Stress, Coping Strategies and Self Esteem
“Success is determined, not by whether or not you face obstacles, but by your reactions to them. And, if you look at these obstacles as a containing fence, they become your excuse for failure. If you look at them as a hurdle, each one strengthens you for the next.”
— Ben Carson (Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story)
Freedom. That is one of the greatest benefits of becoming a teenager. You are now making your own decisions and being independent. This continues on into your adult years. But freedom comes with a catch. Along with freedom, come responsibilities. Responsibilities to friends and family, to events, to school work, jobs, teams, clubs, safety, etc., come with every decision you make. Growing up means that you have to carry your own responsibilities – the more we have, the heavier the load. It’s like rocks in a backpack. Each rock represents a specific responsibility. For example, you may have a responsibility to a team, or for each of your classes, or to help out at home. We all carry a backpack of rocks around with us and for the most part we can manage quite well with the load we have. But sometimes added rocks are piled on. A fight with a friend or family member, a test or project, added work shifts, an illness in the family, money issues. Then the added load becomes too hard to carry. This is what we call stress. Stress is the Overload.
As teenagers and adults, every one of us carries around these backpacks of responsibilities and we all develop coping strategies when life feels heavy. The more overloaded/stressed we feel, the more often we turn to these coping strategies. The strategies we choose are either healthy/positive or unhealthy/negative. There are no neutral coping strategies. The healthy positive strategies help us to feel mentally, physically and emotionally stronger and help us carry our load. They also help to constructively deal with each individual rock and, therefore, lighten the load. When you use positive coping strategies life gets easier. Negative coping strategies do something very different. They add rocks. At the time they feel right, but in the long run, they make the load heavier and more difficult to carry. Then life gets harder and more frustrating.
I call the healthy, positive coping strategies Toward Strategies because they move you towards your better life and bring out the best in you. I call the unhealthy, negative ones Away Strategies because they move you away from your better life. It is very difficult to use the toward strategies one hundred percent of the time, but if you think of them as steps toward your better future, you can motivate yourself to experiment with some healthier ways to cope with life. Three steps forward, one step back is a great deal better than ten steps away. Once we take a closer look at the away strategies in this chapter, you will see that they have a sneaky way of keeping you low, keeping you down. I think of stress as a boxing ring. In one corner is your self-esteem, your faith in your inner strength. In the other corner are the challenges you are facing. When your self-esteem is strong you can take on any challenge and make it through. When your self-esteem is low, you feel beaten up and deflated. In that state, sometimes you take one look at your opponent and give up before the fight even starts. The ultimate goal with this book is for you to improve your self-esteem. Once you get there, you will be amazed at how strong you feel and how capable you are to face new challenges.
Life presents challenges. It’s unavoidable. It is important that you learn to embrace the challenges you face. When we meet a challenge, we have a choice to work harder to get through it or run away and hide in a corner. Do not be afraid of working harder. Every time you rise up to face challenges, you reveal the amazing skills, gifts and strengths inside you. People who habitually shy away from challenges do not give themselves a chance to grow. They choose to stay low.
Let’s break stress down into three main questions:
1. How does your body handle stress?
2. How many challenges are you facing?
3. What are your coping strategies for dealing with stress?
Let’s consider the first question.
Stress, by definition, is a change in something external or internal that your body has to respond to. We really do enjoy the feeling of predictability, so changes are often perceived negatively. But let’s take look at what is really going on inside.
The Physiology of Stress and Anxiety
To fully understand what’s going on in your body when you are dealing with stress, we need to look at the plan that nature has in mind for our survival. Biologically, humans are animals and our bodies have predictable, natural responses to sudden changes and threats to our safety and security.
To grasp this concept, let’s head back in history, way back to caveman days. Imagine yourself as a caveman (or caveperson) and you are joining the hunt for a mammoth to supply food for your clan. While you are out on your quest for food, your hunting group is surrounded by a pack of sabre tooth tigers. What happens to your body in this terrifying situation? It goes into an Alarm response – your survival is at stake! At first you may freeze as your senses scan for predators and escape routes. This is a fear driven state where you can’t think, you just scan and do. In this instant, your body is making rapid preparations to generate incredible speed and strength for you to race to the safety of your family/clan if you are young, or to fight to save loved ones if you are a provider/caregiver/leader. This alarm response maximizes your chances of survival.
Although many refer to this as the Fight, Flight, Freeze response to stress, Gordon Neufeld, PhD and Gabor Maté, MD in their book Hold On To Your Kids, call this an Alarm response. “Anxiety is an emotional alarm that warns us of danger, whether from attack or the threat of being separated from those who matter to us.”
Neufeld and Maté explain that usually animals, including us, would experience these aspects of psychological alarm in reverse order. When we are faced with danger or a threat, the Freeze instinct kicks in as we take in as much sensory information as possible. (There is no thinking involved, it is all subconscious.) The Freeze instinct might help us become invisible to our predators. Flight (running) is a powerful instinct during times of high stress, but the direction of our flight is instinctively specifically towards our parents/caregivers/partners. Neufeld and Maté refer to this as Pursuit energy (for us to pursue our protectors.) The Fight instinct is for the safety and protection of those we care for and provide for if they are threatened, as a parent would fight for their child’s safety, or for our own survival if we are isolated from those we care about.
