A Guide To Surviving Life For The Chronically Stressed And Anxious
Recently I’ve been asked this question really frequently by various people.
“I’m always stressed out or anxious about various things that are happening in my life! How do I become less anxious?”
Often, what people really mean by this question is: “Is there a quick fix to get rid of stress and anxiety because I really, really hate it! Plus, I want to keep doing things the way I’ve been doing them, even though I know somewhere in the corner of my mind that it’s what’s slowly killing me.”
I’ve usually hmmm’d and haaaaah’d over these questions because the answer is not simple. In fact, the answer to these kinds of questions is…bulky.
So I got to thinking about how to explain the answer (and solution) to people. It starts with an explanation, so brace yourself.
One feature of anxiety is about trying to predict and control the unpredictable and uncontrollable – an endeavor set to fail. We end up in a pattern of predicting and planning that provokes more anxiety, which in turn drives us to plan and predict some more.
It becomes an Orob-Orus Worm forever biting its own tail.
Another way of looking at anxiety is that it’s a futile and excruciating way of trying to control the Whole of Life. No prices for guessing how that’ll turn out.
A (Maybe) Better Way
Instead of trying to control every aspect of life, let me offer another approach based on what I’ve learnt from my clients and on my own. I’ve searched for a way to put it together and something from my home island of Singapore seems to do nicely.
For those of us “privileged” to be drafted into the Singaporean military services, we would be extremely familiar with the acronym: F.B.O.
It’s an acronym for Full Battle Order (not read as “FOB” please!) and is the soldier’s best friend. What it is, is a basic and personalized pack of tools and resources we carry with us, enabling us to be agile, mobile and survive in really, really tough conditions.
So what goes into your FBO?
• Your uniform – camouflage wear and boots
• Your helmet with mesh netting and artificial foliage so you look like a small, mobile tree
• Your Skeletal Battle Order (acronym: SBO, not read as “SOB”) – containing magazine and poncho pouches, a toggle rope, and water bottle pouches attached; all forming a rough vest you can wear
• Your field pack – which is a waterproof backpack containing anything from clothing, to food, navigational equipment, to cooking equipment, first aid kit, and whatever you can put into it
• And of course, your rifle with bayonet (to stab someone if needed)
You can wear and carry the lot on your body and track for miles in this way. With the FBO, the soldier can survive almost anything (if used wisely).
Much the same way, if we built a FBO of our own, a Relational Emotional FBO, then we can survive almost anything life throws our way. We don’t need to try to predict and control what we don’t yet know. Because we know we can whip stuff up from our FBO, to put into various unique and creative combinations to deal with whatever happens to us.
An Approach In A Word
Note, I keep emphasizing the word “survive”. This is an important word. It speaks of the attitude of a soldier – to survive. It doesn’t mean you don’t get hurt and come away without scars. It doesn’t mean you’ll handle things perfectly, because you can’t. Not really. Perfection is for toy soldiers in computer games with multiple re-do’s.
This is life. It’s supposed to be messy because it operates on probability and the illusion of human control.
So the best we can hope to do is to survive.
Good, now that that’s out of the way, we can look at what we can stock in our FBOs.
Packing Your FBO
Often neglected but very important. To mean, these are like your Swiss-Army Knife. Handy in opening canned food rations or your enemy’s giblets. Here are some of what I would pack for myself:
Essentially, Focusing is a holistic method of delving into emotions at the mental and bodily levels to change them deeply. Once we can change these emotions, we would be better able to deal with the things Life throws at us. (We’ve written extensively on this skill. Please see all our previous posts or get one of our books to learn more about what it is and how to do it.)
The Change Triangle
I’ve written a post on this previously. It’s a nice map to help us place and navigate our various emotions, and can be combined well with Focusing.
Methods to cool down overheated emotions.
These are important because we can’t think or Focus or use the Change Triangle when we are in full on Flight-or-Fight-or-Freeze mode. It’s like being shot with a bullet. The first order of the day is to staunch the blood, stay alive and deal with the pain. These are usually methods to calm down the entire body such as controlled breathing, rhythmic breathing, hugging a pillow, running or pacing, stroking your fore-arms and so forth. Look back at what has calmed you down in the past and incorporate them into your FBO.
Mindfulness is about snapping back into the present moment when we get carried away by our emotions or thoughts. There’s a vast literature out there about various methods of mindfulness, so spend some time finding out which ones sit well with you. For instance, simply bringing your awareness back to your posture (a method used in Zen Buddhism) snaps you into the present.
Feel good activities
To me, these are like sustenance for our Emotional Selves. Just as our brains thrive on mental activity, our Emotional Selves (Emotional Brains) need to be feed. One good way is to engage in small feel good activities throughout the day. Think of it as your Emotional Selves snacking. The list of these activities is really infinite, depending on what really sails your ship for you. For me, it’s watching funny YouTube videos and making art. For others, it might be exercise or a spot of Yoga. Or gardening. Or cooking. Or eating. Any healthy thing that gets the ol’ endorphins going would do. One of my clients said something that’s taken root in my head: “I always come a little bit alive when I’m doing something that’s magical. Cooking. Making craft. Seeing things change in tiny ways. Any thing that involves a little bit of the magic and alchemy of life.” Do what’s magical for you.
Any healthy methods and techniques that have ever worked for you when it comes to managing your own emotions.
