Monday, May 22, 2006

How to Deal with Difficult Times

Dealing with Tragedy
Dr. John Schinnerer
Guide To Self, Inc.
(925) 944-3440

Mary Tyler Moore said, "Pain nourishes courage. You can't be brave if you've only had wonderful things happen to you."

As one of my professors at Cal, Dr. Nadine Lambert, died unexpectedly recently, I've been dealing with my own grief.

These are some notes I made to myself when thinking about how best to deal with sudden or unexpected tragedy or trauma.

How do you get through the painful emotions? How do you deal with the negative thoughts? How do you go forward? Here’s some thoughts…

Sense of Control

It comes down to controlling what you can. You will feel better to the extent that you can control the environment around you. To help alleviate feelings of helplessness, create an emergency plan for your family. If you already have one, revisit it. Be sure to include your children in on this as it gives them a greater sense of control. Gather supplies such as bottled water, flashlight, radio and so on and store them in an air tight garbage can. Gathering supplies and focusing on an emergency plan does two things – it helps restore your feeling of control and it distracts you from dwelling on negative and depressing thoughts.

One of the keys to managing your emotions is to distract yourself. Do things that are fun for you – exercising, reading, watch a comedy, go for a walk, enjoy nature, play with your kids.

When you notice your thoughts returning to the tragedy, gently redirect them to a memory of when you were happy and felt safe. I recommend to my clients to take mental snapshots of times when they are happy such as when they are playing in the back yard running through the sprinkler with their children. Then you can return to these mental pictures during stressful times.


Another key is to breathe deeply. Breathe into your abdomen or stomach area, not your chest. Focus on exhaling out ALL of the air in your lungs with each breath and filling your lungs completely with each inhale.


And still another key is to journal. Studies have shown that journaling helps reduce intrusive thoughts, which are negative thoughts that come into your head unwanted. Journaling helps to get rid of these which will improve your mood.


Keep your physical body in good shape in general to provide you with maximum energy. Staying in good physical shape gives you a greater sense of control of the environment around you. As we discussed earlier, a lot of the emotions that come up, arise due to a feeling of things being out of control. Having greater physical strength, greater flexibility, and more stamina all contribute to you having an increased sense of control over external events.

Also, for tragic events, when and if you get anxious, you may want to do activities that are relaxing such as yoga, meditation, walking, or stretching.

If you are angry or furious, any hearty physical activity such as jogging or swimming is a great way to work off strong negative emotions.

Soothing activities are helpful as well such as a shower or a warm bath.

You’ll want to avoid stimulants if you are anxious. Caffeine and sugar will increase your anxiety.

Other brief ideas:

Get back to your routine ASAP.

Help other people out. Best thing to do when you are down is focus your attention on helping others.

Symptoms of depression to watch out for:

In general, indicators of depression include changes in sleep habits – either too much or not enough, change in eating habits, significant weight gain or loss – more than approximately 5% body weight in a month, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, withdrawal from family and friends, family history of depression and/or anxiety, giving away valued items, complete lack of emotion, irritability, sadness, apathy (i.e., “I don’t care.”) fatigue, diminished ability to think or concentrate, and/or recurring thoughts of death and dying.

In younger children, depression appears as sadness, frustration, tiredness and anger. Younger children may appear more visibly depressed than adolescents (teenagers) and experience more physical complaints (e.g., headaches, stomachaches, etc.), fears, anxiety and nervousness. Teenagers tend to express more hopelessness, lack of any emotion at all, excessive sleeping, weight changes, and increased alcohol and/or drug use.

Find the positive in the pain

I challenge you to find your own personal positive meaning in this tragedy.

What does it represent to you? A call to action? A reminder to get in better shape? A motivation to learn to manage your thoughts and feelings? A second chance? An opportunity to do things right this time?

What are you going to LEARN from this?

Don’t sit by and passively watch another senseless tragedy go by. Use this to improve yourself and the world around you.

As Gandhi said, “You must be the change that you wish to see in the world.” That means you start with one individual – you. And you start changing you by changing what is on the inside.

The main reason for sadness is to help you adjust to a significant loss, such as the death of a family member or loss of an old friend. Sadness allows time to grieve, look inward at who you are and what you are doing with your life, and understand the meaning of the loss. One of the most important things is to figure out the meaning of the loss. The particular meaning you assign to the loss matters less than merely coming up with a meaning, any meaning for the loss. You are happier to the extent that you find a positive meaning in past events and relationships.

Just like anger builds upon itself, sadness builds upon sadness. So if your first sad thought is followed by more sad thoughts, you risk a downward spiral.
All emotion is meant to be temporary. Emotions are not permanent. They are merely passing by. You are better off to the extent that you can release them through deep breathing, exercise or journaling.

Snowball analogy for your thoughts

Imagine a snowball rolling down a large snow-covered mountain. At first, the snowball is the size of your fist, something you could easily pick up and control. However, as the snowball rolls down the hill, it picks up speed and grows exponentially. After a few yards, the snowball has increased in size to the point where you can no longer handle it by yourself. Given the right conditions, the snowball can grow to mammoth size and could cause damage to other people.

The snowball is exactly the same as our feelings. Each feeling starts out tiny and manageable. However, if you are not paying attention, the feeling grows and quickly becomes uncontrollable. In fact you only have about ½ a second to interrupt the process of negative emotions. However, it’s doable. You can do it. I’ll tell you how.
The most important thing in controlling negative emotions is nipping them in the bud. You have to tune in to your body’s cues. Your body will tell you when you are beginning to get angry, for instance. Blood rushes to your fists, your face may get red, your muscles tense, breathing becomes shallow, your jaw clenches, your eyebrows furrow and so on. We need to begin to tune in to these cues. You only have a split second in which you can interrupt the cycle of anger. Otherwise the anger builds upon itself and spirals out of control. So the first tip is to become more aware of your bodily cues. Every emotion has cues which reveal how we are feeling. Fear triggers blood flowing to the arms and legs, perspiration, raised eyebrows, and a constriction of the throat. Sadness is marked primarily by a drop in energy, tears welling up, and the longing for that which is gone. The trick is to tune into these cues quickly and interrupt the cycle.

The second tip is to understand that negative emotions are created in large part by your interpretation of the situation around you. So you can learn to change your interpretation of the world around you. Here’s one way to do this.

In stressful situations, ask yourself, “Will this matter ten years from now?” In most cases the answer is no, it won’t. If the answer is Yes, then ask yourself, “What can I do to help find a constructive solution to the problem?”

Some more quick tips to put a smile on your face:

Breathe deeply.

Take a bath or shower.

Get out in nature.

Refocus your mind on positive thoughts.

Force yourself to smile in the shower. Info in the brain travels in both directions.

And remember that this too will pass. While it may seem life-shattering now, life will improve, a smile will eventually return to your face, and you will be free to love again. When you get down, maintain a long-term perspective (e.g, view the event in terms of your entire lifespan). And never, never, never give up.

Goodbye, Nadine. You'll be missed.

All the best,

Dr. John

Guide To Self, Inc. (C) 2005-06


Post a Comment

<< Home