Maybe the Fight, Flight, Freeze response should be renamed the Freeze-Flight-Fight response for the order it seems to naturally occur in, according to Neufeld and Maté.
What is going on deep inside your body? Once the Alarm is triggered, it is your Sympathetic Nervous System (sympathetic to your dangerous situation) that controls the changes. Specific internal adjustments unfold as the hormone commonly known as adrenaline races through your bloodstream. Adrenaline acts as a signal communicating to all of your body systems that it’s time to kick into survival mode. Your senses become heightened, so you can detect vital information in your surroundings. Your breathing becomes rapid to gather more oxygen for your muscle cells. Your heart beats faster to deliver blood to the muscles. And your body, which has a fixed amount of blood, has to direct blood flow to the muscles, which means it has to divert blood flow away from other body systems. Some of the systems that are sacrificed, and will only receive the bare minimum blood flow, are your digestive system and your reproductive system. Your muscles will tighten and twitch as all systems fire up, and sweating will increase to cool the body.
These changes happen almost instantaneously, and we gain the strength to run with incredible speed and fight with incredible power. When you do make it out alive, if the threat is still nearby, sleep will be restless as your brain constantly monitors sounds that could translate into danger in the night. Once the threat is over, your Parasympathetic Nervous System takes over and you will sleep incredibly deeply out of shear exhaustion from the physical energy you’ve exerted. You will also have hunger return and blood will be diverted to your digestive system to help you refuel. The Parasympathetic Nervous System has been nicknamed “Rest and Digest.”
All of these biological adjustments have served humans throughout history in life or death situations. Our body’s response to danger is amazing!
Now, let’s fast forward to present day. Our sources of perceived danger (stress) have changed immensely. But our stress response system can’t distinguish between a life or death physical threat and a source of mental stress like writing a test or making a presentation. So, we experience the same alarm response. Our body’s automatic response induces rapid breathing, racing heartrate, tight and restless muscles, and excessive sweating. Digestive system symptoms include dry mouth, stomach ache, nausea, diarrhea (from reduced blood flow to the digestive system), easily distracted and racing mind, and difficulty sleeping. Sound familiar?
The following list of body systems and responses will help you connect your symptoms of stress and anxiety with your body’s natural responses.
System: Nervous system and senses
Reason for the Natural response: Senses heightened to scan surroundings for vital information for survival. Light sleeping, listening for threat.
Stress/Anxiety Symptoms (What it feels like): Easily distracted, mind racing, over-active thoughts “What if…” Difficulty sleeping, always feeling tired.
System: Respiratory system
Reason for the Natural response: Breathing faster and deeper to supply oxygen to power muscles.
Stress/Anxiety Symptoms (What it feels like): Fast breathing, some may feel like they are hyperventilating.
System: Circulatory systems
Reason for the Natural response: Heart rate increases to send oxygen rich blood to muscles faster. Blood/fluids are diverted to skin to cool body.
Stress/Anxiety Symptoms (What it feels like): Heartbeat racing, sweating, cool clammy skin.
System: Digestive system
Reason for the Natural response: Receives less blood flow so muscles can receive more. Digestive Organs will temporarily shut down until the threat is over.
Stress/Anxiety Symptoms (What it feels like): Dry mouth, Abdominal pain and discomfort, Lack of appetite, Nausea, Diarrhea.
System: Muscular system
Reason for the Natural response: Primed for intense speed and power.
Stress/Anxiety Symptoms (What it feels like): Feeling restless, fidgety, tense, stiff neck and back.
So many students report anxiety and think something is really wrong with their bodies. They believe that when they experience symptoms of anxiety when they have to face a specific challenge, that physical harm is unfolding inside of them and these symptoms freak them out. In many cases, their fear of these symptoms creates further stress and the situation snowballs. It is important that people understand that these symptoms are completely natural.
Although the Alarm response is natural, there is a significant problem with the design of this historically successful physiological reaction when used to respond to present day stressors. The biggest issue comes down to the length of time that we are exposed to the stressors.
We are not designed to be dealing with stressors that remain for days/weeks/months. Historically, we got a short-term release of adrenaline and we responded with physical exertion. (This is why exercise is so important to decrease the stress/alarm response.) When the stressors do not go away the longer-term hormone Cortisol is called in. The build up of stress hormones like adrenaline (the gas pedal of stress response) or Cortisol (the cruise control of stress response) can exhaust the body’s systems and cause long term (but reversible) damage.
Since challenges will always present themselves in life, it is critical that we all find ways to recognize the natural alarm/stress response and that we choose helpful coping strategies to better manage it. Positive coping strategies strengthen us in three important ways. The first is that positive coping strategies can be used to calm ourselves in the moment to help us get through the challenge. Second, they can help release the emotion attached to the situation. This helps us to think clearly again after the emotional release (eg. crying in a safe place.) Releasing the emotion, not stifling it, is what moves us towards resilience. The third is to use them in your day to day life to keep your baseline experience set to “calm” instead of a baseline set to “racing.” Choosing helpful coping strategies can significantly improve your responses to challenges and will make life a lot easier for you.