Maps and Information
We’ve got a brain, so we might as well use it. This category of tools includes:
This includes your knowledge about how emotions work, your abilities and skills, resources out in your community and practical information (like how to pay taxes – a major stressor). Knowledge is anything that would give you an edge, really. Naturally, I would count Self-knowledge as priority here. This includes knowing your weaknesses and strengths, how you tend to think and react (the Change Triangle is useful here), what you’re afraid of and alsowhat you have been capable of.
A Map of Past Successes (Or at least not screwing up too badly)
Ditto the previous point. Make a map or collection of memories where you’ve succeeded when Life throws you shit, or at least survived. Really play these back in detail and notice HOW you’ve managed in these instances, to survive. What did it take for you to achieve this? What steps did you take – practically, mentally and emotionally? What does it say about you? This map not only reminds you of what you’re capable of (a confidence boost in a time of need), but also what you’ve DONE to achieve it. You might be able to use these to help you cope with the current Trouble.
Values and purpose
Sounds abstract doesn’t it? And yet values and purpose are very powerful carrots or sticks that keep us going, even when we’re depleted of any other resource.
What gets you going every day?
What allows you to pick yourself up again?
What’s so important to you that you can’t afford to give up?
What gives you a little bit of a spark when you think of doing it? Why?
Look at the growth-based things you keep doing, what drives you to do them?
What is your personal life philosophy?
How do you want to live your life and conduct yourself?
A reminder of your values and purpose (however vaguely defined they are) helps you take that one more small step forward, through the muck and mess of Life.
The right kinds of attitude(s)
Attitudes are specific ways we think about and judge something, including Life and ourselves. Some helpful attitudes include:
We can screw up and pick up from where we left.
As long as you’re not dead, you can keep going on ahead.
There’s always room to grow.
What’s perfect ain’t ever alive.
You don’t get points for doing well anyways, so just get through whatever is in front of you the best you can.
Life never goes in a straight line, so make the most of detours.
Life’s fucked up and yet we’ll be ok.
I’ve found that these attitudes have served me quite well to navigate some rather upsetting things, because they are realistic.
Mental Strategy: Clever Compartmentalization of life
I learnt this from my clients. More than one person has told me that if they work hard to compartmentalize their lives when it gets messy, that it really helps them cope. Compartmentalizing in this case means to deliberate put Life into small packages, and to deal with each package at a time. This is especially useful for a workplace kind of stress. You break tasks down into small, doable bits and tackle the small bits. That way, you would also know what is doable and what needs to be temporarily shelved. Another way to compartmentalize is to separate the things that are going well in your life from those that aren’t, so that you can take a break in the latter and tackle the formal. At the very least, you wouldn’t feel like your whole Life is a complete, utter mess. A common way to compartmentalize is to the separation of work and personal life. You see how it goes? There’s an infinite way that you can compartmentalize the parts of your life to make it manageable.
Rituals are personally meaningful routines that help us feel in control, and safe. They don’t have to make sense. Personally meaningful does not equals to being logical. It helps to have small, daily rituals to follow, especially when Life gets real messy and chaotic. These rituals will become like little oases that string together to form a lifeline, which gets you through the day. Some rituals are religious and they don’t have to be as well. For instance, taking time to have your morning cigarette is a ritual. My Dad does his daily Tai Chi routine without fail, and that helps start his day. Put together a few rituals that have meaning for you, and do them daily.
People and Connections
Man is not an island (or some such saying like that). In the case of emotions, and intense ones, this is especially true. Emotions are best taken care of together with (someone) – like a baby being taken care of by the whole village. One reason is because when we get caught up in our stress and anxiety, we get disconnected from reality (which includes, surprise, surprise, other people). Then we feel completely alone in our emotional struggles, which feeds them. Making connections of any kind really helps to bring us back the present, and also helps us contain the emotions. Here are some tools that can go into your FBO:
This is both about feeling connected, but also being practical. Sometimes, you simply can’t take on the world alone. Just as no battle is won by a single soldier (despite Hollywood’s best attempts to suggest otherwise), sometimes Life is best tackled together. It also helps to think, from a connection point of view, of delegating tasks as a way of sharing. People share their time and resources to help you, and in future, you help them back or pay it forward. This can help you live your values and also build that sense of community.
Share – be vulnerable
The value of connecting is to not feel alone. But beyond aloneness, in the world of Focusing, the quality of our connection with someone with whom we trust and feel safe can really start the process of emotional change. Sharing your emotions with someone is a very vulnerable and risky business, but as with investments of these kinds, can reap huge (healing) benefits. The trick is also to collect a “list” of people who can provide the type of compassionate, kind and curious connection that encourages you to share how you feel.
Connect with something living
If you can’t yet find that someone whom you can take the risk to share with, then the next best thing is to connect in some way with someone or something living. Besides people, animals and nature are really powerful connections you can make. Sometimes, animals can provide the kind of connection that allows you to open up to your own deep emotions, enough to help them start to transform.
Finally, it also helps to connect to a sense of that something that is bigger than our individual selves. This could be to a deity, to a cause, to a philosophy or to a movement. It doesn’t have to involve religion or doctrines. It just has to work for you.
So there you have it folks, a whirlwind tour of a very complex answer to a very complex question. I could go on at length about each tool or resource listed above but that’ll make this post a book! What’s more important is for you to start NOW, to gather things that would go into your Relational Emotional FBO. You might be gathering them for the rest of your life, because you can always learn something new! The next step is to become good at their use so that you can TRUST them to help you survive Life!