In our 2019 book, Using Psychology to Cope with Everyday Stress, Mike Church and I presented a three-step coping model: Acceptance, Accountability, and Planning. Consider Alice – 45 years old and happily married – whose youngest child just graduated from law school and moved to a distant city to join a law firm. Suddenly, Alice is faced with an empty nest as all three of her children have relocated to far-away areas to pursue their careers and lives. Alice feels frustrated and fearful for her future. “Have I failed?” she wonders. “Should I have finished college and started a career before having kids? Am I a burden on my husband?” Alice begins to develop sleep problems and gain weight; she watches too much TV and spends too much time on social media. She sees that she is deteriorating, both physically and psychologically. One day she looks in the mirror and says with disgust: “Enough of this crap. I’m losing control. I’m calling that counseling office Ann [a good friend] said helped her. I need to put some structure back into my life and redefine myself.”
Kevin, 56, is widowed with two sons who are married and live 2,000 miles away. He is on disability because of a work accident from several years ago. Physically, he can handle most normal everyday chores and activities, but he spends most of his days at home feeling sorry for himself. His accident and his wife’s death from cancer happened within months of each other, and his behavior switched from, “Out of my way, I can handle this,” to, “I’m not much good anymore.” His depression grows almost daily.
One day a friend, Jim, called: “Kevin! I need help. I have to deliver for Meals on Wheels today but I pulled my back. I can drive OK, but getting in and out of the car is agony. Would you come with me and take the meals up to the door?” Kevin was glad to get out of the house and said he would help. At the first stop, a woman yelled out when he knocked, “It’s open! Just bring it in.” She was in the kitchen and Kevin put the meal in the fridge for her. He started for the front door but she grabbed his arm and said, “Pray with me, please.” Kevin returned to the car and told Jim: “I stood there holding her hand while she thanked God for me being there to help her. Prayed for me! I mean, no one ever prayed for me, Jim!” At later stops, no one else prayed for him, but nearly every one of them said something like, “God bless you,” or, “You’re a saint, sir.”
Kevin got home that day, looked around the house, and realized that he was missing out on life. He picked up the phone and called the Office of Aging. He said he wanted to volunteer to deliver meals. The lady said great and added that they also needed drivers to taxi old folks around to their doctor appointments, take them shopping – wherever they needed to go. Kevin said, “I’m your guy, ma’am. Just tell me what needs doing and I’ll get it done.”
What do Alice and Kevin have in common? They both came to the realization that they needed to take control of their lives and cope better. They accepted the reality of their situations and took responsibility for their dilemmas. No blaming others, no rationalizations – just the determined recognition that, “This is on me and I need help getting out of it.” Then they began to develop a plan. For Alice, it was deciding to begin counseling. As treatment progressed, she and her therapist developed a coping plan that made her a more active participant in life. The key was action – doing things, not just sitting around focusing on her emotions. Same with Kevin. As soon as he picked up the phone and called the Office of Aging, he was engaging his plan: Time to do things, not just sit around and focus on emotions. Each put a general plan in action, and the details would emerge as time went on.
Is your life out of balance? Do you make the mistake of focusing on your emotions and resolving to get rid of them? Are conditions like depression, anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness, jealousy, anger, and frustration your reality? You must accept them as a part of you, not try to excise them from your life; you would lose a part of who you are. You must focus instead on actions to solve a problem, not to relieve you of emotions. Actions will rejuvenate you as you see yourself participating in life, doing things that bring you contentment. Your emotions will still be present, but they will not dominate you. They will take a back seat to new feelings of being worthy, strong, capable, and fulfilled – feelings that will emerge from using your actions to solve a problem and strengthen you. Acceptance, Accountability, and Planning – those are the steps to restoring a constructive, productive, and satisfying life, and coping successfully with your stressors.