How to Digest Something When You Didn’t Choose to Eat It || By Stephanie Boulton, MA, LPCC
Of course, I’m not talking about food; I’m alluding to changes that happen to us that we didn’t choose to make, the things that don’t really fall under our control, like the price of eggs, being laid off, or having a family member push our boundaries. This also includes but definitely is not limited to: traffic jams, pets getting sick, the power steering dying in your car, snow storms, and dealing with almost anything bureaucratic, your pipes bursting during a cold snap…
These things happen on the regular, as predicting life is impossible. And most of time I imagine it is not that hard to go with the flow, and take it in stride. But too many things happening to us that are out of our control all at once, and our bodies and minds will start to buckle under the strain. It can be overwhelming, and too much.
In his book about the causes of depression, Lost Connections, Johann Hari cites a very interesting study done about depression in the UK. This was a study of thousands of people working in the tax service in London. They found that people higher up, i.e., the managers and those with more power and responsibility in their positions, had reduced stress and were many times less likely to develop depression than the people in lower positions who had less control in their work environment. This finding wasn’t correlated to pay, but the power and control people had over their job environment.
Having agency and control is greatly related to having lower rates of depression.
Although I would love to get on a soapbox and talk about how our economy and society impacts our mental health, I don’t have time for it here, nor do you likely have the patience for it as you are living it. But, I will offer some gentle suggestions and reminders of how to take care of ourselves when life feels out of our control, when there are really big stressors piling up that we didn’t choose.
- Ask yourself if there is a way to be in an action stance. Putting our minds and bodies into an action stance rather than collapse helps our cortisol levels immensely. And this doesn’t even need to be fighting or changing what you can’t. It could include writing a letter to your congressperson, cooking some meals to freeze, blogging, cleaning your house, hiking. These sorts of activities move your body and help you process the emotions.
- Make sure to take time to digest. I was reminded the other day of how driving with pleasant music gives me space to think. Coloring, going for walks, and cooking can all be activities that facilitate processing feelings and information. Our brains literally need more time and space to process big changes, so give it space to do so.
- Remember the difference between a state of collapse and rest. Collapse is when you are so overwhelmed or tired that you pick up your phone and scroll, or watch TV. You may feel fine while doing it but after several hours, you feel just as depleted as when you started. Rest is allowing yourself to feel the feelings, let your brain wander, and tune into your body. Rest provides energy. It can be very tempting to look at your phone when feeling overwhelmed, and I’m not saying it’s never healthy, but notice if you are moving into a state of collapse and take a moment to notice the urge to tune out, and see if you can move into a state of rest even if it is more uncomfortable for the short term. There are four things we need to move back into a state of rest: time, movement, body-awareness, and connection… which leads us into the next reminder.
- The impulse to isolate is a stress response and it can be mighty tempting. Connecting with others does wonders in lowering our stress levels. Not to mention is the best antidote to shame. Remember to tend to your community and ask for help in times of stress, despite how vulnerable it can make you feel. I also recommend reading this short article in The Guardian about combatting learned loneliness. Animals are an amazing stand-in for people too!
Stephanie Boulton, MA, LPCC (she/her), is a therapist in private practice. She specializes in working with clients’ relationships with mind, food, body and others at the intersection of self and society. She works online serving Colorado residents and in-person in Boulder. In her spare time, she loves spending time with her pets, in the garden, reading, writing and crossword puzzles. You can find her at soulterracounseling.com.