Let’s revisit our original 3 questions and deal with #2. How many challenges are you facing? This can also be read as, “How much stress do you have?” If your answer is, “Too many challenges, too much stress,” then take a look at the sources of your stress. Perhaps it comes more from one area than another. Maybe it’s a combination of sources. Is it family, parents, friends, school, career path, work, relationships, or health? I hope, as you read this book, you become more motivated to heal yourself and heal these areas in your life to help reduce the anxiety you feel.
Stress can be caused by a single traumatic or heartbreaking event, or it can be the combination of many smaller events that still feel overwhelming. Issues like breakups, family separations, school pressure, fights and arguments, and increased responsibilities are difficult to handle. Another issue that everyone faces at some point is learning to manage your time. It can be a challenge to juggle part-time work schedules, homework, sports and activities, relationships, friends, family time, and personal time. The frustrations and anxiety you feel are very real. Don’t ignore them or push them under the carpet. Deal with them. Deal with the feelings and deal with the causes.
Now, let’s consider the third question, “How do you handle your stress?” If you are easily stressed out or you usually overreact to challenges, perhaps you need to make some changes to how you react. It is easy for us to respond with what I call, A.S.A. (Anxiety, Sadness and/or Anger.) I will not use the term “depression.” Depression is a clinical diagnosis, and I find many teens overuse the term. While I cannot diagnose anyone as depressed, I do know that many teens feel deep sadness and anxiety, and that it is, in many cases, preventable. I find it amazing the number of young people who are overcome by A.S.A. and don’t know what to do about it. Life will always present challenges. You need to learn to deal with these challenges in a healthy, productive way in order to control your stress, and improve your relationships and life.
Coping With A.S.A. (Anxiety, Sadness and/or Anger)
I had a student who confessed to me that she wasn't eating because she hated herself. I replied that it must be really horrible to feel the need to punish herself, and I could imagine that, without food, she was feeling physically terrible. I also asked her, point blank, if she wanted to live or die. She was shocked by my blatant question, but then, she replied, “Die.” We talked about her sadness and that resulted in the two of us having a really good cry together.
Afterwards, I said, “What if you could feel better, mentally and/or physically, three months from now, would you still want to die?”
She shrugged her shoulders because she didn't know. She said she hadn't thought about it before because she figured she’d always feel this pain. I asked her if it was worth a try, and she responded with something I’d never seen on her face – a smile – followed by, “OK.”
Feeling deep sadness and anger are completely normal and important. Do not feel bad about your emotions. Don’t fight it. Feel it. Be.
Emotions are meant to be felt, they are important. If you didn’t know deep sadness, you could not appreciate great joy. If you did not experience intense anger, you could not appreciate peace. Without a deep understanding of struggle and frustration you could not appreciate the excitement of success. We should not fear our feelings and try to avoid or suppress them. In fact, the fastest way out of sadness is to go deeper into it until release comes in the form of tears. All emotions require release, safe release in a safe place, maybe with a safe person or maybe alone. If we suppress our emotions, they will stay with us and keep us low as we bottle up them up. As a result, sometimes we may go numb to other feelings (including the happy ones), and sometimes we will erupt. Releasing emotions, especially through tears, helps us to activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System and then we can rest deeply.
I know this is tricky when, for generations, tears have been a sign of weakness, especially for boys. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Through tears, we recover quickly and move on towards true resilience.
I heard renowned Psychiatrist Dr. Gordon Neufeld describe the term "cool" in a most revealing way. Dr. Neufeld has worked with numerous troubled children and teens, many who were incarcerated for serious crimes. As we all know "Cool" is a trait that many teens strive to be, or they strive to follow those who are "cool." When you think of someone who is cool, you might think of someone who displays an "I don’t care" attitude. Dr. Neufeld explained that to be cool means to be emotionally cold, to suppress emotions. In his presentation, he made direct links to the use of drugs and alcohol to suppress feelings of sadness. Sadly, these "cool" or emotionally cold individuals had sometimes acted out in dangerous or violent ways that made it seem like they had no conscience. Often these individuals had dealt with severe trauma in their past, and so their brain set up a defence against pain. But the suppression of feelings made them emotionally unstable. So, how cool does "cool" sound now? Should we really admire this emotionless state?
When it comes to coping strategies, as discussed earlier, there are basically two roads to take. You can choose coping strategies that will help you in the long run and strengthen you, or you can choose strategies that will bite you later on down the road, if you continually turn to them as a crutch. Sometimes life is tough and all we can do is cry. Instead of seeing this as a sign if weakness, we need to see it as a resiliency tool, that will make us stronger in the long run.
Do you want life to get better? Once you decide you want to feel better, there are many ways you can do it. It is of paramount importance for you right now to establish healthy coping strategies in response to stress. Here is the reason.…
As a teenager, you are experiencing real stress in your life, hopefully for the first time. For those of you who experienced extreme stress in childhood, I will discuss that in a moment. For now, let’s assume that, as a child, your family protected you from most of the big challenges that life has to offer, exposing you only to what was appropriate for you to handle at that age. But, now, here you are in the teenage years, and, for the first time, you are in the full throws of balancing school, jobs, teams, clubs, friends, family, illnesses and any and all effects those issues bring. You have many challenges. You are under stress.
