Tired of getting unhelpful advice during times of stress? Try staying hopeful together instead, says Megan (Head of Fundraising & Digital)
What’s the least helpful thing you’ve ever been told when you’re stressed?
“Just take a deep breath.”
“You don’t have it that bad, though, do you?”
“It’s all in your head.”
“Everything will be fine.”
…Sound familiar? They do to me.
These kinds of responses all have one thing in common – apart from being totally infuriating to hear when you’re feeling under pressure. They’re all absolute statements and instructions: things will be okay, you haven’t got it as bad as me, take a deep breath and you will feel better.
During stress-inducing situations, when it feels like things are spinning out of control and all getting too much, “It will all be fine” can sound very much like “You’re wrong,” “That’s irrational,” or the dreaded “You’re crazy.”
So why do we so often gravitate towards saying things like this, when they’re so unhelpful during times of stress?
When we’re happy and well, statements like ‘everything will be fine’ reflect the sunny outlook we can have on life. They’re phrases that carry certainty; assurance; concrete edges around a world that’s bright and comfortably predictable.
When we know in our hearts without a doubt that everything really will be okay, we’re fundamentally holding an absolute belief in our own safety – and that of our loved ones, too.
So when a loved one chooses to confide in you that their world is in fact falling apart, perhaps it’s natural to recoil back into the safety of our own worldviews, with a quick “It can’t be that bad”, or “It’s all in your head”.
When we’re well, these are mantras we must believe for our own sake, as much as for those we love who are struggling. We just can’t afford to believe that the person who confides in us might be right after all. Of course, you don’t want them to suffer: so you have to believe that they won’t.
Thinking about these responses, I think we latch onto them so instinctively in the face of stress and sadness because they reinforce our sense of hope: hope that things might be okay, or get better, or make sense in the future. But hoping that something might get better is very different to believing, with 100% certainty, that it absolutely will get better.
In this day and age, there’s a lot to be uncertain about, and indeed a lot that even those in power in our society don’t know for sure. And it is easier than ever to look as though we’ve got it all together in our online spaces, of course. But uncertainty is part of the human condition, and we’d all do well to remember how easy it is to feel overwhelmed, out of control and profoundly stressed about the future we share.
It takes strength to maintain hope, and some are naturally better than others at staying optimistic. But I find it interesting, and helpful, to reflect that hopefulness rests on the same foundation of uncertainty as stress and anxiety do. In fact for me, the anxiety that comes from intense stress often arises out of being too aware of all the many possible outcomes of a given, uncertain situation. They do say ignorance is bliss, don’t they?
Hope leaves room for uncertainty, yet defies the stress that it so often provokes. Hope shares uncertainty with stress, anxiety and depression, even though it looks quite different to them.
Hope understands uncertainty, but sees the happiness that might be on the horizon, as well as the risks and dangers.
Hope sees the sunrise in the distance, and marches on towards it – even if it can’t quite see its footsteps in the dark.