Whether we’re battling anxiety attacks, bouts of depression, episodes of marital discord or hassles with acting-out adolescents, the one thing that we typically wish is for these problems to just go away and never come back, or even that they were never there in the first place. We desperately want to know how to prevent these tormenting problems once and for all so that we don’t have to deal with them ever again.

The wish is understandable and working hard on prevention is certainly important. But prevention is only one of three phases of coping with life’s stresses and mental health challenges. There is a tendency to focus too much on prevention alone, which leaves us ill-equipped for managing the troubles that do seep through.

Despite our best efforts, we may never be 100 percent successful at prevention. Some problems will not be predicted and avoided. So in addition to working hard on prevention, we need a diversified plan which includes knowing how to handle these challenges when they do arise, and also how to recover and learn from them after they’ve come and gone. So we have not one, but three phases of coping—before, during and after. And each phase has its own unique set of goals and skills.

Phase 1: Preparing before the storm

Yes, the goal of prevention is to avoid the problem from occurring as much as possible. Just as we maintain our vehicles so they don’t break down on the road, we take preventive measures to maintain our physical and psychological health to minimize breakdowns. We do this by creating the healthiest lifestyle we can. Our lifestyle can be defined by how we spend our resources, namely, our time, money and energy. Spend these well, and a healthy lifestyle likely results.

In addition to preventive maintenance, we need to be good at detecting early signs of trouble. Just as we notice the sounds, smells and the feel of a car in distress, we need to pay attention to our mind, body and spirit when they are trying to tell us a problem may be brewing. This is the time to be proactive and not deny, avoid or procrastinate.

Phase 2: Surviving during the storm

When anxiety, depression and family problems do arise, we have skills to handle these in the moment. As with any crisis, the first step is to remain as calm as possible. A good way to do this is to slow the breathing, relax the muscles and to check your thoughts and self-talk to make sure they are grounded, accurate and not ‘catastrophizing.’ We need to put the problem in its proper perspective and work on accepting it instead of rejecting or running from it. Then we work on problem solving, making a plan of action and implementing it.

Phase 3: Recovering after the storm

Once the hardship is over, the goal is to process the feelings, learn whatever lessons we can from the episode, and to use the opportunity to practice resilience. There is a debriefing period, in which identifying, accepting and sharing the feelings is important. Then review and take notes about what went well and what needs improvement for next time. Practice forgiveness and compassion for mistakes and imperfections. After nursing our wounds, revise the plan as needed, get back in the game and try it again, hopefully a little stronger and wiser.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.