Well, I’d love to tell you that it’s just a phase you’re going through and it will get better, but challenges will always present themselves. Stressful situations can and will hit at any, and every, stage of your life. Along with the stresses growing, so do the pressures and your responsibility toward others. But just because life has challenges doesn’t mean that life sucks. On the contrary, the better you are at handling challenges, the easier life gets and the smoother your ride through life. And so …
Right now, as you begin this rollercoaster of coping with challenges and stress, it is CRITICAL that you choose some healthy coping strategies. What you learn to use now are the very same strategies that you will continue to fall back on for the rest of your life. The fights you pick, the alcohol you drink, the joints you smoke now, as a teen, might not seem so bad as coping strategies – relaxing you, getting your mind off things, relieving stress – but they have a very different face when you are a professional, an employee, a caregiver, a spouse, and, most importantly, a parent. In the long run, unhealthy away coping strategies will make your life worse and create more stress for you.
So, right now, as you are making your first attempts at figuring out various coping strategies, choose wisely. Choose more toward strategies and you will come out better, stronger and healthier.
Have a look at the following 2 lists. Make a note of, or circle, the toward and away strategies you have used. (note: this list is also provided as a downloadable/printable attachment. You can access by hovering over the Sample Chapter tab at the top of this website)
“Toward” Coping Strategies
Move you toward your better future
Talk to a close family member or caring adult and ask them to listen
Release your frustration in safe ways
Cry, let it out
Exercise / work out
Ask for Help
Focus on the end goal, which is success
Create a timeline to get work done
Get outside for fresh air
Spend time in nature
Go to bed early and get a good night’s sleep
Write down your issues and potential solutions
Draw or paint
Play an instrument/sing/dance
Write a song/poem/letter
Write in a journal; focus on solutions
Pray – for strength and guidance in finding solutions
Improve your eating habits
Cook a healthy recipe
Walk the dog
Play with a Pet
Build something/take on a project/hobby
Take a day off
Get a massage
Have a nap
Connect with healthy friends & laugh with them
Watch a movie – a funny movie to let yourself laugh uncontrollably, or a sad movie to let yourself cry uncontrollably – to allow you to experience an emotional release
Tidy up your room/space at home
Confront the person who is causing you stress (but in a way that works toward a mutually acceptable solution)
Listen to Sad music so you can cry and release your sadness and frustration
Listen to positive music that strengthens you
Talk to a counselor or therapist
Focus on positive thinking – focus on the solutions
“Away” Coping Strategies
move you away from your better future
Vent on social media
Watch more Screens/TV
Play more computer games
Eat junk food
Go shopping (spend more than you should)
Stay up late
Turn towards friends who themselves use “away” coping strategies
Avoid responsibility for your actions
Scream/yell at others
Play violent video games
Send mean messages on social media
Direct your anger/sadness at others in your life (such as family)
Bully others, push them down to raise yourself up temporarily
Manipulate, insult, try to control others
Avoid other people or situations
Hide at home (or in your room)
Listen to angry music that fuel your thoughts of unsafe actions
Suppress your feelings, try to numb your pain
Think of, or plan, revenge
Think of, or plan, suicide
Continue your negative thinking – focus on the problems
How “Away” Coping Strategies Backfire on You
There is a wonderful saying that I fall back on when times are tough:
“This, too, will pass.”
It is an amazing way to view life. Enjoy each and every moment, because they soon pass.
And, do not lament about the tough times, because they will pass as well.
The stress you are experiencing will pass, but the away coping strategies you choose will make the recovery process much more difficult. For example, if eating is your coping strategy, then know that the trigger will eventually pass, but those extra pounds you’ve gained while “coping” will just add more stress to your life for a longer time than the trigger, because you will wind up carrying around extra weight. If you unload your frustrations on social media as a way to vent, then long after the trigger has passed, you are stuck with the repercussions of the angry words you typed. If skipping school is your favorite way to wind down, then you can look forward to extra piles of catch up work, disappointed teachers, arguments with your parents, and the added stress of working harder to make up for your coping strategy.
Can you see the snowball effect? You begin with challenges and, as you “cope,” you create more problems, more stress for yourself.
Remember the rocks in your backpack? In the long run, each away coping method puts more rocks into your bag. They make life more challenging, more difficult. Look at the big picture. It’s time to jump off the train before it crashes. I don’t expect you to use toward coping strategies every time, but hopefully you can use toward strategies much more often than the away ones. I’m sure you can think of adults in your life who have poor coping strategies. Maybe you have witnessed firsthand the snowball that rolls and gets out of control. The teenage years are a great time to experiment. If you can recognize that you are using a lot of the away strategies listed in the chart, realize the ways you deal with stress now will be the ways you deal with it in the future. The strategies you repeatedly turn to now will become habits as you get older. Now is the time to experiment with new ways to cope and to develop new, healthy habits. We’re talking about the direction of your life. Don’t you think it’s worth the effort to experiment with some coping strategies that move you toward your better future?
