The results of the US election are having a devastating effect on my family and friends around the world. I know a lot of my friends are struggling with fear right now, and understandably so. I have been struggling with stress and anxiety for the last year, and wanted to share a few of the ways I combat my fears in the hope that it might ease some of the pressure on you.
Basically, during my last year in Japan, the school I was teaching at was no longer a healthy place for me to be. Without going into why, I made the extremely difficult decision to resign, leaving behind me a secure job, wonderful friends and a robust support network, colleagues who were like family, and a country that was a second home. Back in New Zealand, my hometown, Christchurch, has changed dramatically since the earthquake, and all but one of my friends now live overseas. It’s been tough. I don’t have a house of my own, I’m still looking for a job, and I struggle to find time to write and keep up with my online friends with the increased demands of real life on my time. There are lots of positives. I’m reconnecting with my family and relearning Christchurch. Most of the time, I’m positive about my future and I have no regrets about leaving Japan. But with so much about my future unknown, I do experience a lot of anxiety. I was referred to a counselor in September to address my stress-related issues. This helped me a lot. Most of the following strategies are ones that he suggested, though I’ve implemented them in my own way.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
When I experience stress, my body tenses, centering in my shoulders. This resulted in tension headaches (dull pain centered on my forehead) and difficulty sleeping. The counselor recommended Progressive Muscle Relaxation, in particular, listening to this script provided by Dartmouth University. I felt better almost at once I did this and sleep much better on the nights that I do this before bed. It is very slow, taking about half an hour. Once I’d listened to it and knew the routine, I put on some of my favourite music, and did the muscles relaxation at my own pace. It took around ten minutes, and I still felt all the relaxation benefits, without the necessity of putting aside half an hour.
- Anxiety While Trying to Sleep.
Often, as soon as I lie down to go to sleep, my brain comes up with all sorts of things to worry about. I struggle to get my brain to stop being busy and just go to sleep. My counselor helped me identify what areas of my life were causing me stress, and come up with ways to combat them. I am a big fan of to-do lists, so his advice was when something comes up that worries me, I can think of an action I can take to address it, and add it to a to-do list–even if I can’t act on that to-do list immediately. Job-hunting is one of those things. It makes sense for me to wait to look for a job until I’ve got my driver’s license–but try telling that to my brain at 3:00 am. Instead, I jot down something I can do–make a list of temp agencies to send my CV to once I get my license, or look for a temporary holiday job–and then try to go back to sleep. This usually soothes my brain down enough that I can sleep.
I was in Japan for the Tohoku Earthquake and the resulting nuclear scare. Initially, we had no idea how dire the effects were going to be. I am a worst-case scenario kind of person, so I made a list of everything I would need to do in order to leave Japan. Rather than being depressing, this actually gave me clarity. Breaking it down into steps made me realize that hey, worst comes to worst, I have a plan for getting myself somewhere safe, and I have the means to do that. After the Kumamoto Earthquake, I updated my Earthquake kit. Doing small, practical things like this can make a big difference to your peace of mind.
- Reduce Caffeine
This is blindingly obvious, but took a really long time to occur to me. I made myself a blanket rule of no caffeine after three pm, and, when I am really struggling with sleep, no tea or coffee after lunchtime.
I went to an information evening by Dr. Libby (well known in NZ and Australia), where she talked about the effects of caffeine on your body. Basically, she aruges that caffeine amps up your system, and combined with job pressures/deadlines, translates into adrenalin, creating stress, which actually puts more pressure on your body. I am writing this while on my third cup of tea this morning, so clearly I have not implemented this one into my daily life, but I am working on it.
This is something I was doing before I saw the counselor, but that he said he would have suggested. Thanks Joanna Penn of the Creative Penn who talked about using her writing diary to chronicle her mental ups and downs and gain a perspective on things! I notice that I feel calmer after writing my diary, and that I come away from it with a renewed sense of purpose.
- Be Good to Yourself.
Do something that makes you happy. Set aside specific time to do something that gives you a feeling of productivity, positivity or relaxation. For me, this is writing or reading. Going for a walk also boosts my mood. In the past I have rewarded myself with a treat from the conbini, although now I am consciously trying to eat healthier food, I find that rewarding myself with an Agatha Christie actually works just as well. This is not wasted time or lazy time. Stress eats away at your energy and mental state, so recharging yourself is absolutely critical.
Showing that same love to the people around you is also a good idea. Especially right now, people need to know they’re not alone and they have the support of their friends.
- Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help.
One of my biggest mistakes was trying to go it alone in Japan. I didn’t open up about the full extent of my job-stress, trying to address the situation on my own, and that made things much harder on me. I really wish that I had started searching for ways to combat the anxiety I faced then and there before I returned to New Zealand, as it would have made things a lot easier and myself a lot healthier (my physical health plummeted). It also took me a really long time to realize I was no longer happy where I was and why. I’m still not as good as opening up about my worries as I should be, but as I’ve been more open about what I’m facing, the support I’ve received from my family, my friends and my doctor has been incredibly positive and helpful.
These techniques have helped me. While I really hope that they may help you, keep in mind that everyone is different, and these may need to be tweaked to fit your personality and needs. I also really hope that this doesn’t come across as trite. I am really worried about all my friends at this difficult time, and having seen a lot of friends citing difficulty sleeping and feelings of fear, hoped that this post might help. If you need someone to talk to, please reach out to me. Alternatively, if you have advice you’d like to share, please do whether here or on your own blog/facebook.
I’m thinking of you all,