Misfortune befalls us all. No matter how hard you might try to avoid trouble, struggles are just a reality of life. Accidents, illness, and financial and relational stress are often out of our control, and have the potential to drag us down in their powerful grasp.
I'm not going to pretend to be a psychologist or to have figured out the solution to the age-old problem of suffering. However, I have dug through the research to find some glimmers of hope to hang onto in the midst of struggles. I've also failed countless times in my life and figured out a way to pick myself up after failure.
This post will outline five simple practices that might just help. Making these part of your day-to-day routine may help you shift your focus and realize that you do have some control over your life - even in the midst of a struggle.
1. Create a gratitude list
The relationship between gratitude and well-being has been well-documented. In fact, researchers have found that people who habitually focus on the positives in their life may have greater self-esteem, lower rates of depression and overall improved life satisfaction.
One of the simplest ways to cultivate this orientation towards gratefulness is to consistently keep a simple gratitude list or journal. Get into the habit of writing down at least three things you're thankful for each night before going to bed. It takes literally seconds, and can have a huge impact on your general well-being, stress levels and anxiety.
Not feeling very thankful? Keep in mind that gratitude is a choice, and not necessarily something that comes easily. Cultivating gratitude takes time and patience; so don't be surprised if you initially have to dig deep to find something to be grateful for.
Popular media loves to talk about meditation and its ability to lower stress and increase personal well-being. But what does the research actually say about meditation? Turns out that while meditation may not be a cure-all for stress and anxiety, it can certainly lead to small to moderate improvements in levels of psychological stress.
Meditation can take a variety of forms, so don't let the image of a chanting yogi turn you off. There are many free or inexpensive guided meditation apps you can download and use anywhere, anytime. Want a more mobile meditation experience? Look into the simple practice of walking meditation. Want something even simpler? Stare at a candle, take some deep breaths and let your thoughts go (yes, candle gazing meditation is a real thing).
We all know that regular exercise has many benefits, both physically and psychologically. But until now, we haven't know exactly why this is the case.
However, recent research suggests that exercise may be helpful - not because it sends a surge of endorphins through our bodies, as previously thought - but through triggering the release of norepinephrine, the chemical responsible for helping your brain deal more efficiently with stress.
According to a help center article from the American Psych Association, researchers are discovering that exercise may actually be a 'trial run' for stressful situations: "Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress. It forces the body's physiological systems--all of which are involved in the stress response--to communicate much more closely than usual...This workout of the body's communication system may be the true value of exercise; the more sedentary we get, the less efficient our bodies in responding to stress."
To help develop this resistance to stress, make sure to build a program of regular exercise into your daily routine. And you don't need to stress out if you're not the strongest or fastest person at the gym: some researchers believe that plain old walking may actually be the best form of exercise.
4. Give yourself opportunities to laugh
It probably won't surprise you to learn that laughter can improve mood and reduce stress. In a study out of Loma Linda University, researchers found that older adults who watched humorous videos for just 20 minutes had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva.
As if this isn't enough motivation to laugh, some research suggests that the simple act of anticipating laughter can reduce stress.
Some ways you can mindfully incorporate humour and laughter into your daily routine include:
5. Embrace the idea of stress rather than trying to reduce it
The four strategies above are all geared toward helping you reduce stress and improve your overall well-being. But Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal says that viewing stress as a positive can actually make you stronger and happier.
He writes, "Viewing stress as harmful leads people to cope in ways that are less helpful, whether it's getting drunk to "release" stress, procrastinating to avoid stress, or imagining worst-case scenarios...In contrast, viewing stress more positively seems to encourage people to cope in ways that help them thrive, whether it's tackling the source of stress, seeking social support or finding meaning in it."
Instead of ruminating on your stress and driving yourself crazy trying to 'cure' it, take a step back and look for the positives:
Obviously there are no magic cures for avoiding struggles and stress. But the research certainly seems to suggest that we're not powerless in the wake of negative circumstances and situations.
Instead of powering through hard times, take a moment to stop and ask yourself: what practices can I implement in my life to help reduce my stress or cope with this struggle? I hope the five strategies above give you some ideas for where to start.
Do you have any daily practices to help you cope with stress or struggles? If so, please share below!