What to Do When Everything Feels Bad
Another news story about terrorists. Images of people suffering around the world. Political discourse that calls up the worst in us. Clients who have horrendous stories of pain. When it comes to feeling weighed down by the pressures of life, it’s not a question of “if” but a question of “when and how much.”
Whether from the stress of the job (difficult clients, losing a case, financial worries), difficulty in your personal life (relationship conflict, housing issues, debt), or the world at large (depressing international news, contentious politics, unending reports of violence), if you do not recognize the sources of your stress, you will feel powerless to do anything about it.
Suddenly, everything feels bad.
Lightening the Weight of the Stress
In these situations, you can feel depressed, hopeless, discouraged and emotionally drained. Even though you can objectively identify areas of your life that are going well (“I’m alive, I have food, I have a roof over my head … “), the weight of the stress can cloud feelings of gratitude and peace.
So what is one to do when everything feels bad? Try one of the following tips.
Recognize and express your pain. Franciscan friar Richard Rohr said, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” When we try to ignore or gloss over our pain, it comes out in various ways. Experiencing pain is uncomfortable, but ignoring the pain you are in will only intensify it. So, talk about what is bothering you; write it down; discuss it with others who are struggling. Recognize what you are feeling, whether it is due to a specific event, such as the loss of a relationship, or the cumulative effect of multiple minor stresses — the proverbial straw that breaks your back.
Increase your emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the awareness of one’s own and others’ emotional states and the factors that influence them. The more aware of how and why an event impacts you the way it does, the more you will be able to: 1) define the stress you are feeling as a finite entity (instead of it feeling vague and global); 2) recognize future sources of stress before they overwhelm you; and 3) have a clearer sense of what you can do to change your situation.
Take some concrete action. Feeling powerless will only worsen the sense of hopelessness. Identifying what you do and do not have control over is very important to regaining your sense of well-being. Even if the action you take will not change the actual stressor (you cannot change the traumatic events that occur in the world), exercising your sense of control can lighten the stress. For example, you can do something substantial like contributing money to an organization that helps the vulnerable. Or, you can do something small, such as taking the time to make eye contact with and offer a smile to someone who is typically marginalized. It can even be deciding that for a specific chunk of time each day, you will turn off the 24-hour news cycle and do something you enjoy instead.
Transforming your pain does not mean that you become numb or immune to it. It means the pain does not consume you and you become more resilient to the stress in your life.
Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist with Massachusetts Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc. (LCL). Shawn frequently runs stress management groups for law firms and has provided numerous training sessions on time and stress management to bar associations, solo attorneys and law firms. A frequent writer on the topics of conflict resolution, anxiety management, resilience and work-life balance, he is a contributor to the LCL blog and tweets for @LCL_MassLawyers.
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