By Jude Star
I’m writing this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stressful times indeed. I’ve been working with clients over this time as well as talking with family and friends, and it’s become abundantly clear at how bad we all are at managing our stress in these uncertain times. I’m offering some simple advice to not just help alleviate some of the stress, but to shift from a state of unconscious reactivity to a conscious responsiveness.
Mobilizing Energy and Your Sphere of Influence
When we’re faced with a threat, our bodies respond with stress and fear. It’s the body’s way of mobilizing energy for a response, preparing us to run or fight. A lot of the threats our ancestors faced could be fought off or ran away from, and so our flight/fight response prepares us to take action.
Most threats these days cannot be physically fought off or run away from, but our bodies still react as if they can be. This creates an excess of fear-based energy with no outlet that mobilizes through this biological activation. If left unchecked, this energy will find its own outlet in worried paralysis or, worse, frazzled and irrational actions that just cause more harm. Instead, we need to take inventory of our resources and options to figure out what exactly it is we can do.
In times like these, our minds tend to dwell on things beyond our control. Some say the mind is a problem-solving device, and if it has no problems to solve it will actually create them. Well, given these times of global crisis, the mind will dwell on fears and concerns as if it can solve them.
Now if you’re a healthcare worker or scientist who studies infectious diseases, you have a very clear role in these challenging times.
But for most of us, our role isn’t clear. What we need to do is evaluate our sphere of influence. What impact can we have on the situation?
For most of us, we can have the highest impact on those closest to us: our friends, family, and co-workers. What can you do for these people? Do they need some practical help, or maybe just someone to talk to?
Take some time to really contemplate your own unique sphere of influence. Where can you create an impact? How can you be truly a positive influence?
While our minds inevitably dwell on the big, scary issues that are outside of our control, we need to remind ourselves of what we do have control over. This shifts us from a feeling of helplessness to a feeling of empowerment.
Given your resources, needs, responsibilities, and limitations, what do you want to take on?
This doesn’t have to be anything big, and in fact it’s probably better if it’s not. You want to take on straightforward tasks that have a positive impact on either yourself or the people immediately around you. This can be anything from cleaning up your kitchen to reading a book, creating art, going for a walk, or comforting a friend. Create and take on some small, doable tasks.
Talking to people in your networks, especially those that are more isolated, can be very helpful. It’s easy to spin out in our minds obsessing over the news, so a thoughtful conversation can give someone the opportunity to get out of that cycle and connect with another human.
Acceptance – Not taking on Issues Outside Your Sphere of Influence
Once you’re clear on what you feel capable of taking on, the next step is to figure out what you can’t take on. That is, acknowledge your limitations.
In times like this, it’s not uncommon to burn ourselves out worrying about events we have no control over. By doing this, we are less available for what we actually do have control over. To be maximally available to ourselves and those around us, to be responsive to the crisis at hand, we have to intentionally avoid taking on the stress and pain and chaos outside of our immediate sphere of influence.
This is hard, I know. One of the most beautiful things about being human is our ability to empathize. We can connect with others and feel into their experience, which creates the intimate bonds of humanity. But as amazing as it is, our empathy is also something we need to be intentional about and put up boundaries for the sake of our own wellbeing.
The unfortunate reality is that the world has always been overrun with suffering. If we look at history, it’s full of unimaginable pain. If we look at nature and the web of life, it too is marked by unavoidable suffering. Not only are animals often hunted and eaten by prey, but injured animals get diseased and die slow, painful deaths. Existence is harsh.
In Buddhism, the first noble truth is that suffering is inescapable. The second noble truth teaches that we may overcome suffering not through resistance or avoidance, but through acceptance.
Yes, the first major step to overcoming the overwhelming suffering in the world is to accept it as fact. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about those who suffer, it just means that we recognize that fighting against the idea of suffering is wasted energy, and accepting the reality of suffering softens the experience, freeing up energy to actually address the issues we need to address.
Now, where most people get hung up is that they equate acceptance with approval. “How can I possibly accept all the suffering in the world?” people ask. But what they’re really asking is how can they possibly approve of it? Well, you don’t need to approve of it. You don’t need to like it one bit. To accept that something exists is not the same as approving of it or supporting its existence.
This doesn’t mean that acceptance is easy. Accepting what we don’t like about the world means coming to terms with harsh realities. We are challenged to give up our fantasies, desires, and projections onto our life and the world, and simply accept things in the imperfect state as they are.
It’s easier to live in a fantasy world than it is to come into and accept the real world, with all its pain and limitations. There may be a lot of grief and anger about the state of reality; to accept the world as it is also means that we must accept our feelings about the world and our place in it.
So long as we resist how we actually feel about the world and what’s happening, we remain stuck. These unacknowledged feelings colour our experiences and creep into every corner of our being, keeping us from being able to settle and find any sense of peace.
Learning to Relax into Acceptance
We generally tell ourselves an unspoken lie: that by worrying and obsessing, we are more prepared to respond to challenges. That being fixated is actually caring, and to accept reality and find inner wellbeing means we don’t care.
Take a moment and feel into your body, notice the energy activation that is tied to the worry and uncertainty around you. Feel this restlessness as it is, without trying to change it. This isn’t helping anyone. This is an outdated biological reaction to threat, and it doesn’t make our response more effective. Quite the opposite: it makes us less rational and therefore less able to act effectively or helpfully.
Coming to a place of inner ease is essential for intelligent and measured responsiveness. It’s also important for being able to rest our system and remain healthy. A burnt out and frazzled nervous system isn’t doing anyone any good, so we make our own wellbeing a priority to be more effective in all we need to do.
