How to Cope with Really Big Challenges

I started Living the Mess because it made me feel better to write about practices that helped me in difficult times; something about writing them out “anchored” them in me. And then it turned out, those posts helped other people, too.

Then life got comfortable for a while. I had a big contract; I paid off a five-figure debt, gave away close to five figures, and paid more in taxes than I’d ever earned in a single year—and I was thrilled to do every one of those things. Plus, for the first time in my life, I had a savings buffer. That contract ended in December, and I started 2016 by alternating small projects with working on my websites and fine-tuning my business positioning. I took some business development courses and met with a high-level business coach. 

I figured it would take a month or so to find the first new client. 

I figured wrong.

I emailed everyone I knew and about a hundred potential clients I’d never met. Previous clients hired me for bits and pieces of work, but by June, I was concerned, and by August, my savings had run out. In September—behind on rent and bills, uncertain how I would feed myself (and my cat)—I freaked out. Despite meditating every day, I lost my footing.

The upside of having had this eclectic practice for six years is that the mind doesn’t get as worked up as it used to. It takes a lot more to stress me out. I’m comfortable with most uncertainty. Even when I have only a few dollars to my name, as long as I’ve set aside enough to cover rent and bills, and I have work coming in, the mind (and emotions) stay pretty calm.

I can notice the occasional thought patterns that threaten to pull me into a spiral (“I’m completely alone” “Nobody understands what this feels like” or that old classic, “This shouldn’t be happening”), and by noticing them, I can see that these are ephemeral, not “true” statements; they don’t latch onto me emotionally. And I know that, in the big picture, nothing is wrong. This is just life. 

However… when I’m down to $2.42 in my bank account, and I don’t have a project lined up, or I don’t know where the next month’s rent will come from, it becomes significantly harder to observe my thoughts. I start believing them, and that leads to misery. The thoughts, objectively, are no more “true” than they were when I had a few more dollars (or when I had plenty of money), but they seem to find a way to hook me.

To go further, when I’m behind on rent, and my cat’s food and medicine are running out and none of my reaching-out efforts seem to be working…all bets are off. The larger part of me is fine, sure, but that’s not the part that needs food and shelter. 

Hunger, especially involuntary hunger, affects not only physical energy, but also cognition and emotions. When hunger enters the picture, we’re working with a deck stacked in the wrong direction. It’s not possible (in my experience) to reach the same level of equilibrium when one’s body and brain is lacking the nutrition it needs. Back at the end of 2012, I’d landed a contract and was promptly fired before my first paycheque for careless mistakes I made because I was hungry and my brain wasn’t working properly.

The Experience of Being “Underwater”

I use the phrase “underwater” because that’s what it feels like. It feels like I’m alone, I’m drowning, and I can’t even remember that a toolkit exists, much less have the awareness to reach for it or practice it. Everybody else seems to exist in a different dimension, a different world. The contentedness and connection with Life I usually feel, too, evaporates. That Maslow guy had a point: When our basic needs aren’t being met, our survival instincts kick in, and the vast majority of our energy goes towards trying to get those needs met.

“Underwater” is, subjectively, a terrifying place. The world feels alien and hostile, even though I’m the one who’s hostile and alienated. Anxiety and depression cloud over any awareness I have. I’m prone to snap at people, even—especially—those closest to me. Unless I’m specifically focused on generosity, I feel annoyed with strangers. Annoyed with their presence (I vant to be alone), their pace (too slow or urgent), their laughter (how dare they!). I radiate a cloud of Pigpen-like negativity. These episodes generally last anywhere from two to four hours before they pass (and, like all emotional thunderstorms, they do pass).

Finding Peace During Difficult Times

When I’m underwater, I can’t remember the tools to use. But I’ve been practicing long enough that sooner or later, awareness breaks through, I surface, and I remember that I have a toolkit. Each of these could be a separate post (and maybe someday will be), but when faced with extreme challenges, it takes all of these together to keep me afloat. In other words, this isn’t “15 different ways to cope with challenges.” It’s one way, with 15 components. I say this because it’s misleading to pretend that one of these, alone, can transform how you’re feeling when you’re dealing with survival-level issues. Each one helps, but I want to be clear that during  these times, finding inner peace is a full-time job for me. You may benefit from more, less or different practices. 

