Several years ago, my sister (a brilliant marriage and family therapist) gave me a book called The Pathway by Laurel Mellin. Laurel writes about how you can break addictions by learning how to nurture and set limits with yourself. That you can learn to show yourself love even if you never learned from your family what healthy love and support looks like. She provides tools for how to nurture and set limits, and how to make it a habit.
Now, I wasn’t struggling with any life-threatening addictions like alcoholism. But she also wrote about “soft” addictions like overeating, overworking, overspending, and perfectionism, issues I struggled with. The idea that I could learn to break my negative habits was SO appealing to me!
I went on to read other books by Laurel, and with two of my sisters, I went through a couple of her “Emotional Brain Training” courses. The core concept of these courses is effectively coping with stress. And in the process, changing your self-talk, your unrealistic expectations, and creating joy in your life. Habitual joy! Making that your normal emotional state.
These lessons couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Over the last five years, I’ve dealt with unemployment, starting graduate school, financial stress from both of those situations, physical injury, one parent’s heart problems, and my other parent’s ongoing decline from Alzheimer’s. Over and over again, I’ve found myself thinking that this is the most stressed I’ve ever been! And over and over again… well, it’s gotten worse.
So how have I coped? Well, I’ve coped badly at times. Overeating. Procrastinating and avoiding. Those are my “drugs” of choice. But the tools that Laurel teaches have kept me going and have helped me find deep, profound JOY in the midst of stress and grief.
Laurel provides specific tools to use at different levels of stress. The Damage Control tool is for when you’re at a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the worst). It’s for the I’m-so-stressed-out-I-can’t-think-about-anything-without-freaking-out. You know, the stage where every conversation (even an internal one) becomes an argument. Where you feel powerless, overwhelmed, hopeless.
I had a vivid experience with “level 5” stress a couple years ago, when my car broke down on the freeway. A warning light came on, and the gas pedal wasn’t responding. I had to get over three lanes on a busy highway. Even after pulling over safely, I was freaked out! And then I started worrying. What was I going to do? How could I afford to buy another car while I was still in grad school? How the hell was I going to get to manage the commute to school without a car?!
I was beyond thinking rationally about the situation. I was not in an emotional state to be able to problem-solve. Every thought I had quickly turned into a worst-case scenario. I was overwhelmed with anger, frustration, and fear. So I used the Damage Control tool.
The Damage Control tool is beautifully simple. Just repeat, “Do not judge. Minimize harm. Know it will pass.”
Do not judge. Yourself or someone else. Do not judge the situation either. Do not judge. It’s not my fault that my car broke down. It’s not my mechanic’s fault. It happened. Do not judge. This isn’t the time or the place for it. Let it go. Stop beating yourself up. Stop assigning blame. Do not judge.
Minimize harm. This isn’t the time to yell at my mechanic or any of my loved ones. It’s not the time to start an argument. Or eat that junk food. Or do anything you’ll regret later. Minimize harm. You will find a healthy way to cope. For now, just minimize harm. Let yourself calm down.
Know it will pass. This was the hardest for me. In this stage, it feels like forever. Like everything is awful, always has been, and always will be. But you have experienced joy before and you will again. It. Will. Pass. Know that. Repeat it.
“Do not judge. Minimize harm. Know it will pass.” Repeat these words to yourself until you experience that “aaahhhh” of relief. That first taste of peace. Then, you’re ready to start coping.
What stressful situation are you dealing with right now? How do you cope?