Three Tools for Coping When Things are Stressful
or How I Got through Chiropractic School without a Psychotic Break (Mostly)
A friend recently reached out to me, asking if I had any wisdom gleaned from my time in chiropractic school about coping when things get incredibly stressful but quitting is just not an option. She is currently in the midst of moving, a huge transition with many potential arenas for stress and anxiety, and she was looking for some tools for when she wants to put her head under her pillow and scream and not come back out… but has to come back out, because deadlines are deadlines, regardless of the paralyzing overwhelm she might feel. This sounded like a very familiar scenario to me.
Although some people don’t realize it, chiropractic school is very comparable to medical school in the intense rigor of the training required. My personal belief is that these curriculums are designed as a trial-by-fire to prepare future doctors to perform at peak capacity during the most stressful possible scenarios, so that when we get out in the “real world,” we are mentally and emotionally equipped for whatever comes our way. When she asked, I realized that I have in fact come out into the real world with a few tools, and I’ve decided to offer them here in hopes that they may be useful to anyone who is feeling the impulse to hide under their pillow or throw their hands in the air and walk away… and can’t.
Choose Your Stimulants Wisely
During times of pressure, we may not be able to get the rest that we really need, and so we may often turn to stimulants in order to get us through. That’s a fine short-term strategy, but selecting the right stimulant can make all the difference.
When our nervous system is stimulated, our bodies undergo the same physiological changes whether that stimulation is due to ingesting a stimulant, like coffee or sugar, or due to a fight-or-flight response associated with an anxiety-provoking event. We can interpret an increased heart-rate, which may really be coming from a physical cause like ODing on caffeine or having a blood sugar crash, as being an emotion like anxiety, overwhelm, or panic. Therefore, we have to balance our stimulant intake in order to avoid perpetuating a cycle of anxiety and overwhelm.
I recommend avoiding using food as a stimulant, especially sugar and simple carbohydrates. These lead to a blood-sugar rollercoaster that can only end in emotional turmoil. Make sure that you are eating regular meals so that you don’t crash your blood sugar and need a quick fix, and stick with meals that center on whole foods, with protein and healthy fat at each meal. Even when you are busy and strapped for cash, you can pick up a rotisserie chicken or a BPA-free can of beans and some frozen veggies or a box of pre-washed salad mix and have a quick, easy, healthy meal. The one exception in the food category is high quality dark chocolate, which is good for both stimulation and grounding and supplies anti-oxidants to support your body during times of stress.
My favorite stimulants to keep me going when it seems all may be lost are coffee and green tea. Coffee should be organic, as it’s one of the most heavily sprayed crops, and taken either black or with some coconut cream, coconut oil, or ghee. (There are lots of great recipes for bulletproof-type coffees out there!) If you haven’t yet developed a taste for the bitterness of black coffee, you can add a few drops of liquid stevia. Avoid adding sugar or artificial sweeteners, both of which have many associated health concerns. Green tea is another delicious alternative with significantly less caffeine, so it’s good for the afternoon or when you don’t need as much of a boost. Be sure to only steep 3-5 minutes for optimal flavor, making it a pleasure to drink without adding anything to it.
Put Yourself in Time Out
We all have an inner child, and during stressful times, we need to parent that inner child even more conscientiously. Like all children, our inner child needs loving attention, empathy and understanding, and structure to help her feel safe. We need to love her enough to make sure her needs are met, and sometimes, what she needs most is a time out. So give yourself the gift of a moment to take a breath, to cry or scream if you need to, with the intention that when you’re done, you’re getting up off of the floor and getting back in the game.
When anxiety is overwhelming, use your time out to identify even one small concrete action step forward toward remedying whatever situation is causing that anxiety. In sports, that’s exactly what time outs are for - taking a break from the game to regroup and come up with a plan… and then getting back out there to finish the game. Once you have your action step, take it! Giving in to the temptation to give up and walk away when things get intense may give you momentary relief, but if you’re “done with this nonsense” before the nonsense is actually done, then it just lingers in the back of your mind. Taking a break can help you dig deep to find that fiery spark that will allow you to push through and really be done. Which means then you can rest, really rest, with a clear mind.
Give Yourself a Pep Talk
I wish I had a nickel for every time I passed someone on campus muttering something like “No, y’know, it’s cool, you’ve got this, everything is gonna be great…” I have found that a little locker-room-style pep talk can be incredibly helpful.
It’s not necessarily helpful to try to convince yourself of something you don’t believe, i.e. “Everyone in the world thinks I’m the greatest” and “Today I will make more money than Oprah.” However, statements like, “I am worthy and whole regardless of what happens in that meeting today” and “It’s okay if not everyone is my biggest fan - I am comfortable with who I am, and the people I care most about love and accept me” can be remarkably bolstering. Pick a statement that feels true enough for you to really let it in while also offering yourself support and comfort, even if you feel like you may not deserve it. If it’s too hard to come up with something for yourself, imagine what you might say if you were offering support and reassurance to your best friend or to a child you were mentoring.
As far as pep talks go, thinking it is okay, writing it is good, and speaking it aloud is best. While some people may have a lot of inhibition around this, I personally find the semi-psychotic appearance of looking myself dead in the eyes in the mirror and talking to myself to be highly amusing. The humor alone helps bolster my spirit as much as the pep talk.
I hope that during times of stress, you are able to find authentic and personal ways to support and nourish yourself. However, despite what our Rugged Individualism culture may say, no one can do it alone. If you would like additional support, we offer a variety of services that can be incredibly relaxing and reinvigorating, including chiropractic, craniosacral therapy, and energywork.
Go get ‘em, tiger! I believe in you!