Sometimes life throws more at us than we feel we can bear. But there are some simple things we can do to help us get through really tough times.
Recently, I have been experiencing some really tough times. I’ve had a month when everything has gone wrong, from a serious illness in the family to a leaking roof, broken laptop and unpaid invoices. I reached the point when I thought that one more thing would break me. Then my washing machine broke down. I have to admit I felt anger and despair. It felt like the universe was against me. And I didn’t know how I would go on.
But a few things got me through and, though times are still difficult, I feel more able to manage what is going on in my life.
If you are experiencing tough times at the moment I hope that some of these steps might help you, too. I know I can’t solve your problems, but I hope these tips may support and sustain you when the world seems a bleak and difficult place.
1. Allow yourself to feel your feelings
When I have been struggling through some of my darkest moments I have often felt guilty. I tell myself there are people worse off than me. I criticise myself for not being grateful for all that I have. But I have realised that my feelings are valid. It is okay for me to feel sadness, desperation, anger and resentment when I am going through tough times.
Instead of trying to stay positive and upbeat all the time, I have allowed myself to express these feelings. I have cried and howled at the universe and let myself feel the despair and pain. Letting it all out is sometimes the only way to move beyond the pain.
Sometimes it is hard to find a way to express our pain. Each of us is different and we have to find what makes us feel a little better. For me, finding a quiet place in nature to have a good cry has helped (I really hate crying in front of other people). I have also shouted at the universe while desperately hoping no passer-by hears me.
You may find different things help. Perhaps punching a pillow, crying with a friend, writing down your feelings or scrubbing floors.The point is to find a way to express your feelings in a healthy way rather than trying to suppress how you really feel. This also helps to make sure your emotions don’t suddenly burst out in unhealthy and destructive ways.
2. Maintain basic self-care
This one is really hard. When life is throwing problems and obstacles at you in a constant stream you feel like you are in crisis mode. You want relief from these problems and the quickest way to get it seems to be to take action. While this can be true, without looking after yourself you will burn out and become less effective.
Looking after yourself is particularly hard when other people are relying on you, especially if they are suffering, vulnerable and in pain. It can be so hard to take a moment to look after yourself. But I have learnt the hard way that I am not able to help others if I do not take care of myself. If I get burned out, sick, irritable and overwhelmed I am of little use to anyone.
So I have developed a list of the minimum things I need to do to stay well, keep my strength up and keep a certain degree of emotional balance. These include:
- Eating well
- Getting enough rest
- Getting showered and making myself presentable each day
- Keeping part of my day for something relaxing that helps me forget my troubles for half an hour.
3. Do what you need to avoid burnout
Whenever possible I also like to get out in nature and enjoy one of my hobbies such as reading or painting. I admit that there are times when these activities do get pushed aside as emergencies arise. But I have learnt that I MUST take care of myself if I am to be of any use to myself and others. My body and mind soon let me know when I don’t stick to my list. I get fatigued, emotional, irritable and sick. My shoulders and neck start to ache and I have trouble sleeping. I also have an anxious knot in my stomach all of the time.
If you are experiencing physical and emotional symptoms of any kind remember this is a sign from your body to take better care of yourself. Consider it a warning that burnout could be imminent. Stay healthy and well for your sake and the benefit of those who are relying on you. It’s not selfish to take this time, it is necessary.
I know that when you have a million things to do and a dozen people to keep happy, looking after yourself seems like an impossible task, but you must find a way to carve out the time for the things that keep you well.
4. Don’t be so hard on yourself
We can often be our own worst critics. I have frequently got myself into an emotional turmoil worrying about where I went wrong and how I ended up in my current situation. Too often, I beat myself up about the mistakes I have made and the things I should have done differently. I get so confused about what to do and how to make things better, that I don’t even know where to start. Sometimes, I even see my misfortunes as a kind of punishment or lesson from the universe that I have failed to learn. But thinking like this doesn’t help me get through the tough times.