1. Breathing. The first thing I do is come back to the breath. I feel the breath in my abdomen, wherever I am. It immediately brings me back to the moment. The mind can still be racing and taunting me, but the more I focus on the breath, the less power the mind has to hook me. It’s like a shortcut to meditating, without having to actually be sitting down.

 2. Meditation. The mind is good at strategizing (one of the few things the intellect does well), so when I give it permission to strategize, it almost always then tries to take charge overall. For example, it will tell me it’s too busy strategizing to meditate. Uh, right. Meditation is one of the practices that almost always calms me down immediately. That’s a bit disingenuous, though: First it helps me see what thoughts are making me feel like crap, and then it (sometimes) helps me see that those thoughts aren’t true in an absolute sense. Sometimes, though, my meditation feels more like “sitting and thinking.”

3. Walking. I always walk—that’s how I get my best ideas, and it’s my primary form of transportation—but walking is particularly important when there’s a lot of resistance in me (and being underwater is being in complete resistance). For the past two months, I haven’t had a bus pass, so I’ve been walking even more. Walking physically moves energy through me. Not always completely, but as long as I walk at least four miles or so, something usually shifts by the end.

4. Fierce Presence. Eckhart Tolle has a line about how challenging times are like being in the fog, and presence is a flashlight that cuts through the fog. It doesn’t show you what’s ahead, but only what’s right at your feet, the very next step. Focusing intensely on physical sensations (without attaching stories to them) can quiet the mind and interrupt the endless looping of thoughts. For example, the feel of the breeze on my face, the sound of cars or birds or people talking, the crunch of leaves underfoot, the rough feel of a tree trunk beneath my palm, or even the tightness in my chest. 

5. Limiting social media. At the best of times, social media is nothing but an endless scroll of other people’s thoughts, presented as fact. I consistently notice an inverse correlation between the amount of time I spend on social media, and my emotional well-being. Twitter, in particular, has a way of looking supremely vapid when I’m behind on bills and some “spiritual teacher” is literally tweeting the phrase “Good energy!! RT for good karma!!” decorated by iOS ‘star’ emoji. (It’s almost worse to see that it has 342 retweets.)

6. Spending time in nature. I haven’t been able to spend as much time on Newcastle Island this year, which is too bad, because Newcastle is a magical place. But I live in a town that’s infused with nature, and I make a conscious effort to engage with it, whether that’s walking through a park, watching the trees change ever so slightly each day, looking closely at flowers, making eye contact with the dogs I pass, or even watching ecosystems emerge with hundreds of species in an empty lot…there are a million ways to interact with nature. As often as possible, I stand on a patch of earth and imagine all my worries flowing out the bottom of my feet, down deep into the earth. 

7. Giving. When I don’t have money to give, I make an effort to give in other ways: Used books to a community book exchange; taking photos of tourists; letting someone else go ahead of me on a narrow path; giving patience to someone who just needs to talk. Getting out of my head for a moment (or more) is a surefire mood-booster. It may only last 30 seconds, but it reminds me of the abundance I do have in my life.

8. Appreciation. This is not about pushing away unpleasant feelings, or finding a “silver lining,” but recognizing that the world is bigger than this situation, this anxiety. When I can appreciate things around me—from a mural on a Hydro box, to new flowers planted along the city streets, to my cat’s quirky purr, that practice shifts my focus from negative rumination. Each night, I use a Gratitude Journal app to list as many things as I can that I appreciate and/or am grateful for. Conventional wisdom says to list five unique things (or three) each day, but I’ve found that, in difficult times, listing everything I can think of is much more effective (this usually comes to 20-30 items). Gratitude, as someone wrote last year, does change the brain.

