Emotional turbulence

What a difference a couple of weeks can make. When I last wrote about the stress of COVID-19, it was becoming a source of anxiety, but it felt remote, still at a distance for most of us. We were still going to work, shaking hands and enjoying restaurants and movies. Now it has completely upended the lives of virtually every American. I can hear birds chirping outside my window in the springlike weather, but theirs is the only sound of cheerfulness I hear.

Underlying all the busyness of reorganizing the home office, figuring out how to use Zoom meetings, and shopping for bleach is a current of fear and uncertainty. We know it’s only a matter of time before we, or someone we love, is diagnosed with the virus. We have no idea how long we will be confined to this circumscribed existence. We’re unsure how far out to cancel our plans. Even as I type this, I can feel the knot tightening in my stomach.Take me away

Today I was flipping through Thich Nhat Hanh‘s book, “Fear.” He writes that, “If you are truly present and know how to take care of the present moment as best you can, you are doing your best for the future already,” and won’t lose “yourself to anxiety and uncertainty.” What can any of us do right now except do our best one day at a time, trying to protect and be present for the people who need us?

In an email today, Michael O’Donnell (CEO of the Art & Science of Health Promotion Institute) wrote that, “We need to enhance our social embrace while we increase our physical distance” from others. Yes, we may be physically confined to our homes, but reaching out socially and emotionally is more important than ever. My daughter and I have been writing longer emails to each other and spending more time talking on the phone than usual. My husband is calling his siblings more often. I’m trying to spend more time on the phone with my elderly mother as well, because she’s even more isolated than the rest of us. None of it feels like quite enough, but I’m taking care of the present moment as best I can.

Living by yourself at this time can be lonely, but living with others is challenging too. With some of us laid off and others working from home, it can feel like no one has quite the amount of space they are used to. Good communication and some ground rules about privacy, workspace, and household obligations can help, as can patience and a sense of humor. While the first few days together were pretty stressful, I’m beginning to sense a new rhythm to life in my home as we all settle in to our revamped routines.

Here are some other things I’m doing to manage fear, loneliness & boredom:

  • Practicing belly breathing – placing hands on the belly and taking slow, deep breaths while focusing on the rise and fall of the abdomen.
  • Using online classes for yoga. Yogaglo will give you a 14-day free trial.
  • Guided meditation using phone apps like Mindfulness Coach, Headspace or Calm.
  • Reading! If you haven’t already, sign up for digital downloads from the library.
  • Limiting news viewing to certain times of the day.
  • Checking in with friends and relatives regularly. Funny emojis bring a smile.
  • DIY projects – organizing photos, doing something crafty, finally tackling home repairs.
  • Playing board games or putting together puzzles. The old-fashioned games with real pieces, like Monopoly, dominoes or chess pieces are great. The tactile stimulation helps with your nervous energy.
  • Taking regular walks outside – there are so few people out that it is easy to keep your distance in most places. Nature is known to be a wonderful antidote to stress.

If nothing else good comes out of this pandemic, perhaps it’s a way to remind all of us what is most important in life and what is unnecessary. Until we get there, let’s care for each other and remember to be compassionate to ourselves and others.

Take care.

 

 

Welcome to our new stressor: Coronavirus

In America, and globally, levels of stress, worry and anger have been on an upward trend for several years. As if that’s not enough of a concern, we now have the outbreak of Coronavirus arriving in the midst of these already-high levels of stress and anxiety. Given the situation, it would not be alarmist to ask yourself if you have the mental and emotional resources to cope with yet another stressor. 3FD2D89B-6B21-44CE-8A37-648FCD91557E

We can’t isolate Coronavirus from the other stressors in our lives. Its impacts – especially to the economy – may intersect with, and exacerbate, other existing stressors such as worries about job security, the election, health issues, and our children’s futures. When we don’t know exactly what will happen or how bad it will be, what can we do to calm our worries?

For any kind of stressor, there are usually two main ways of handling it – either through a problem-focused approach or an emotion-focused approach. The problem-focused approach asks, “What actions can I take to either eliminate or change this stressor?” The emotion-focused approach doesn’t change the stressor, but may change how you think about it, how often you think about it or how you interact with it.

With Coronavirus, there aren’t many problem-focused steps to take. Why? Because the spread of the virus really isn’t in any individual’s ability to control. The actions we can take are simply those we’ve read about in the press for the past couple of weeks:

  • Wash your hands, frequently and well. See how here.
  • Don’t cough or sneeze on other people.
  • Keep clear of people who seem sick.
  • Don’t go to work if you are sick.

