It would be redundant at this point to say that the past few years have been rough. We’ve had disease, war, environmental disaster, political tension, you name it. To be graduating college and moving on to a life with a 9-to-5 job in the middle of it has created for me an odd dissonance between the world outside and the uncertain future I am trying to build. The life transitions are seemingly endless!
Add to that the constant barrage of terrible news and a few unfortunate personal events, and I’ve ended up feeling more than a bit overwhelmed. Coping mechanisms need to be manually done before they can become automatic, so I thought I’d identify the specific habits and mindsets I’ve been learning to help me get through.
I’ve broken up my strategies into three main categories:
- Minimizing Distress: The things I’ve found have been important when calming myself down long-term, not just short-term.
- Handling Uncertainty: Navigating the unknown of these “unprecedented times” (raise your hand if you’re tired of hearing that one).
- Centering: What focusing on the self really means and why it’s important.
Social media has been there for my entire life, including immediate access to every single bad thing currently happening in the world. It can be hard to look away from it all. There are aspects of guilt, tension, and addiction to watching everything go wrong. Much of what we have access to at the click of a button is distressing. And although it isn’t good to isolate yourself and ignore what’s happening, it’s not good to be constantly plugged into it either.
A recently-coined term for the phenomenon of being unable to look away from distressing news from social media is doom-scrolling. Especially with all the things that have happened in the past few years, this information stream can feel necessary, like keeping one eye open for the next world-changing event. However, chances are this doesn’t bring you peace of mind — I know personally that it has done nothing but make me even more on edge.
It’s important to recognize when consuming news content is an addiction to fear, and figure out how to force yourself away from it. It isn’t that you shouldn’t care about what goes on in the world; do what you can! Donate to causes you believe in or participate in concrete actions to help. However, simply witnessing and internalizing all of the distress of the world is not healthy, so don’t hurt yourself by scrolling endlessly through news stories. It doesn’t actually help.
Identify what you’re avoiding.
It’d be naive of me to claim I’m not avoiding anything: important conversations, doctor’s appointments, tasks on my to-do list, etc. Confronting the fact that I am avoiding things has been surprisingly calming; I’m acknowledging not just the task at hand but also the way I am dreading it. It’s important to examine that fear and try to figure out why it exists so that you’re not ruminating on it forever.
In reality, running away from things is stressful. It can feel easy at first, but after a while, the task you’re avoiding just becomes insurmountable and you can’t stop thinking about it. It’s often a lot easier to recognize that you’re avoiding something than it is to punish yourself for not having done it already (and a lot more soothing, in the end).
Distress is a mental reaction to stressors, but people aren’t lying when they say it’s physical as well. You hold it in your body too, and it affects your health. Sometimes if you can’t stop ruminating, physically doing something to release physical tension can help a lot.
One aspect of this is the vagus nerve or your parasympathetic nervous system. This controls a lot of your involuntary actions, but it’s also one of the first things to create physical sensations connected to panic. I’ve found that both cold packs and heat packs along the center of my ribcage provide a calming effect, and it’s all due to literally heating and/or cooling down the vagus nerve located there.
Another way to get out nervous energy is motion. Whether that’s slowly stretching out places you feel tension or actively releasing pent-up energy, the choices are endless. Pay attention less to the feelings of distress and more attention to where you feel them. Is it your shoulders and head? Do you feel restless? I know that, in my anxious states, I tend to lose connection to what I’m feeling inside, and ultimately that just keeps me in that state of constant stress. Releasing and feeling the physicality of it all can really help overcome it. Dancing, stretching, exercising, walking, literally shaking it out, are all things you can do immediately to release the physical results of stress from your body.
The future is always uncertain, and that is overwhelming. But when it comes to truly managing major life transitions, there are concrete steps you can take to make the uncertain feel less daunting.
Check your inventory.
There’s a reason so many video games have inventory mechanics; people have stuff and it’s incredibly important to be able to know what that stuff is. It’s a lot easier to craft a Minecraft recipe if you know what ingredients you have. Trying to build something when you know nothing about what you own is nearly impossible.
Try identifying things in a few different categories:
- Your support system. Who can you lean on and trust?
- Your connections. Who do you know that knows someone else or has resources you can tap into? They may not necessarily be people you can really depend on, but they may be able to give you an email, phone number, recommendation, etc.
- Necessary resources. This is your food, water, shelter, and finances, as well as your access to all of these things. It’s important to know everything about what you have.
- Your nice things. It’s important to have things you enjoy, no matter what. Keep the things that bring you joy in mind too.
Make a plan.
Life changes come with a lot of unknowns. After going over everything you do have, you can start to piece together what you can do to reach your goals. How to make a plan is incredibly personal and specific; I’d grab a pen and paper/some other method of externalizing your thoughts. Try to figure out tentatively what items from your personal inventory will take you where you want to go.
I have a spreadsheet. I like being able to periodically go in and update it with current information and see how it impacts my goals. My friend likes journaling about it all so that they can look back on where they were before and externalize where they are now. It can help to have evidence of your plan, something to look at and update and shape into what you want it to be. Whatever your plan is, make it something you can interact with and change as your life changes.
Consult with others
Many are familiar with the concept of passing down knowledge from generation to generation, but as our world changes so rapidly around us a lot of things are new and daunting. That being said, you still likely are not the first person to ever encounter these issues. Ask other people for help and consultation, it will make so much of a difference. If you have people in your life who would know how to help you, don’t be afraid to ask them. Otherwise, the internet is a great resource, especially places like Reddit or Quora, which exist to give people the ability to ask questions and get answers.
The right questions will get you a lot of places. Once you can identify trustworthy and reliable sources of information and guidance, use them! You don’t have to do everything alone.
When so many things are happening to and around you, it’s really easy to forget about, well, you! I know I often feel like things are just happening to me, rather than being a part of my life. In reality, the reason you’re doing any of this life thing is you: your well-being, your success, your happiness, your stability. You are at the center of it all. These life transitions and major life events as we all grow older are part of making you who you are. You are not without agency.
The plans you make, the things you do, the changes you support, they all come from you. Center yourself.
I hope these tips are as helpful to others as they have been to me. Wherever you are in life, major transitions are hard. Acknowledging distress, forming concrete actions, and centering yourself and your values are all great tools for making sure you are okay through them all.