I often take classes out to our local nature trails for a day of hiking and fresh air. During one Friday’s hike, I overheard a Grade 12 student talking to her friend. She said, “I can’t believe how great I feel out here! I’ve been so stressed lately. I was going to party it off tonight, but it’s so nice to know that there is another way to feel better.”
As I was walking behind them, I couldn’t get the smile off my face.
Try out some toward coping strategies. It’s worth it! You are worth it! Your future is worth it!
Childhood Trauma and Coping Strategies of Young Children
There are a group of you who, unfortunately, have been exposed to a great deal of trauma during childhood. The toward coping strategies on the previous page are hard to do, even as a teen. For a child who has grown up witnessing unhealthy ways of coping with life, those healthy toward strategies seem way beyond their reach. Children who have experienced trauma will use any means they can in order to adapt to their situation and survive. They will hide, become emotionless, steal, hurt themselves, hurt other kids at school, disconnect from school, avoid certain situations or people, blame themselves, become perfectionists to an extreme, become numb to difficult events, you name it. Children who are exposed to trauma do not have the experience or thought processes to explore positive, healthy coping strategies. Sadly, they are caught in a trap.
These behaviors are symptoms, not problems. These are symptoms of their feelings of anger and sadness that they don’t know how to deal with or express. They haven’t had the healthy models they need to teach them how. Their behaviors are, literally, cries for help. Unfortunately, often these cries are not heard and go unanswered. As a result, many will carry their extremely unhealthy coping strategies into their teenage and adult years. These strategies further alienate them, which leads to more stress in their lives.
If you have been exposed to extreme stress or trauma as a child, please seek counseling. Seek assistance as soon as you can. You are not responsible for the stressful events in your early life, and you are not responsible for your childhood coping strategies, but you ARE responsible for your behavior and coping strategies as a teenager and, later on, as an adult. Please GET HELP, especially if you find yourself falling into the trap of unhealthy coping strategies. Choosing to ask for help is a sign of strength. It is a big step toward a better life.
Some stressful, traumatic events that can affect children are:
Abuse (verbal, physical, emotional, sexual)
Death of a family member or friend
Watching parents, family members fight, especially if they are under the influence of drugs and alcohol
Witnessing severe illness in a family member
Experiencing a traumatic event (natural disaster, fire, theft, violence)
Being exposed to Television that is inappropriate for children
Being exposed to Internet information that is inappropriate for children
The last two are extremely common.
Internalizing and Externalizing Stress
When we have poor coping strategies, we can hurt ourselves, and we can also hurt others.
Internalizing stress means that we take our stress out on ourselves through negative thoughts and vices, as we will discuss in Chapter 8. The majority of teens internalize their stress, although many are capable of externalizing their stress as well.
Externalizing stress means you take your stress out on others. Usually the victims of your pain and anger are the people closest to you, usually in your own family. You will yell at a parent or sibling or maybe at a girlfriend or boyfriend. It happens easily and is far too common. We’ve all done it. You are upset by something and you, simply, but not necessarily on purpose, redirect your frustrations at someone or something else. Unfortunately, for many people, this becomes the pattern of how they deal with their stress and, quite often, they take it out on the weakest and most vulnerable people in their lives. This is the core of an abusive relationship.
The goal of this book is to help you improve your own self-esteem, for many reasons. One of those reasons is so that you never become a victim of abuse. But I also want you to improve your self-esteem so that you will never be a Perpetrator of Abuse. Yes, you read that right. It is critical for you to get a handle on your own issues so YOU do not harm others.
Whether it is a boss who yells a lot, or a verbally abusive girlfriend or boyfriend, or physically abusive parent, or a gang member who gets in fights, or a rapist, each of these examples are people who externalize their stress. They cannot handle the crap in their own lives and so they take it out on others. Their anger has become their habitual negative coping strategy. Our world is so full of violence that taking your frustrations out on others is actually considered the norm. For example, these days, people can watch the violence in videos, movies, and on TV without so much as batting an eyelash at what they are seeing.
I desperately want you to learn healthy ways to handle your stress before you have children. You might ask, “What does that have to do with me right now?” Well, if you ever want to become a parent, you’d better start retraining your emotional responses now. It might take you years before you get it right. Babies and children are, by far, the most vulnerable group of humans on the planet. If Mom or Dad starts taking out frustrations on them, what are they going to do? Where are they going to go? Nowhere. They take it because they have no other choice.
I am bringing this up because, once you are a parent, on top of every other stress in your life, it is unavoidable that your children will give you more stress even though they don’t mean to. They will wake you up four times a night, every night. When you are exhausted, they will cry uncontrollably, they will misbehave, they will poop in their pants when you are in a rush to go somewhere, they will talk back to you, and they won’t eat the dinner you’ve just spent an hour making. They will push your buttons in ways you cannot yet even fathom. And, undoubtedly, you will get pissed off and, if you are not well trained at dealing with your stress in a healthy way, you might scream and yell at them for nothing (really), and, if you are really bad at handling your stress, you might just hit them or lock them in a room or totally lose control and beat them. It happens in far too many homes to far too many children. And, of course, they might grow up and think that acting that way is normal and they will do it to their kids because no one has taught them how to handle their own stress except to externalize it and take it out on someone else.
