Pearls of wisdom on living through challenging times

by Thomas Oppong

It’s been a stressful and exhausting year for millions of people.

You may have experienced major changes in your life, work, finances, family, worldview and feelings for some months now.

Today, many people are still adjusting to their new normals, learning what they actually need to stay sane despite the challenges we still face.

We are facing fundamental shifts to our way of life, but some principles in life still ring true even in difficult times.

Life is a good teacher. Things are always in transition — it’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs. If you can build better ways to respond to chaos, your brain won’t quickly rush to fight or flight mode.

It’s okay to be uncertain about the future

Your feelings and emotions are valid, no matter what they are.

“Love yourself — accept yourself — forgive yourself — and be good to yourself, because without you the rest of us are without a source of many wonderful things.” ~Leo F. Buscaglia

In times of chaos, it’s important to accept the reality of life, reflect on your current situation and still find ways to stay calm.

Your routines, habits, behaviours and everything that makes you come alive have been disputed, it’s okay.

When you are stressed, tired, exhausted or feeling mentally and physically drained, it’s important to know that focusing on just the essentials or the simplicities of life doesn’t mean you’ve failed.

Not having anxiety about being more productive or doing everything right puts you in a better position to overcome the chaos of life. Just living one day at a time can put your mind at ease in times of uncertainty.

In challenging times like these, the events in our lives can help us learn more about ourselves.

There’s a lot on your plate right now but don’t stress about creating perfect routines every single day — good enough is okay. If you don’t have concrete actions for next month or next year, focus on small actions that can still deliver progress.

It is okay to feel scared. It is okay to feel uncertain. If you’re going through a hard time, seek support from people who love and care about you. Take as much time as you need to feel the emotion and recover. Everything will be okay — remember, this too shall pass.

Learning what to ignore can improve your mental health significantly

With the current 24/7 news cycle, unlimited access to every advice, expert opinion, bad news and unlimited options for where, when, how to access it, information overload is pretty much inescapable.

Many of us have deeply ingrained habits that don’t always serve us well — the tendency to obsessively look at the news throughout the day can distract us from the important things in life.

“If you’re losing sleep over what’s happening or you’re unable to concentrate on anything other than the risk that someone in your life has, you should probably consider [lowering] your dose of media to once a day,” says Dr Ken Duckworth, medical director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (Nami).

It pays to create your own personal filters to find useful and relevant information.

Unless you’re willing to be radical about what gets your attention, you will continue to waste a lot of time, energy and emotions scrolling unnecessary information that adds little or no value to your life.

As Zig Ziglar has said, “Your input determines your outlook. Your outlook determines your output, and your output determines your future.”

If you don’t unplug from everything that wants your attention, turn down the firehose, and find the sources that mean the most to you.

Following even the simplest schedule can improve your mental clarity

“A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order — willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”― Annie Dillard

The best way to effectively use time is to schedule it.

Make a daily schedule and plan to follow it even if you work from home. It reminds your brain that you are still in control.

It doesn’t have to be a long stretch of tasks. It can involve a five-minute task that can still help you get something done, connect with others or enjoy an activity with someone in person or virtually.

“You will find maintaining a plan will help you and your family adjust to different work and home life environment,” says Scott Kelly,a retired NASA astronaut who spent nearly a year on the International Space Station.

With daily routines shaken up— and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, we are making more decisions about our habits, routines and rituals. This can cause mental and decision fatigue. So structure your day — create even the simplest daily routine to make your days easier.

If you miss some of your plans before the pandemic, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s okay if your schedule is flexible and helps you and your family cope or even enjoy the time you are spending together.

Celebrate anything that puts a smile on your face

“You will face many defeats in life, but never let yourself be defeated.” — Maya Angelou

We don’t always need “major” events to feel happy. Small moments of joy can quickly add up to make you happy.

Research shows that the frequency of small, positive experiences has a greater impact on our life satisfaction than a few epic events of achievements.

Make time to spend quality time with your family — enjoy the conversations, hugs, cuddles, laughter, meals, etc.

“…it is the small, and often unexpected, pleasures in life that can make us smile each and every day to help us build happier and more meaningful lives for ourselves and for others,” says Dr Glenn Williams, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University.

For a happier life, carve out time to reflect and be more grateful. Spend more time in nature. People are happiest in nature. Time spent in nature recharges and invigorates us. It reminds us to slow down.

Watch the sunrise. Watching the sunrise is one of the best ways to lift your mood. These daily experiences can awaken something dormant in you — pausing to reflect, and a reminder to breathe, all of which seemed to lead to a better day.

Every little experience counts. Don’t let the bigger picture steer you away from the small enjoyments of life. And remember what Teddy Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.

Positive social connections can improve your resilience for coping with stress

“Never underestimate the empowering effect of human connection. All you need is that one person, who understands you completely, believes in you and makes you feel loved for what you are, to enable you — to unfold the miraculous YOU.”― Wordions

Reach out. Connecting with other people is needed more than ever to stay healthy, productive, happy and sane. You can hold virtual meetings, jump on a phone call, or send a friend a text. Reach out and support one another — and laugh!

“If you’re the kind of person who’ll miss your colleagues when you work from home, build opportunities for socialising into your day,” says Karen Eyre-White, a productivity coach and founder of GoDo business organisation, who recommends trying to call colleagues rather than using email or Slack messaging.

Modern technology has made it insanely easy to stay connected. Use tools like Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Facebook Workplace and Trello to stay connected with friends and colleagues at work.

Positive social support can improve our resilience in coping with stress. Check-in with your friends, family, and neighbours regularly.

Journaling your experience can reduce stress

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” –William James

Writing about your daily experiences — your thoughts, feelings, what you’ve done, anything! — can be quite therapeutic.

“Journaling is a tool to put our experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and desires into language, and in doing so it helps us understand and grow and make sense of them,” says Joshua Smyth, a professor of biobehavioral health and medicine at Penn State University, and co-author of Opening Up by Writing It Down.

It can help you live in the moment, boost your mood, improve your emotional wellbeing and help you find self-expression.

“In fact, a study showed that expressive writing (like journaling) for only 15 to 20 minutes a day three to five times over the course of a four-month period was enough to lower blood pressure and improve liver functionality,” writes Kasee Bailey of Intermountain Healthcare.

Getting your thoughts down on paper can help you identify thought patterns that distort your reality and cause stress. It can also help you become more self-aware. And the more you understand yourself and what causes emotional instability, the better you can relate to others.

The human mind is the most adaptable tool there is — make it work for you in times of crisis. No matter what happens, you can adapt, cope, and stay calm.

This very moment is the perfect teacher. In times like these, it’s important to remember that it’s what we do that defines us, not what happens to us.

Train your brain to stay calm in the midst of chaos and you will be able to choose the smartest possible response in every stressful situation.

Originally published by Thomas Oppong for Personal Growth on Medium.com.

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