We find this inner peace not through escaping discomfort, but from accepting that discomfort is inescapable. When we accept our experience as it is, we give up the subtle resistance and soften the tightness and clinching in our being. We can start to relax. We relax our negotiating of experience and be with it as it is.
Take some breaths and just be with all the discomfort in your body. Accept it for what it is. Let go of all the tension you can, relax your body as much as possible, and then just be with whatever tension or activated energy is left, being with the sensations just as they are, without any story or interpretation.
The Negative Feedback Loop
Our minds and bodies are interconnected, forming a feedback loop that can lead to intense emotional experiences. For example, we see something in the media that makes us uneasy and keep thinking about it. Then tension and stress develop in our gut, and that feeling becomes our new normal, and only continues to spur more worrisome thoughts, which continue to reinforce our distress.
We need to break this cycle of distress, and we do this by addressing both our minds and bodies.
Mind Your Mind
Watch your media and information intake. Our mind is very sensitive and we need to honour this. Being informed is important, but our mind tends to fixate on information, as if some new information will bring us relief. Be smart about what media you take in, and do it with intention and awareness. Decide what information you need to know, and how often you’re going to check the news. If you catch yourself mindlessly reading headlines or zoning out in front of the news, it’s time to turn it off.
Be aware of the conversations you’re having and their underlying energy. Stressed people have a tendency to try to rope other people into their stress. Don’t let other people pull you into their world, and be mindful of stressing out others. It’s a good idea to connect with others for emotional support, but try to get past the fear and stress and into the underlying feelings of loss, helplessness, and loneliness.
A proven way to protect yourself from empathetic emotional burnout is to intentionally and actively generate compassion and care towards yourself and others. Empathy is attuning yourself to how others are feeling — essentially taking on their feelings — while compassion is actively generating good will and care and projecting it outwards. Intentionally generating compassion has been shown to protect people from emotional overwhelm and burnout.
Find a sense of balance in outlooks. There is no shortage of catastrophizing, and the media know that this grabs and keeps attention. More balanced articles aren’t as sensational and therefore not as profitable, but very important to seek out for our own peace of mind. There are plenty of articles out there explaining why things aren’t as bad as many are predicting, and they are worth seeking out.
Mind Your Body: A Simple Way to Find and Harness Your Energy
When in distress we often get stuck in our head. Coming back to the body can be grounding and help us to relax. A simple exercise is to put your hands on your abdomen and/or chest, wherever you feel the most activation. And just breathe and feel your hands, feel the soothing touch starting to slow things down. You can also feel your feet on the floor, feel the warmth in your hands. Most discomfort happens in our head and torso, so moving our attention to our hands and feet can help to calm us when feeling overwhelmed.
The next step is to mobilize energy. This means shifting from passive to active. Sitting in front of the TV is passive while walking, cooking, cleaning, writing, and drawing are active. When in distress, our bodies responds by mobilizing energy to fight or run. We want to channel this energy, let it flow, as trying to repress it is just creating more conflict.
Being OK with Not Knowing
Not knowing is scary. This is why people are so incredibly certain in their worldviews. “Knowing” how the world works, which ideologies are right and which are wrong offers us a sense of security, but it’s all imagined. The reality is that very little is known, and the unknown dwarfs any false sense of understanding we may rely on.
The Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa once said, “The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.” And this is the reality of the world we live in. Even the feeling of standing on solid ground is impermanent, because everything is always changing, and nothing is truly fixed.
Buddhism teaches that we cannot control our world, and therefore the only intelligent thing to do is accept it as it is. Fighting against the nature of reality is like trying to swim upstream: it’s just a waste of energy. Instead, why not enjoy floating downstream, letting the current carry us.
Loss is inevitable. Change is inevitable. Fighting these principles is resisting the most fundamental aspects of reality.
Buddhists have a practice where they meditate on death, the death around them and the idea that their own life will also come to an end. While this may sound morbid or nihilistic, the result is quite the opposite. Contemplating our limitations allows us to have more freedom inside of that space. Knowing that this life ends, we can start to really appreciate the time we have and make better use of it. Contemplating death inevitably leads to the realization that life is precious, and we shouldn’t waste it.
It is our acceptance of reality, of the limitations of our being and knowing, that allows us to flow with what’s unfolding, to surrender to the current of the stream, to not waste our energy on the battles we can’t win, and to intelligently focus our energy on the projects that promote a collective wellbeing.
The Silver Lining
The world has been struggling for some time in too many areas to even mention. It’s clear that to survive and flourish as a species, we need to undergo a fundamental change. We need a reevaluation and restructuring of values, and this is no small task. We need a new system, and new systems arise out of chaos.
Chaos theory comes from the observation that orderly and functional systems in nature are born out of chaos and disorder. This theory has proven relevant across disciplines.
In psychology, we tend to think we should help clients avoid the chaos and bring them back to a grounded state so they can better cope with their problems. But now some are proposing a more balanced approach, that while we do want to help people find grounding in times of overwhelm, it can actually be fruitful to remain in the unknowing.
Chaos is the fertile space from which new ideas and systems are born. With rapid changes happening collectively and individually, our old ways of consumption and survival are no longer sustainable. Because of the chaos arising in every area, some think it’s important to revert back to old systems of order. This regression is only resisting the inevitable, fighting with reality in an attempt to find solid ground that no longer exists (and never really existed).
Time and time again, we humans have responded to the challenges of life in creative and proactive ways. The silver lining to all of the chaos in the world is that it’s shaking things up, showing us we can’t rely on governments or any organization to fix our problems. It’s up to us. The chaos is asking each of us to reflect and participate in the world, to no longer be passive observers but active participants.