Understand this truth above all others: You have Absolutely NO RIGHT to harm another living being, cause damage to someone’s property, or cause an animal to suffer.
Get your shit together. Now! Do it before you hurt the most important people in your life.
Confront your dark secrets now.
If, right now, you have the following thoughts recurring:
Serious negative thoughts
Anger or sadness you can’t contain
Recurring thoughts of suicide or hurting someone else
Deviant sexual thoughts
Thoughts of hurting children or animals or women or people of a particular culture
It is critically important for you to seek help immediately before these dangerous thoughts become actions. Once these thoughts become actions they will take you down a horrific road that leaves a trail of incredible pain for you and others. Some of you are in so much pain now that you want to share the pain. That is what this entire book is for, to show you that you do not have to live in pain. You have a choice. Keep reading. And, be open to getting help. Talk to trustworthy adults or call a teen help hotline and get some counseling. Some helpful organizations are listed at the back of this book. Yes, this is a huge challenge for you, but do it and you will see how much healthier you can be and feel. Then, at the end of this journey, you will look back and know it was the most important decision you ever made.
To Survivors of Abuse
If you are a victim of abuse, whether it is emotional or verbal abuse and, especially, if it is physical or sexual abuse, you must understand that what happened to you or is happening to you, is NOT OK. It is not acceptable and you do not have to try to live with it or the memory of it. It is not your fault. My heart goes out to all of you, and I want you to be strong and courageous. Ask for help. Tell someone who is in a position to help you. It pains me to know that many victims cannot talk to their own parents about their abuse because either the parents are in denial or the abuse has happened in their home, for example between siblings, or the parents themselves are the perpetrators. In these cases, going to your parents may not be an option right now. Going to a teacher, coach or counselor is critical. Be specific with your words. For example, you can say, “I don’t know what to do, I need help.” Or, “I need help. I need a safe place to stay.” Perhaps you need to get away from home. Running away is not a good idea, as tempting as it may seem. Ending up on the street is not going to make your situation any better. Instead go to a friend’s house, where you know the family and they are not close friends with your parents. Sit down with your friend’s parents and tell them everything. Ask for a safe place to stay and say that you need help. Or go to an aunt, uncle, older cousin or grandparent, as long as they will help you and not just try to shut you up and keep “the family secret.” Make sure your parents and siblings and extended family all know why you left and that you are not going to take the abuse, or their silence, anymore. Create a support network for yourself by telling as many trustworthy adults as you can. Talk to someone you can trust about going to the police. Youth-counseling services can help; ask your school guidance counselors for help and information.
People abuse others because they are in pain. They don’t do it because they don’t like you, they don’t do it because you deserve it. They abuse because they are in pain. And, until they learn to deal with their pain, it will continue – unless you let them know you won’t take it anymore. I have heard people say, “They only abuse when they are drinking/or using (fill in a drug). Their addiction causes them to do it.” That is false. People don’t abuse others because they are drinking or on drugs – they are on drugs and drinking because of their pain. They are abusing others because of their pain. The alcohol and drug abuse is a symptom of this pain – it is not the cause. It is not OK for anyone around you to rationalize abuse. These concepts will be explored in greater detail in Chapters 8 and 9, but, for now, know these truths about you:
You deserve to be safe from harm.
No one has any right to abuse you.
Home is supposed to be a safe environment.
If home is not safe, then find a safe place to stay, and the street is not a safe place.
Getting away from the abuse is step one. After this comes a journey of healing where you must first forgive yourself and truly believe that this came from the abuser’s personal pain and was not your fault. If you do leave home and stay with someone as a kind of safe house, please remember that – wherever you go, whoever you stay with – you must abide by their house rules, be helpful and respectful. The last thing you want to do is burn these support bridges due to poor manners and bad behavior.
This next part may scare you, but it is extremely important to be aware of. The fact that you are a victim means you are in pain and if you do not deal with your pain and release it in the right way, there is a possibility that you will take your pain out on someone else. The cycle of externalizing pain continues easily, generation after generation, for people who do not face their experience of abuse and the pain it caused them. You may have already sworn that you would never do this to anyone else, but it can surface as an adult, if you have not developed healthy coping strategies when times are tough.
I will now repeat a critical point from earlier in this chapter: You have no right to harm another living being or their property. This includes the perpetrator. You may defend yourself when they abuse you, and they may be harmed in that process – this is called self-defence – but you cannot initiate an attack or harm anyone. If you do, you have become an abuser and are taking your pain out on them. Make a vow to seek counseling and to learn to deal with your own stress so you NEVER repeat the cycle you have experienced.
Focus on healing yourself on the inside.
If someone shares with you that they are being abused, or have experienced abuse, do not judge them. Ask how you can help. Tell them you are there for them, to support them and to listen when they need to talk.
If this is abuse from the past, ask them if there is an adult that you can both confide in to get wise advice. For example, you can ask, “Can I talk to my mom about this?”
If the abuse is going on right now, you have a responsibility to talk to a trustworthy adult who can help your friend get to a safe location. Remember, your friend came to you. They reached out to you for help. This is too huge of an issue for you to solve it alone.
