I was a Coping Champion — So WTF Happened?

As much as we all may wish for a perfect life, that just isn’t how it works. It doesn’t matter how ‘good’ things are, we, as humans, always encounter situations that challenge us. Maybe it was a difficult childhood. Maybe it was a traumatic experience (or many). Maybe it was the death of someone meaningful. Maybe a harsh relationship. The list of possibilities goes on for eternity. Things happen. And if we are to recover or even grow from each experience, we must pick, practice and improve appropriate coping skills so that we can keep moving forward when life hits us hard.

Some of us have more to cope with than others. Regardless of what we have to deal with, it’s the ability to choose positive coping mechanisms over the negative ones that informs the overall quality of our lives and our level of satisfaction.

It’s no surprise that coping is tightly connected to resilience – the ability to recover from difficult situations. In fact, the definition of resilience includes the concept of coping – if you are resilient, it’s because you can cope with the situations that challenge you.

I, personally, feel like a Coping Champion. I know I am resilient because I have survived and thrived in the face of (over my lifetime) trauma, grief, fear, financial insecurity, sole parenting, abusive relationships, and addiction issues. That knowledge protects and comforts me. It’s not that I anticipated never needing to cope again. It’s more that I *thought* I had a deep understanding of my ability to manage in the face of adversity.

Until I hit perimenopause.
And then suddenly, everything turned upside down.

How could I survive my husband’s suicide when my children were small, but not feel able to survive making it through the day when nothing specific was wrong?

How could I survive being raised by abusive narcissists, but not feel able to get out of bed because of the shame of my heavy menstrual bleeding?

How could I manage to grind through menial jobs to barely financially support my young family for decades, but feel cripplied by anxiety when I finally found interesting work and made enough money to support my children?

Perimenopause, and the crippling symptoms that came with it, absolutely blindsided me. Even as I write those words, it feels unreal.

I think that the unexpected onset of my symptoms, coupled with the fact that my coping skills weren’t helpful and actually made my symptoms worse, started a negative spiral. An easy example, one of many, is that I would experience a symptom (like exhaustion), try to cope (by visualizing the celebration at the end of whatever task was at hand to motivate me through the exhaustion), and miserably fail at coping by being unable to overcome the exhaustion. Rinse, repeat. Over and over until I was paralyzed. In fact, I was worse than paralyzed because the paralysis now included cruel, horrible, critical self-judgement.

Losing my resilience felt like I was losing the very essence of who I was, my identity. And it came without any warning so I was totally unprepared for it.

After many failed attempts to cope, I realized somewhere deep down that there must be a specific cause that was different from anything I had experienced before. And if I could figure out what that cause was, then I’d be able to find a way to cope.

When I talked to my girlfriends and discovered that I wasn’t alone in this mismatch between past and current coping skills, it gave me some strength. Knowing that I wasn’t alone gave me some momentum and helped me get out of bed. I started to read up on exhaustion, crippling anxiety and loss of confidence, and as soon as I added ‘midlife woman’ to my google search terms, the pieces fell into place. I started to understand that I was under the influence of a profound biological change that didn’t respond to any of my old faithful coping techniques I’d used in the past.

TL;DR – never underestimate the power of declining estrogen!

Lucky for me, arming myself with knowledge was a coping mechanism I already used regularly. And as long as I stuck with credible, trustworthy sources (not garbage sites selling me miracle cures) I started to understand that it wasn’t anything I had done to “deserve” this. And it wasn’t that my coping skills were missing. It was just a big, unexpected hurdle in my life, and one that required different coping skills than I was used to using.

I learned how to meditate. I started relaxing on purpose. I started accepting change and making positive mental adjustments. I started really taking care of my body with more high-quality sleep, better nutrition and gentle daily movement.

And I started to really understand the power of my past life experiences. Having already survived so much gave me perspective and a deep understanding that this too would pass.

Recently, the declining health of a needy and narcissistic parent triggered the anxiety that I acquired during perimenopause. So I used a new coping strategy I had embraced while managing perimenopause – being out in nature, focusing on a point of beauty, for even a few minutes. That simple act would kickstart the grounding process and let me work my way back to good mental health. It’s amazing to me that even brief moments of mindfulness in nature has become my most healthy coping strategy for anxiety when I feel it coming on. And the cheapest!

Without judgement about how long it took me to learn them, I can now recognize the simplicity of my current coping techniques. Nature. Breathing. Being quiet. Being kind to myself. I rarely use these words (because they aren’t helpful and feel a bit mean…) but if only I had relaxed into those simple actions it might have been a smoother ride. Then again, the me from back then needed the struggle to finally realize that something so simple as “nature” could be so effective. Bring on the bees!

Written By:

Jennifer Vander Zalm

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