When my kids were young we attended a survivalist class at our local nature center. Over the course of a few weeks, we learned what to do if we got lost in the woods or the desert, how long we could survive without water, how to filter water, how to build a shelter, and among other things, what to include in our survival kit. There’s a certain level of peace and confidence in knowing that you have the skillset to survive an extreme situation—and even more so when you know that if your kids were somehow separated from you, they would have better chances too.

Recently, this got me thinking. Why don’t we have personal, emotional/mental survival kits? So here’s my first pass at helping you build one. Which means of course, that if you have any ideas to add, I’d love to hear your input!

Just like with a normal survival kit, you actually want to have more than one. You want to have your big ol’ grandaddy kit that has EVERYTHING, but you also want a small portable kit that you can keep in your car or your purse–something you can access just about anywhere.

So let’s start with the big ol’ kit. You can adapt as you see fit; these are simply suggestions/tools that have worked for me. I’ve also organized it in terms of physical survival kit supplies because that’s just fun and the similes worked. Don’t you just love when that happens?

Water. Craving a sense of inner peace is kind of like our physical need for water.

If we stay in fight-or-flight mode for too long, we lose our ability to think clearly. Similarly, not having enough water affects our mood, thinking, and ability to keep going. When something extremely stressful occurs (like, ya know, every week in 2020) use one or several of these water-like methods to fill ourselves back up:

  • Take a few minutes (or more) away from the stimulus.
  • Go somewhere safe and cry.
  • Remove yourself from the situation if possible.
  • Focus on your breathing: in through your nose while you count to 4, hold for a count of 4, out for a count of 4, repeat 4 times.
  • Ask a friend if you can vent to them, set a timer and finish when the timer is done.
  • Write ALL your feelings out (remember: you can always throw it away or burn it).
  • Give yourself at least to the count of 5 to respond if you need to.

Food. The ability to problem-solve and think through things is similar to our physical need for food.

We can survive for weeks without it but if we don’t get it eventually the results will be fatal.

  • Nourish yourself with the words of wise, enlightened folks. I have two or three go-to books that I always keep nearby. I know I can pretty much open up to any page and find some words of perspective and encouragement.
  • Start a playlist of songs on Pandora or Spotify that is your “feel good” or “badass” mix. Listen whenever you need a boost.
  • Start a playlist of motivational or encouraging videos on YouTube, or do this with podcasts. The point is to make it easy to find those nutritious bits of perspective when you need it most.
  • While you may be tempted to add a trashy novel or a reality show to this, these outlets are the junk food of this metaphor. They may be entertaining, but they’re ultimately a distraction. What will actually sustain you is nutrient-dense insights. The only real exception to this I’d say is music because any tune can potentially give you the energy you need.

? Rest. We all know our physical need for sleep (although sometimes we like to ignore it).

Here I’m talking about both physical and mental/emotional rest—we need both to heal and restore our systems. We cannot survive without it.

  • Sleep itself can vastly affect our mood and ability to cope. So as much as you can, prioritize a good night’s sleep, or at least take a nap. Experts say it’s even more important than exercise because it is quite literally the way your body heals and replenishes itself.
  • Rest can mean a lot of different things. It might be a nap; or it might be just watching TV. It might mean setting aside your to-do list today. Whatever it is, your body knows when it needs it… and your mind does too. So listen, dammit. Seriously. We (esp. Americans) are taught that it’s admirable to push yourself beyond your limits. While sometimes we do benefit from pushing ourselves further than we thought possible, rest is also very necessary for survival, especially in times of high stress. So give yourself a break and prioritize rest just as much as action.
  • Schedule times for mental breaks during your work day. Either literally schedule it in your calendar or use a timer app like Pomodoro to get your sprints of work and rest periods implemented.

? Shelter. Creating physical and mental space for yourself is just as important as our human need for physical shelter.

  • Creating a personal safe space is one of the most elemental human needs. For most of us that means a home, or at least a bedroom of our own. Yet, sometimes we don’t even have that. (I’ve been there). In these cases, it’s important to have something that is yours. If you share a home with others, create even a small section of a room that is decorated with things you love. If you do not have that, carry a few trinkets that remind you of who you are and what you love to provide a semblance of grounding. When I didn’t have a room of my own and was sleeping on my mom’s couch, I had my belongings in my minivan. Sometimes I’d just drive somewhere and sit in my vehicle with my things to feel like I had something that was mine in this world.
  • Aside from the physical need, you’ll need a mental shelter too. This is where I like to remind folks of the idea of the Untouched Soul—that invincible part of yourself that’s untouched by the storms that may be raging around you. Being alone in nature, having a moment to yourself in your room, going for a drive, or talking to a loved one can provide that “shelter” and help you get back in touch with that untouched part of yourself.
  • Another way to provide shelter to yourself is to set clear boundaries with others. Deciding ahead of time what you are (or are not) willing or not willing (or able) to do in a given situation can help remove the emotion from it and help you retain your power and autonomy without feeling like an asshole.

? Exposure. If you’re stuck out in the wild, temperature change can be the difference between making it through the night or not.

In this simile we’ll say the more depressive emotions are cold and the more anxious emotions are heat. We can adapt to shifts, but when the “temperature” goes too far under or over for too long, it threatens our wellbeing. Here are some tools for regulating your emotional temperature.

  • Ongoing positive lifestyle practices can act like a protective layer against the ups and downs of depression, anxiety, and stress. Having a few key routines in your day can help regulate the temperature of your emotions. Consider integrating one or two (or more) of these daily practices into your life:
  • Too “cold:” If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, you may want to look into medication and help from a medical professional. Depression can often manifest gradually, and in ways you don’t even realize until you are out of it. Feeling consistently grumpy, overly tired, numb, or flat can all be signs of depression. It can be similar to being out in the cold for hours and not realizing you have frostbite because your toes went numb.
  • Too “hot:” Conversely, anxiety can sometimes just seem like “stress,” but if you’re struggling with being able to calm yourself, feeling jittery, or having trouble sleeping, it might be time to talk to a mental health professional, or at the least look into some mindfulness practices.

? Increase Your Chances of Being Found. If we’re lost in the woods, there are certain things we can do to figure out where we are, even without a compass.

The same is true for our mental wellbeing. Things that can help us find our way:

  • 2-3 go to books that you love. Ones that ground you, help remind you of who you are, and the bigger, spiritual practice of life.
  • A therapist can help with wayfinding
  • Your own journals, either writing fresh thoughts or revisiting what you’ve written in the past can help you come back to your own self.
  • Follow inspiring people or brands that help you return to a sense of peace and purpose. Just don’t get sucked down the rabbit hole of social media because we all know that almost never helps.
  • Reading new articles or posts, or listening to podcast episodes from trusted insightful people can help you come back to yourself too.
  • Partake in something new: a creative, restorative, or thoughtful class, workshop, or even church, whatever floats your boat. Sometimes getting out of your own head and getting fresh ideas can help you find your way.
  • I keep a “feel good” file full of compliments, testimonials, “yeses,” wins, etc. that remind me of my truest self, even when imposter syndrome is trying to knock me down.

So that’s the BIG survival kit. For a take-anywhere version, I encourage you to look through all of these bullet points and select the top 3 use-in-any-situation-type resources. Write them down on your phone notes or a post-it to keep in your wallet. You’d be surprised how much it can help when you’re in a trying moment to know you have this little list of 3 things to help.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this email series on coping with and harnessing change during these difficult times. And remember, if you have ideas for additions to this survival kit let me know.