If you hear about abuse and you know it is going on, it is your responsibility to tell an adult who can help stop the abuse. These adults would include parents, school administrators, guidance counselors, teachers, coaches, ministers, doctors, kids/teen help hotlines, and of course you can just call the Police.
When it comes to abuse, Silence is a terrible thing.
Important Note: In this book, you will sometimes see the term “Victim Mentality.” It does not apply to you, as you are one who truly is/was a victim of abuse. A victim mentality is when someone is facing a consequence of their own actions and is making up excuses or blaming others for their own poor decisions. For example, if a teen is in trouble at school or at home because of their behavior, they will often complain, “I didn’t do anything!” Or, they will say, “He/she is singling me out, getting me in trouble.” That is a victim mentality – feeling unfairly treated when you can’t face up to the consequences of your own actions. Once again, the term “victim mentality” does not refer to you and your very real story.
Handling Immediate Anger – Arguments and Fights
Let’s face it, anger is a part of life. Whether you get angry or not is less important than how you handle your anger.
Here are a few reminders:
Never try to get your way when you are upset. Calm down and think before you speak.
Try to keep your cool.
If an apology is warranted, saying sorry is really powerful.
Walk away. Wait until the emotional storm passes.
Stay silent. If the other person demands a response, you can say, “I am not talking to you until you [or, I] calm down.”
If the conversation is getting heated, call for a “timeout.” “This is going nowhere. I’m going out to walk this off.” Then, actually go and take a walk around the block.
Talk it out with a very positive friend, who can help you calm down.
Go for a run, or bike ride or skateboard, or walk.
Punch a pillow or throw a pillow around.
Go in your room and scream.
Go to a safe place and Cry.
When the emotions have settled, and your mind is not controlled by the angry or sad emotions, you will be able to sift through the situation and find solutions.
To summarize, being sad or being angry is only one part of the misery. A much bigger role in dictating our ease, or hardships, in life is in the coping strategies we choose.
If you don’t use a healthy coping strategy you will not only be sad or mad about X, but now, on top of that, you have:
Deep sadness because you hide out in your room, inside, with no fresh air or exercise.
Difficult relationships because you externalize and yell at people.
Poor marks because you turn to drugs, alcohol, or you simply disconnect.
Extra weight packed on because you eat when you are stressed.
Credit card bills because you feel better when you shop.
Relationship issues because you vent on social media.
I hope you are getting the picture. The A.S.A. (Anxiety, Sadness and/or Anger) is only one small part of the misery when you look at the big picture. It is well worth it to examine your coping strategies and to get into the habit of choosing healthy ones.
Single Thread versus a Net
You may feel that, since you are so deep in the hole that you've dug for yourself, a way out seems impossible. So, you just resign yourself to the belief that this is your reality for always. You cannot dream of what it feels like to be out of the hole – you’ve forgotten. If getting out of the hole is something that you want, you may be tempted to count on others to get you out. You latch onto someone as if your life depended on that person, and, to you, it does. This is dangerous on a number of levels.
Firstly, what if you put all your eggs in their basket and they let you down? How much farther can you fall? You will soon find out. Consider being that person, trying to live their own life plus yours, too? Wow, that's one hell of a load to carry – even if they offer. At some point, resentment may turn up, followed by disappointment for you, and the cycle begins again. To rely on one person is dangerous. You could think of them as a thread. If you have only one connection, one person, you are holding onto life by a single thread. Instead, surround yourself with a complete net, a support network. Reach out to as many people as you can: family, caring adults, professional help, close friends whom you can trust. Create a network of support so that, if a single thread lets go, you won’t fall.
There is one critical person in this process. YOU. All of these people can help, but the real hero is you. You are the one shining person in your life who can save you every time, regardless of how deep your hole is or how long you've been in it or what you went through to fall down into it. Your true hero is YOU. To put it another way, if you don’t seriously want to get better, you won’t. It’s plain and simple. It is pointless to ask anyone else for help, unless you are ready to help yourself. Support and help is all around you, but it doesn’t work until you are ready to be an active part of the healing process.
You have to want to get better.
How do you get to the point of wanting to help yourself?
Believe that there is a life for you that is not painful to live. Imagine your future self looking back on you now and saying, “Wow, that was a really hard time, but I am so glad it’s over, and I'm thankful that I made it out and have the life I do.”
Once you can welcome the possibility of a happier outlook on life, move to:
Write yourself a little poster. On it write, “I want to feel better, and today I will take actions that will move me towards a better future.” Then, hang it up in your room so that you see it all the time, and it will help you every day
Experiment with some Towards Coping Strategies.
Dealing with Loss
Life throws us many challenges. We feel blindsided by events that seem out of our control. Other challenges are consequences of decisions that we made in the past. Every once in a while, you will face challenges that overwhelm you. You may feel like the world is closing in on you, like you are drowning in sorrow and anger and self-pity. This pain and confusion is very real and should not be dismissed as trivial. Sadness, anger and despair are very important. Without these emotions, you would not be able to appreciate joy, peace and hope. By now, you understand the concept of choosing positive coping strategies so you do not create more stress and pain for yourself. With every challenge that you get through, you will be strengthened to meet future challenges.
