We all know ’those days’. Days when nothing much seems to go right and it takes all your energy not to sink below the waves of chaos.
What can you do to help yourself stay afloat during a day like that?
It’s important to remember than when nothing is going to plan, it’s natural to feel stressed and frustrated. Humans love a basic routine and to be able to predict what’s coming next. When this is taken away from us, we feel anxious and want things to go back to predictable right now!
Don’t add to your stress by trying to pretend you’re a super zen master who doesn’t get affected by these kinds of days. The quickest way to get back on track is to acknowledge fully the effects the day is having on you.
So feel cranky. Stamp your feet if it helps and complain loudly and theatrically. Embracing what’s going on for you can help you to see the funny side of chaos and how fragile we are as human beings. When your frustration is over relatively trivial things like missing the bus, spilling coffee on yourself and then running into a prospective client you’re trying to impress, it can help to imagine how funny this would be if it was happening to somebody else. Whole sitcoms are built on minor, compounding misfortunes – just think what a good laugh you’ll give your best friend when you tell her what happened.
If your chaos is of the more serious, less funny kind, then there’s even more reason to own it. Feelings hang around until they are felt: It’s no good suppressing them, that’s the equivalent of holding on to a snarling cat when you have the option of putting it down.
If you’re stressed, you’re stressed. Resisting this fact and trying to be calm when you’re not just adds to your stress as it’s another thing that’s ‘meant’ to be happening but isn’t. Instead, embrace the stress and if you can, have a laugh at the whole situation – and yourself.
Check Your Language
While it’s important to acknowledge your stress, there’s no need to add to your stress unnecessarily either. This is the other side of suppressing our feelings – magnifying them and keeping them around by the thoughts you attach to feeling this way.
Be aware of the words you’re using to describe the situation (both to others and in your head). It’s too easy to start using words like ‘always’ (e.g. this always happens to me) or ‘never ‘ (e.g. things never go right when I need them to). Thinking about the world in this black and white way is unhelpful for two reasons: Firstly, it’s inaccurate. Of course it doesn’t always happen. That would mean it actually happens every day, and you would have figured out a better way to deal with it by now. Of course some things go right for you – or it’s likely you wouldn’t still exist right now. But when we’re caught up in the moment, it’s very easy to let language like this slip in.
The second reason this kind of thinking and speaking is unhelpful is that it adds to the stress of the situation. When you tell yourself these kinds of things, the message is one of defeat. After all, if things always go wrong, then why bother? This mentality makes it difficult to approach the challenges of your day with an empowered mindset, which you need in order to be able to conquer those challenges.
To fix it, when you notice yourself using a word like that, pull yourself up on it! Stop and find an example to prove yourself wrong. Find a more accurate phrase, like 'this has happened three times in the last three weeks!' (instead of ‘always’) which also allows you to see that although it’s happening now, there is possibility for change, and it hasn’t always been this way.
If absolutist, black-or-white kind of thinking is a habit for you, you’ll need to do the above exercise consciously, before the crisis hits. Take note of when you use words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ during the day, then take time out in the evening to look for examples which show the opposite has also happened to you. Get help from a trusted friend or professional if you need to. Repeat this exercise often. Then when you’re stressed, you can review list in the midst of chaos to instantly provoke a more balanced mindset. The regular practise will also mean you're making new, more balanced thinking habits along the way.
People who are fatalists often like to offer a version of ‘everything happens for a reason’ in times of misfortune. Whether or not that’s literally true, the sentiment is really helpful for turning your mindset around. It helps you to find an opportunity, or something helpful, in an unhelpful situation. If you come from the mindset of ‘there must be a good reason for this’, then you can learn from disappointments and mistakes. Even events completely out of your control provide opportunities to practise personal qualities you value like demonstrating strength or patience or kindness. Delays become opportunities to talk to someone you normally wouldn’t, or to practise mindfulness. Rejection provides an opportunity to grow and improve your skills, or just to get tougher!
Long term, there are often hidden benefits to situations like not getting the job you wanted or a break-up. Keeping the mindset that this is because something better is coming keeps you open to opportunities and able to make the most of them when they do arise.
This kind of thinking doesn’t mean you wouldn’t prefer to not be in the situation. It’s just acknowledging that the situation does exist, and so making the best of it.
Using these three strategies should help you to get through short term chaos. If you feel like you’re stuck in chaos long term, then email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to book a personal session for how to deal with stress when it goes on day after day after day.
Checklist - quick fixes to creating calm in chaos
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.