9. Noticing unhelpful thoughts. This builds on mindfulness and meditation, because those are the ways I learned to notice any thoughts at all. The most frequent flyers in my mind are worry and fear. These don’t solve anything. They just makes us miserable about whatever it is we can’t solve. That doesn’t always stop my mind from spiraling, but occasionally, if I can catch the thoughts early enough, I can deflect them and bring the mind back to more useful tasks.

10. Feeling emotions fully. The lifespan of an emotion in the body, according to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, is 90 seconds. Our thoughts latch onto emotions and keep them whirling around for much, much, muuuuuuch longer. Like days. Or weeks. Once I’m aware of my thought patterns and how they’re keeping painful emotions stuck in the body, I focus on feeling the sensations in my body (prickliness in the chest, heaviness in the stomach, tightness in the throat) without attaching thoughts to them (side note: it took me a while to learn this, and it does get easier with practice). When I can fully feel whatever it is I’m feeling, as a bodily sensation and not a story in the mind, often the energy of the emotion will shift (indicated by a yawn, belch, runny nose or watery eyes).

11. Yelling. Ok, this isn’t an everyday practice, but I rarely do it when things are going smoothly. Sometimes it feels like pressure is building up inside me, physically, and if I don’t let it out, my body will explode. Exercise is a great way to let off steam, but so is screaming into a pillow (I don’t want to alarm the neighbours), without attaching any story to the sound. It’s like opening a valve on a steam kettle.

12. Accepting resistance. When all else fails, I try to accept that this is how I feel in this moment. Just that acknowledgement can help ease the pain a tiny bit. Sometimes I beat myself up for feeling resistance, yet as the saying goes, that’s effectively shooting myself with a second arrow. Resistance is painful enough. Why add the pain of guilt or shame to it?

13. Recognizing impermanence. I also recognize that, although in absolute terms, the present moment is all we have, this situation isn’t going to last forever. I don’t know how it will change, or what that will look like, but something will change.

14. Let go, let go, let go. I have control over my actions, but I don’t have control over the outcome. To quote Tara Brach (who may, in turn, have been quoting someone else), “If you let go a little, you’ll find a little peace. If you let go a lot, you’ll find a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you’ll find absolute peace and tranquility.” When I’m resurfacing from having been underwater, often “a little” is all I can manage. It’s much easier to let go absolutely when the issue is, say, someone cutting in line. And yet it’s during the most difficult times that this practice is the most beneficial.

15. Taking action (if possible). If there’s action I can take (related to the issue at hand), I take it. The key is that action taken from a place of panic is unlikely to be useful. Fear seeps through through language choices, sentence structure and myriad other ways. So I do my best to get the inside right first, then I send emails to potential clients, write blog posts and promote them on social media or send out periodic newsletters. At best, this improves my visibility; at the very least, it gives me the sense that I’m doing everything I can—internally and externally—to turn the situation around.

(I put this last because sometimes, no action can be taken. It depends on the situation. If someone you love has died, for example, there’s nothing you can do to bring them back. In those situations, I’ve found the most helpful thing is to recognize that I’m resisting what is, and that my pain comes from the resistance (usually) as much as from the situation itself.)

Bonus: 16. Harry Potter. I don’t have a television, so (fortunately) I can’t go down that rabbit hole. I do, however, have audiobooks of all seven Harry Potters, given to me by an old friend back in 2007, when depression was so deep that I couldn’t get out of bed. These are the UK ones; Stephen Fry performs every single role, and they’re better than the movies (the link is to the Jim Dale narration). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve listened to them, but I find them soothing. Of course, Harry Potter might not be your thing. The point is, sometimes, simple distractions help.

What are your go-to practices when the going gets (really, really) tough?

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Sarah Chauncey

For more than two decades, I struggled multiple treatment-resistant mood disorders. I spent more than 20 years in psychodynamic therapy and tried 18 different medications. In 2010, I began searching for ways to rewire my brain naturally for inner peace. I write about the practices and insights that have improved my mental, physical and spiritual health.