I spent the final month before returning to work alternating between mixed emotions (Excited! Sad! Scared! Happy! Yes! No!) about going back to work.
I kept myself busy and constantly reminded myself to focus on the present moment and just enjoy my time with the kids. What is the point of trying to anticipate what something will be like, before you get there?
My brain was a mix of
Okay B! 1-2-3 Catch! *throws beach ball to daughter”
(omg how do I sort out childcare, what if one of them is sick? Will my bosses think I am not committed to work if I have to peace out and get sick kids home? How come I am the one getting my kids ready before I go to work? My husband should be doing that before he goes to work to (other feminist / equal parenting ranting, blablabla))
NO! FOCUS! You are playing catch!
(but what about dropoff at 8am how do I get ready for that with 2 kids)
NO! THROW THE BALL TO YOUR DAUGHTER!
I was also confused by the greater sadness this time around, which is why I wrote this previous post where I deconstructed my sadness about going back to work.
It turns out, that returning to work last week was really a minor event in the week that was the first week of May.
Just days after I arrived back in the office a few things happened:
-There was a massive fire in a city north of us. My firefighter husband went to fight the fire, leaving me scrambling for childcare (I wound up booking a few days off work) and handling the nights / mornings / days solo as I adjusted back to commuting, etc.
-My sister in law and husband got evacuated from the fire and came down to see us in Calgary.
-While my husband was away, his sister was dealing with the evacuation, his parents had a medical emergency on their cruise in Mexico. Long story short, his dad was transported back to Canada via air ambulance in poor health.
-My university became a housing centre for evacuees and I took a full day to work with them – lots of charged emotions among people.
***No big deal, right?
I kind of giggle now because what the hell was I so worried about with going back into work?
There were WAY bigger things that happened last week in our life. It certainly put things into perspective.
You think an elephant in the room is big, but wait until 3 or 4 MAMMOTHS walk into the room beside it. Then you don’t even worry about the elephant.
So today’s post is just a little bit about how to cope with mega-stressful situations, because there’s a few tools in my toolkit here, since this is NOT my first rodeo with natural disasters, being a firefighting family and sick family members.
Five Ways to Cope When You Are Faced with Big Life Events
1.) Staunchly commit to a daily practice of something you enjoy.
My self-care practice is running. Last night I barely had time to do anything but I committed to a 2km (15 minute) run. Just 15 minutes. That’s what you’d spend cleaning the kitchen and unloading the dishwasher.
You know how on airplanes you get the whole talk about if the oxygen masks drop down, do yours first? When the shit hits the fan, put your self care right up there on the list.
This is easier said than done. We have been strongly conditioned to see self care as selfish and vain. Even writing this I felt a twinge of guilt, the fear that someone would read this and think “how can she go for a run when her family needs her.” As I struggle with this thinking, as I type this sentence letter by letter, I remember that after my run last night I came home in a good mood and while my husband was at the hospital, I was able to read my toddler a book, give her a cuddle and a bottle, and operate as I usually would. I can tell you right now, if I didn’ thave some kind of pressure release or self care practice last night, it would have looked like me giving her the bottle and plopping her in the crib with a short, business-like demeanour.
2.)Realize that self-care can be small actions & try a new one.
(That you wouldn’t normally do.) In our day to day operations, we have our “self-care” things here and there. Maybe an occasional massage. Treat at the coffee shop, etc.
However, stressful times aren’t exactly day to day operations. The stress is much greater. Therefore, self-care needs to amp up a bit as well. During the week of stress, I ran every day, even if it was downgraded to a walk or just 1-2 km.
You may push back with “I don’t have the time, the last thing I can do right now is self care.” But I would ask you this. In order to have a great stress response – and use the fight or flight response in your body effectively, you have to give it opportunities to exit out of the fight or flight response and relax a bit, before going into the next one.
The fight or flight response in your body, emotional state, and mental state is amazing. It allows you to operate at your best in truly difficult situations. But it is only meant to fire off for short bursts of time.
If it is switched on for extended periods, it wears you down, compromises your immune system, mental state, emotional state, physical state.
To keep it running at its best, give it breaks. Even if it’s an hour massage, reading a magazine, watching a tv show, having a nap, or whatever activity floats your boat and distracts you.
3.) Begin to frame each stressor differently.
Think of them as using different “Muscles.”
I used to do a type of workout called CrossFit which is an absolutely bonkers workout that pushes you to muscle fatigue. If we had a workout with squats, a core movement and an arm movement, it was easy to go into “I am overall all exhausted.” The one thing that always got me through it was to think “ok, my legs are shattered after those 10 squats, BUT I am switching to pushups now, I am using different muscles now, fresh muscles.”