With such a limited ability to act, the only way to keep our worries under control is to look at the emotion-focused strategies we have available. These kinds of strategies help us refrain from catastrophizing, they distract us, they help us reframe our thinking about the virus. Luckily, there are a lot of these kinds of tools available:

  • Tune out the noise on social media. Get your information straight from the CDC here.
  • Reframe the story – instead of focusing on the numbers of cases, think about the billions of people who are well.
  • Express your worries – either to friends or family; or by writing them down  in a journal.
  • Distract yourself – watch a movie, play a game, start a project.
  • Relax with meditation, prayer, or simple breathing practices.
  • Get outside in nature.
  • If necessary, say “STOP” when you find yourself obsessively focusing on the negative.

The difference between the problem-focused and the emotion-focused strategies reminds me in some ways of the concept of effort vs ease in yoga. Effort (or sthira) is about steadiness and strength, while ease (sukha) is about feeling light and balanced. It’s about when to step on the gas (take action) and when to ease off the pedal (find relaxation). We need both of these for managing stress so that we can regain a steady state where we have that sense of balance.

While we may not feel completely easeful until the danger has passed, we can do a lot to calm anxiety by using the tools we have. We may not be in control of this virus, but we are most definitely in control of how we react to it. As Henry Ward Beecher wrote, “Every tomorrow has two handles. We can take hold of it with the handle of anxiety or the handle of faith.”

 

 

 

 

 

February resolution: Have more fun!

January has seemed like the longest month ever to me. As it – finally – comes to an end, I wonder if that’s because I didn’t set out this year with any new intentions. I just eased into 2020 and almost immediately became bogged down in boredom, and maybe a slight case of seasonal depression too. I’m beginning to see that the new year’s resolutions I’ve always scoffed at can serve a purpose — giving this long cold month something to organize itself around.

If that’s the case, then even if you’ve already given up on your resolution (as most people have by now) it’s still done you some good. Just the process of setting a goal and creating a structure for achieving it stimulated your productivity. And if you managed to shed a couple of pounds, try some new form of exercise, or save some money you would have spent at Starbucks, then you’re ahead of the game.

inspirational quotes on a planner
Photo by Bich Tran on Pexels.com

But don’t give up now. Think of it this way: February is the shortest month of the year, so it’s that much easier to keep up with an intention for the whole month. How about reexamining those January 1 goals – can you tweak them? Or, as in my case, set a new one now?

I decided to turn to my “52 Lists” book for inspiration since its ideas are loosely organized around the calendar year. The prompt for week #6 (which roughly corresponds to where we are in the year) was just the ticket: “List the ways you love to have fun.” And then the action step: “Plan to integrate something fun into every day this week.” What a perfect way to set goals for February – instead of focusing on what’s wrong about self, focus on what’s not satisfying about life right now, and do something about it. In other words, put the spotlight on emotional and social health instead of the physical or mental.

I started making the list of things to do for fun, focusing first on the ones that get me out and moving:

  • Hiking
  • Ice skating
  • Seeing friends
  • Going to the movies
  • Exploring new neighborhoods
  • Trying new recipes

The book provides two pages to list all the ways to have fun, but I think I can start with this list. I got a head start by going on a 3-mile hike last weekend, which was the most invigorated I’d felt in a while. And I’ve been talking about going ice skating ever since Christmas – even though I haven’t gone to a rink in years, something in me wants to lace up the old skates and get out there. I think it’s because I remember the freedom and weightlessness of gliding around on the ice.

Skaters

How to put my intentions into action though? If step one was the list and step two is writing about them here, what comes next? Psychology Today has a good article on goal setting and creating an action plan. There I find out that my intention should have a time frame around it, and include some intermediate steps if they’re appropriate. So my action plan for today could include calling a friend to set up a lunch date; checking the web for the hours of the ice rinks; and reading the reviews of new movies so I can plan what to see and put it on the calendar.

Every day is a fresh start, but it may not be smart to just let a day, or a month, unfold any which way. We can have a plan, and still leave the door open for serendipity. Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” I think he meant that it’s important to create the structure, but don’t make it so rigid that there’s only one particular way of reaching the outcome.

 

 

Are your books talking about you?

Do your bookshelves contain a story about you as well as the stories within their covers? What could a stranger walking into your home learn about you from the titles she saw there? I asked myself these questions when I came across this banner in front of the Latvian embassy:

Latvian embassy (1)

Apparently it’s a thing for Latvians to make gentle fun of themselves for being so introverted. But it totally makes sense that a nation of introverts would also be a nation of writers and readers. Introverts, after all, like to have plenty of alone time and prefer to think things through before speaking them out loud. And what better way is there to spend solitary time than with a book or pen?

When I review my bookshelves, I see someone who has some favorite authors (Amy Tan, Chris Bohjalian, Ann Patchett) and nerdy interests (“The Gene,” “Longitude”), but also a healthy supply of the classics, plenty of biographies, and a sizeable collection on stress, spirituality and wellness. There are books for every mood – whether it’s a desire to escape, a curiosity about the world, or a quest for answers about life. Sometimes I deliberately search for a specific book, other times I read whatever is available. But no matter what, I read.

