So, my life has been a bit much lately. Between changing careers, moving to Berlin right before the pandemic, not knowing anyone here, and my wife’s cancer returning just in time for the second wave, there haven’t been many opportunities to live a good life. But the experience has taught me how to cope with chronic stress, and that’s what I wanted to share with you.

If you’re wondering how stressed or depressed I am right now; the answer is not at all. I’m calm and optimistic, even though I know that what lies ahead is no cakewalk.

Mind you, I’m no psychiatrist. If you feel like you’re losing it, you should seek out professional help.

Acute or Chronic, but Never Both

Many kinds of pain, including psychological pain, can be either acute or chronic, but never both. Some might argue that their pain or stress is both acute and chronic, but the fact that it’s chronic and they’re alive means they could bear much worse and still live.

Paradoxically most stress comes from struggling against it. Trying to ignore it. Finding distractions. Braving it out.

When you struggle against stress, and wish it weren’t a part of your life, you’re just making it worse. Stress is a natural part of human nature, and it is supposed to help you cope with hardship. It also tells you that things are not right, and to pay attention. When you ignore it, you start feeling bad because you feel bad. 

Feeling bad is okay. Let yourself feel bad. If you can, talk with other people, let them know things are not okay. Talk about your fears, and let them talk about theirs. It will bring you closer together.

Stress turns into depression only when you pretend things are fine. No one has ever become depressed from experiencing strong emotions. People usually become depressed because they suppress their feelings for too long.

Decatastrophizing

When you’re afraid of something—losing your job, being unable to pay rent, getting sick and landing in the hospital, or losing a loved one—it is too easy to become obsessed about the thing you fear. People tend to become stuck in that imaginary moment of peak emotions, like the moment they get fired, and that becomes the event horizon of their fear. They never look past it.

In reality, the event itself is never as bad as the fear leading up to it. Moreover, life always moves on. If you’re stressed about something, ask yourself this: “And then what?”

Say you’re fired. And then what? What happens immediately afterward? Do you stop doing laundry? Do you stop eating? Of course not. You call your friends, complain for a while. Go to Rewe and get some groceries for tomorrow. You check your bank balance and see how long you can last. You go online and check job boards. It’s late. You go to bed and rest. The next day you wake up, you still need to eat breakfast, and so on and so on… 

You can take the edge of the worst of your fears if you focus on what comes after, and try to describe it in a mundane, objective way.

You Can’t Control Your First Reaction, but You Can Control the Second

Mask-wearing arguments aside, you have no control over the pandemic. The event is external; it’s objective. Same as the turmoil it causes around the world, or what it does to the economy. You have as much say in current global events, as you do in the way the wind is blowing. You can’t control it.

Similarly, you can’t control your emotional response. Anger, stress, short temper, panic, desire to escape… Everyone reacts differently, but when shit happens, everyone experiences a visceral, instinctive response to the event. It’s built into you, and you have no say in it.

In stressful situations people tend to fixate on things they can’t control, and at the same time become blind to the ones they can.

If something happens and it stresses you out, that’s it. You’re stressed. No point fighting it, or trying to make your reaction something else. You can, however, notice how you feel, acknowledge it, and do something to change it. Like going for a walk, for example, or meditating, calling a friend, exercising, or whatever it is you do to relax.

There, I hope this isn’t too weird, and that it helps.

Enjoyed the read? Become a Patron to unlock access to more great stories, written and published regularly by yours truly, Sebastian Hetman. 

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