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Column: How to save your own life

Dr. Susan Mathison, Catalyst Medical Center

Some say the holidays were invented to inject some cheer into the darkest days of the year. But the truth is, dark days can hit us any time of year. From natural disasters, business failures, health problems, divorce, job loss, even death, we never know what dark valley lurks around the next corner.

As I am bouncing back from a trying time in my life, it still hits me. In the past month, one friend lost her husband, two friends lost their mothers, another lost her father and one friend lost her infant daughter. The technicolor world turns shades of gray and black. And as much as we wish we could take the pain away. These friends suffer.

How do we survive through the suffering?

In the past few months, I've collected a few reference articles on this topic, not knowing when the right time would be to share this. But now seems like the right time. Many of us might be celebrating the holiday season, but this also might be a time of great pain for others.

I'll share some insights from big minds like Tim Ferris, Martha Beck and Sheryl Sandberg.

I met Tim Ferris, author of the 4 Hour Workweek, and several other bestsellers, at a TEDMED conference in 2010. A tech investor and entrepreneur, Tim had suffered from depression and contemplated suicide while in college. He was saved when his mother discovered a book in his possession about suicide and timidly asked if he needed help. He realized he did, and he got help.

I met Martha Beck at her ranch in California. Martha has multiple PhDs, a monthly column in Oprah Magazine, numerous best-selling books and is hysterically funny. She has a magical connection to Africa and a non-verbal special needs son. She's seen many peaks and deep valleys in her life and shares them so eloquently.

I've never met Sheryl Sandberg, but was deeply impacted by her book "Lean In." She suddenly lost her husband in 2015 while on a vacation, returning home alone with her two young kids. Her post-traumatic insights are poignant and helpful.

What follows are some tips on survival from these powerhouse people, along with a few that I've learned from friends over the years. Share them if it feels right to you. Use them and get help if you are having trouble.

1. Keep the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number handy: 800-272-8255. It's always available.

2. Keep perspective. Look ahead 5 years and ask, will there still be important people and issues in your life? Likely, yes.

3. Think of others. Losing you would crush those closest to you.

4. Get out of your head and into your body. Move daily, even if it is just a 15-minute walk.

5. Have a morning routine that doesn't involve a screen. Stretch, breathe, write in a journal (see The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron) and have a cup of tea or coffee.

6. Practice gratitude. Both Beck and Sandberg say that gratitude is transformative. Our brains can't simultaneously experience fear and appreciation.

7. Eat well, even if you don't have much of an appetite. Avoid lots of sugar and processed carbs, which induce blood glucose swings that can make you feel unsteady.

8. Avoid alcohol and mind-altering substances. You need all those neurons for recovery.

9. Prioritize sleep, even though it can be hard. Talk to you doctor if you go more than a week with little sleep.

10. Share your troubles with your doctor. Get a referral for counseling, though you don't need a referral to get started. Ask friends for recommendations. Don't be ashamed to seek professional help.

11. Breathe. Intentional deep breathing calms the nervous system. There are many patterns, like in for 5, out for 7, and box breathing... in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4 and hold for 4. Repeat. Check YouTube for tutorials.

12. Always have something to look forward to. Set up dinner with 2-3 friends once a week. Someone I know bought 2 lottery tickets each week, one Powerball and one Mega Million. She did a little dreaming about what she would do with the money, and it was a fun distraction.

13. Always remember, you matter to so many. The sun always rises, and you can get through this. Life may have a new normal, but yours still has excellent value.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created Email her at