We are an “if only” society: “If only I were thinner, smarter, more popular, etc., then I’d be happy.” It’s easy to be tempted by this line of thinking. However, it’s not the lack of problems in our lives that matters, but rather how we respond to the problems we have. From terrible troubles (abuse and neglect) to relatively smaller ones (bullying or minor illness), and from huge stresses (divorce) to slight ones (traffic jams), some people are better at bouncing back from setbacks.
The good news is you can teach yourself to be more resilient.
Let’s look at everyday stresses to practice how to approach them constructively. If you get a bad Yelp review, or your car is dinged in a hit-and-run, or you get downsized at work, your reaction might be to feel overwhelmed by fear and anxiety. A better tactic is to form a game plan.
The CARE acronym is a simple way to remember how best to look at a problem.
1. Consider: What can I do about it?
The first step to facing an anxiety-causing issue is to pause and think it through. Acting blindly and immediately, which many of us do when stressed, often makes the problem worse. So stop, take a few deep breaths to calm your body, and give yourself a chance to think about your options.
Then, reflect on your options. Many people find making a list helpful. At first, include all ideas, from practical to idealistic. If I discover my job is at risk, some items on my list could be talking to my boss, honing my skills to become more attractive to the company, or learning a new skill to try to become indispensable. I could quit preemptively or start looking for new jobs. On the more extreme end of possibilities: moving in with my parents to save money, taking a year to backpack through Europe, or starting my own company. If you have trouble coming up with ideas, enlist someone who is good at creating these kinds of lists or look online for resources and inspiration.
Next, rank your ideas in order of ease and practicality. Which make the most sense? Which would you try first? Which are best left for later? Already, you have plans A and B. This fact alone—having options, even if they all seem risky—may make you feel more in control of your destiny. You will no longer have the double whammy of life being difficult and your own response being lethargic.
2. Act: Have I done everything I can?
The next step is to implement plan A. Put your energy into what you do have power over rather than feeling victimized. Anxiety feels awful, but it has a hidden upside of being energizing. By refocusing the anxiety into activity, you both do something productive and soothe your discomfort.
In the back of your mind, have plan B at the ready. It’s a time-tested “worst-case scenario” strategy which allows you to feel you have created a plan for the most difficult future possibility, and therefore disaster can’t sneak-attack you. Calm your fears by telling yourself if the worst happens, in this case losing your job, you can always move out of your expensive apartment. The fears of going hungry, which might otherwise preoccupy you, can be put to the back of your mind by repeating your “worst-fears soother.”
3. Release Control: What part of this situation is out of my hands?
Here’s where we get rational about what we can accomplish. Much, perhaps even most, of what’s happening cannot be changed by you. It’s essential to be able to separate what you can influence and what you can’t. Ultimately, you cannot command your boss to keep you on, or change the mistakes you made in the past, or get everyone to like and value you. Continuing to try to manage matters that are outside your sphere of influence (including other people’s perceptions of you) will drive you batty.
It turns out the formula for a thriving, happier life is not to arrange it so you have no stress and no problems. It’s to use formulas such as CARE to improve your ability to cope with hardships.
Write down the parts that are beyond your control. This is the converse of the earlier list of actions you can take—this is the list of what you can’t achieve. It’s scary to realize how much we have no power over, but it can also be a relief. Mentally split off what you’re working on from what you cannot work on.
Then, let it go. Some people find it helpful to visualize putting the list in a helium balloon and watching it float away. Others repeat mantras to themselves: “My boss’ choice is out of my hands.” Others burn the list to symbolize releasing control.
4. Ease: How do I live with the part I can’t control?
Okay, you’ve told yourself there’s nothing more you can do. Now what?
When the anxiety rises, calm it. This is like any other anxiety work. It’s accomplished through changing negative thoughts (most effectively through cognitive behavioral therapy), physiology (breathing and exercise, medications), distraction (fun and soothing activities), and relaxation (meditation, mindfulness).
If you’ve never been anxious and this is one of the first big stresses you’ve faced, you may be unfamiliar with all the options out there to self-soothe. Start with the obvious—what has worked for you in the past? A bath, a great TV show, ice cream? Then, do some research on deeper options. By working on your anxiety, you do a service to yourself and the people around you. There are books and blogs dedicated to how to master anxiety, and therapists who specialize in it.
It turns out the formula for a thriving, happier life is not to arrange it so you have no stress and no problems. It’s to use formulas such as CARE to improve your ability to cope with hardships. That way, you can move from if only to what’s next?—a much more proactive stance and one that ultimately reduces fears and anxieties.