I have learned that I have to accept myself the way I am. I am not broken, and I don’t need fixing. Yes, I have flaws and faults but these don’t make me a bad person. They make me human. I can try to overcome my faults and learn and grow, but ultimately I must learn to love and accept myself the way I am. I must forgive myself for what I perceive as my failings and mistakes. Self-pity and living in the past will not help me move forward today.
5. Take one step at a time
I am frequently overwhelmed by the challenges of my life and by the challenges of being me. When I feel like this, everything seems hopeless. I feel like a complete failure who will never achieve anything in life. I have learnt that the only thing I can do at these times is to take life one step at a time. When my to-do list is pages long, I choose the three most essential items and make a start on the most important one. Overwhelm makes me feel stuck and trapped. Focusing on just one thing helps me to escape this cycle.
I don’t always manage this. Some days I flit from one thing to another and seem to get nowhere. But I know that wherever I am in my day I have the power to turn my day around, or at least to get to bed and hope that the next day will be easier.
6. Talk to someone
We all need someone to talk to at times. I would not have been able to get through the tough times in life without my family and friends. Sometimes you just need to vent your emotions. They say a trouble shared is a trouble halved and I have often, though not always, found this to be true. Be careful who you choose to talk to. It should be someone you trust and who you know will support you. You need someone who will listen, without judging or diminishing your feelings. Often it helps if they have a little distance from the situation you want to talk about. It can be hard to be completely open and honest with our nearest and dearest, especially if we think our feelings might cause them pain. Sometimes, you might need to find a counsellor or therapist to talk to.
Having said that, it is also important to keep communication with your loved ones. Misunderstandings can creep in when we try to hide what we feel, even if we are doing it to protect the other person.
7. Ask for help
When we face troubles, we may need to lean on others for support. I find asking for help difficult. In our society, it seems to be seen as a weakness to need anyone else to help us. But we all need help at times and there is no shame in asking for it. Others will often be happy to help. It often makes them feel immeasurably better if they can support us in some way. And when we are going through difficult times, some practical help can make all the difference. So don’t let pride stop you from getting the support of others around you. You have probably helped others in the past and will do in the future. Now it is your turn.
8. Find a way to express yourself
Finding a way to express myself can really help me to cope when things feel really bad, I often write my feelings in a journal. Somehow, it helps me to make sense of what is going on in my life and my head. It can also help me get clear about what actions I can take to improve the situation. If I have a decision to make, getting my thoughts down on paper can be invaluable. But others may find that expressing themselves through painting, cooking or gardening is more helpful. In fact, whatever activities you enjoy can be used to help you express yourself and find your way through the maze of thoughts and feelings that come with tough times.
9. Find a new normal
Sometimes the tough times we go through change our lives forever. What we once thought possible has now become impossible. Our dreams have turned to dust and we have to find a new way of living. This can be one of the hardest things we will ever have to do. We may have lost a home, a business or a loved one. We may face a long-term illness or our loved one may be facing such an illness or disability. Everything we have built our lives upon has been pulled from under us. And now we have to build a new life out of the ruins.
Somehow, we have to create a new normality in these tough times. We have to find new ways of being happy, new routines to support our wellbeing, and new dreams and goals to aspire to. This is a tough challenge and we cannot accomplish it overnight. We have to grieve for what we have lost, express our emotions and come to terms with the changes in our lives. Then at some point, when the initial crisis is over we have to find a way to begin to build a new life one step at a time.
We must be gentle with ourselves at this time. We have to allow ourselves to feel our grief and fear and not push ourselves to fast, too soon. If we try to rush headlong into a new normal we will end up pushing down feelings that we really to need to move through. Little by little, though, we can begin to heal and move forward.
Most of us will experience tough times in our lives. These are different for everyone and what might be really hard for one person may not be so difficult for another. But we shouldn’t judge our difficulties in such a way. We are unique individuals who experience life differently. If you are experiencing a difficult time then honour your own experience as you find a way to work through it.
Further help and support for difficult times