Heartache is one of the worst stresses to deal with, whether it is a breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend, betrayal of a friend, parents separating, or death of a loved one. Loss and heartache can seem almost unbearable. Please consider carefully how you choose to deal with overwhelming emotions.
One of the most inspiring young people I know is a former student who went through incredible deep pain and sadness, and the whole time he stayed focused on being good to himself and those around him.
To know Adam in high school, you’d have seen a great athlete, a wonderful, popular, funny, hardworking, and incredibly dependable guy. Every student thought the world of him, and so did every teacher. He was a tell-it-straight kind of guy, honest and compassionate. He cared about everyone. To know him now, he is still all of these things, and he owns his very own successful company, which he started from the ground up right after college. Through an environmental focus, his company is making the world a better place. To know this guy is to love and admire him.
Adam has been through a lot though, more than any teen should have to endure. Many teens dealing with even a fraction of what he has gone through have turned to extremely negative coping strategies. When Adam was 12, his parents divorced. He watched his dad battle alcoholism and saw his dad’s life slowly unravel. After the divorce, he lived with his mom, but, when he was 15, his mom moved away to remarry, and Adam chose to stay and live on his own. That same year, he was called to the hospital to find out his dad had died. Adam continued to live on his own throughout high school and into college. When he was 19, he received an early morning phone call that his girlfriend had died in a drunk-driving accident. Alcoholism, divorce, living alone, death of a parent and then the death of a girlfriend … How does a person get through all of that and still have hope and optimism?
When I was writing this book, I asked Adam to share with me how he made it through. He said, “I depended on a lot of great people. The teachers at my high school were amazing, and they became my family, I owe a lot to them. My friends were a huge support. They always called me to go out and fill my time, and I almost always said yes. Distraction was very good for me. I had to get my mind off things. I turned to the gym. I worked out hard and released a lot of negative energy that way. I also had to cry it out, too. When I really felt bad, I would remind myself that there were so many people around the world that have it way worse than me. I would think about them. I would also think of my girlfriend, who was incredibly positive, and I would think, ‘How would she have wanted me to carry on?’”
Adam is a perfect example of someone choosing positive coping strategies in the face of misery. I think he saved his own life, certainly the quality of it. He still falls back on healthy strategies, and he knows he can get through a lot; he’s proven it to himself. He wants to help others find their inner strength, too, and he takes every opportunity to do just that.
Adam managed to stay true to himself because he had a strong sense of his own value and the value of others’ lives, the value of life itself. He is incredibly wise. That’s true Self-Esteem. It’s a beautiful thing.
Pain is an important part of life. As I mentioned before, sadness and anger enable us to fully appreciate joy and hope. Without conflict, we could not appreciate peace. Without sickness, we could not appreciate health. Without death, we could not appreciate life. We spend so much time searching for answers to the pain in our lives, when we should be searching for the lessons that pain teaches us. If we have learned nothing, the pain will be all that we have in the end.
There is one strategy that I deal with in more detail in the final chapter, but I will introduce it here. It is called, “A Glimmer of Hope.” When you are in your darkest hour, is there a tiny glimmer of hope that can get you through this? Is there a tiny glimmer of hope that life will get better? Hold on to that glimmer, focus on it, and let it grow. Believe in your inner strength.
Aim for life getting better, and use toward coping strategies to get there. Move toward hope, kindness, peace and health. Focus on Life. Focus on Love.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
— Zen saying
Chapter 3 Big-Picture Points
“Success is determined not by whether or not you face obstacles, but by your reactions to them. And, if you look at these obstacles as a containing fence, they become your excuse for failure. If you look at them as a hurdle, each one strengthens you for the next.” — Ben Carson
Life presents challenges. It is a natural part of existence for everyone. How you interpret those challenges will dictate the amount of stress you experience. The big question is how do you handle the challenges in your life?
It is easy for us to respond to stress with A.S.A. (anxiety, sadness and/or anger). It is amazing the number of young people who are overcome by A.S.A. and don’t know what to do about it. You need to learn to deal with these challenges in a healthy and productive way in order to control your stress response, improve your relationships and to improve your life.
This is a critical time in your life for you to try out healthy coping strategies when you are faced with challenges and stress.
The coping strategies you learn to fall back on now are what you will continue to fall back on for the rest of your life. The fights you pick, the alcohol you drink or joint you smoke now, as a teen, might not seem so bad as a strategy, but it has a very different face when you are a professional, an employee, a caregiver, a spouse and, most importantly, a parent.
The goal of this book is to help you improve your own self-esteem. Improving your self-esteem is important for many reasons. One of those reasons is so that you will never become a Victim of abuse. But, it may surprise you to know that I also want you to improve your self-esteem so that you will never be a Perpetrator of Abuse. It is critical for you to get a handle on your own issues so YOU do not harm others.
In the long run, unhealthy coping strategies make your life worse and create more stress in your life. So, right now, as you are figuring out how to deal with life’s challenges, choose wisely. Choose healthy strategies so you can make it through the rough times life has to offer and come out a better, stronger and healthier person because of those choices.