.
So is Bob doomed to a life of cyclical torture? Hopefully not. While we cannot change our feelings or what happens to us, we are able to have some control our thoughts and how we act.
Imagine how Bob’s situation would be different if he could change his thoughts about being unlovable. A thought like “My past does not define my future” could disrupt the whole cycle. Similarly, taking actions against his inclinations (like accepting the attention from others) would result in different outcomes, which would then help disrupt his negative thoughts.
If you’re going through a tough time, remember – one small mindset change can make a world of difference.
“When the going gets tough…the tough get going”.
I’m sure we’ve all heard this mantra before. It is the embodiment of a concept called “grit”, which can also be defined as “perseverance in the face of long term goals”.
Some people come by grit more easily than others. An article on PsychologyToday.com describes the experiences that Dick Marcinko had in the Navy Seals. According to Marcinko, there are two types of people: gazelles and warthogs. Gazelles are naturally talented and do things effortlessly. On the flip side, when the going gets tough and they fall down, they don’t have the ability to get up before the predators get them. They don’t know how to dig deep.
The lowly warthog on the other hand has to work for everything they’ve got. When they find themselves in the trenches, they do what they do best and “get ‘er done”.
Marcinko recounts a story where several men were trying out for the Navy Seals. This is a gruelling process, and most are unable to complete the course. Because a large portion of the Seals’ tasks involve swimming, recruits were instructed to carry two buckets of rocks while swimming the length of a pool. Those that could do it were “in”.
Here’s what happened next.
“One guy grabbed the buckets, jumped in the pool, and started running. Under water. He ran the whole length of the pool, grabbed the edge, and hauled himself and his buckets of rocks out.
The drill instructor snarled at him in disgust: "What the f**k is wrong with you a*****e?!"
"I can't swim!"
He made the team. They could teach him to swim. But no one could teach him grit.
Do you believe success comes from your talent? What happens when you can’t do something? By logical extension, I guess this means you’re not smart or capable enough. You can see how it would be paralyzing to fail.
Or, do you believe your success comes from hard work? What happens if you can’t do something? Work harder.
Something to think about it. Next time you feel like giving up, grab those buckets of rocks and channel your inner warthog.
When things go wrong, the first thing that is impacted is often our self-care habits. We stop exercising as much as we should. We don’t eat well (sometimes not at all). Sleep can also become something we only dream about. While it’s not easy to take car of ourselves, it is one of the most important aspects of healing. Just think about how much harder everything becomes when we are tired and/or hungry.
If it’s not possible to maintain your habits at the moment, try to do the best you can. If hitting the gym isn’t possible, try some quick walking breaks. If you don’t feel like eating, try to have several small snacks throughout the day.
If you burn yourself out, you will exhaust your ability to cope with the situation.
Lean on your Support System
When things in our lives are not going well, sometimes our first instinct is to keep to ourselves. Nobody likes feeling vulnerable, and it’s tempting to withdraw from those around us. But as we all know (or should know), keeping things bottled up inside is not helpful or healthy.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is to bend an ear of someone in your support network. The University of Minnesota has an excellent article on support networks. Your network includes your friends, family members, and others that provide comfort. When deciding who to talk to, consider the following:
- Who listens to you?
- Who do you share good and bad news with?
- Who appreciates you?
- Who do you ask for advice?
Your support network can continue to grow. Volunteering, joining hobby groups and sports teams are just some of the ways to expand your network.
Remember, you do not have to go through this alone!
If you’re going through a difficult time, or when you encounter one in the future, try to remember to reframe your thoughts, stick with it, take care of yourself, and lean on others for support; blue skies will return once again.