Through the workout, I’d remember that as I switched to each movement – that this particular muscle group had been given a brief break and were ready to go again.
You can do this with stressors. Think as one stressor as using your legs. One stressor as using your arm muscles.
Before I ran last night I was feeling high strung and more on edge than usual
(and my right eye was twitching. Eye twitching is so incredibly annoying.)
I took note of which things were stressing me:
-My beautifully organized childcare plan for May falling apart.
-Worrying that my bosses were questioning my dedication to my role with all of this time off.
-Feeling emotionally tired out from dealing with upset evacuees all day (I am very sensitive to other people’s energies and read auras.
These are all things I will just straight up have to deal with in the next few days when we begin to sail into calmer waters and adjust the sails.
I decided that the childcare plan uses my “logistical brain muscles,” worrying about what my bosses will think about my dedication uses my “core value muscles” and feeling emotionally tired out uses my “empathy muscles.”
Each of these stressors places different demands on me in different areas. By separating them out and thinking about how they use different facets, it made me feel less “globally overwhelmed” and not as drained as I move to a different task.
4.) Turn to humour.
It could be the fact we carry British genes & we Brits love our black humour, but all of our lives, in stressful events both my brother and I always turned to hilarious youtube videos, reddit feeds, and other random things that made us laugh. Monty Python’s Life of Brian, “Always look on the bright side of life” singsong is a classic for us Brits.
During heightened stress, if I sit down to hit the Facebook or the Instagram, I also make a point to find some funny videos to watch. There is something about having a good laugh, -for just one moment – that is therapeutic. It releases as much steam as a good cry. You feel so much better afterwards. If anything, your sense of humour becomes enhanced in stressful times. You are quicker and easier to laugh at something stupid when you are tired. Maybe it’s because the body knows we need to laugh?
Laughter physiologically undoes the fight-or-flight response. Did you know that?
Philosopher John Morreall believes that the first human laughter may have begun as a gesture of shared relief at the passing of danger.
5.) Be open with people about what you are going through.
As a supremely open person, I do have to remind myself that people have varying degrees of privacy. But here’s what it is like to be open: Talking about something a few times with someone else helps you process it and removes the power from that event. It’s like draining the battery on your phone. The longer you have your phone out, interacting with it, the faster the battery drains. The more you have your heart out, sharing it with other people, the faster the emotional charge drains.
Soon you just look at the event and think “yeah, that sucked” but without the lip tremble, the tears in the eyes, or the tightness in the chest.
Another thing that helps with being open is it removes the situation where we have an “invisible background.” Do you remember when I talked about worrying that my bosses would think I am not dedicated? That is a great example. It WOULD be a problem if they didn’t understand the background of my situation. It would be a problem if I was not open with them.
If I had not shared what I am going through, for sure they would notice (and not in a positive way) having to adjust my hours to leave early, taking two days off, having to leave a meeting to answer my phone, being cooped up in my office at lunch.
But they know that background. I made sure it was not invisible.
They know that when I look at my phone in a meeting, it is because I am keeping tabs on messages coming in updating me on how my father in laws surgery went in the hospital, when I am cooped up in my office at lunchtime, it is because I am talking to my husband in Fort McMurray.
When I take a day off, it’s because I couldn’t throw together childcare in a moments’ notice for an entire day for a baby and a toddler (and that’s what our family days off are for anyways.)
My friends know that I”ve been through some big ass life events in the last few years and I did consistently get comments like “how do you get through all of this ok” “how do you stay so positive?” “How do you cope with all of this.” Aside from having a positive attitude (and I suspect a fairly positive “set point”) it really comes down to these five items.
I am also a positive realist. Here’s the thing. All of us have parents now who are approaching their 60s and 70s. We are soon going to be initiated into that stage of life where our parents get cancer, get sick, have medical emergencies, possibly pass away. I don’t mean to be fatalist, but these things are going to happen. The first time they happen, it SUCKS. It’s just an initiation by emotional fire. The second time, the third time, you start gaining tools to cope and these five above are an example of those tools. And each time you go through the fire, you become a bit stronger, a bit more skilled in self care, and a bit more resilient.
Shit is going to hit the fan in our lives, and sometimes several piles of shit hit the fan, like this week. But we all get through it. We all survive and come out of the other end a better person. We manage to quell the fight or flight response with some extra self care after the fact to “come down” from the fight or flight response.
Big stuff is going to happen to us in our lives. Do we want to go into crisis mode each and every time it happens and fall apart? Or do we want to take the chance to develop some coping skills, become stronger and be better prepared for the next time it is going to happen? Because it will.