Here’s what I’ve recently been enjoying:

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak. This is a beautifully-written novel about love and loss by the author of “The Book Thief.”  It’s the story of five brothers living near Sydney, Australia who have to deal with the death of their mother and the abandonment of their father. The story goes back and forth in time so that we get a full picture of each character and what drives them. I was slow to be drawn in, but by half-way through, I couldn’t stop reading. I only wish they wouldn’t categorize this book as “young adult” in my local bookstore, because so many fewer people will find it.

The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West by Lorna Gibb. I’ve been a fan of Rebecca West’s ever since reading her magnum opus, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” many years ago, before visiting Yugoslavia for the first time. While this biography is not particularly well-written, it is fascinating all the same for its in-depth look at this formidable 20th century British woman. West was ahead of her time, breaking ground as a writer, journalist and literary critic. She was well-known for her coverage of the Nuremberg trials and for her long relationship with H.G. Wells.

November Road by Lou Berney. What if it was the mob who killed JFK? That’s the premise of this novel about a low-level fixer for a New Orleans mobster who has to flee when he realizes he knows too much. When he meets a woman and her children on the road, he uses them as a convenient cover until he realizes that he actually cares for and wants to protect them. Don’t try to guess the ending of this one.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. This might qualify as “summer reading” if I believed in such a thing, although it would be misleading to characterize this book as “light.” It is a sweet romance about a young woman who comes to teach school in a small English town right before the onset of the first World War. But it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of that war, and it also addresses topics such as sexism, classism and homosexuality in a typically genteel British way.

Louisa May Alcott once said that “Good books, like good friends, are few and chosen; the more select, the more enjoyable.” I suspect that Alcott was an introvert, as am I, but I don’t see the need to be as selective about books as I am about friends. Ranging wide and choosing eclectically can, after all, lead to so many surprising discoveries. I was puzzled a while back when a neighbor asked me what kinds of books I collect (he liked certain types of history). Why would I “collect” just one genre or topic when the whole world is out there?

What do my bookshelves say about me? That I prefer a feast to a single course, a saga to a short story, a journey rather than a day trip. And speaking of trips, if you’re planning one, be sure to grab a book on your way out the door.

 

 

 

Stop trying to be happy, and…just be

Our natural human tendency to focus on what’s wrong often means that “what’s right” can be just under our noses and we don’t see it. Santosha, or contentment, is sometimes hiding in plain sight until the conditions become right for us to discover it.

In yoga, we’re often encouraged by teachers to work toward the midline of the body. I always thought of this instruction as something muscular, a goal that required striving and effort in order to achieve. What I realized only recently is that focusing on the midline is much more than getting muscles and limbs into position – it also refers to being in harmonious alignment, that place we enter when we have the right balance of “sthira” (steadiness and effort) and “sukha” (ease).

Yoga International explains that “sukha” originally referred to the smooth ride that resulted from an axle being well-centered in the wheels of a cart. Today, if I start to drift out of my lane when I’m using cruise control in my car, it will gently pull me back so that I am perfectly centered between the lines – sukha in action. Sukha means being comfortable, sitting in a good space; it is an “authentic state of happiness,” according to Yoga Journal. And that is often where we find contentment.

How do you know when effort and ease are in balance? When have you tried hard enough to be ready to accept where you are? Baron Baptiste writes that, “We have a responsibility in our practice to be straight with ourselves…There’s a difference between accepting where you are and making excuses for hanging back. But really, you know.” On the yoga mat, and in life, listening to the body, the heart, and the mind, we have a sense of what harmonious alignment feels like. Any additional striving is just resistance.

When the natural rhythm between effort and ease is disrupted, we are less able to be resilient in the face of stress. Science teaches us that in any stressful situation, the body wants to return to homeostasis, “steady state.” Much like the cruise control in my car, homeostasis is designed to get us back to exactly where we were before we went off course. But a newer term, “allostasis,” better reflects how we need to respond in many instances. As defined by Bruce McEwen (and quoted by Jon Kabat-Zinn), allostasis means “remaining stable by being able to change.” Allostasis recognizes that there is a range of places where balance can be found.

I can think of countless times in my life when I struggled against something because I wanted it to be just like it was before. Only when I stopped resisting and accepted where I was, could I find a peaceful balance again. I had to change in order to regain stability. As Baron Baptiste writes, “Be where you are and melt into that experience…All the frantic and unnecessary doing will drop away..” Going from effort to ease is recognizing when to cede control and choose to surrender to where you are. It’s the difference between saying, “I’ll be happy when….” and “I’ll be happy now.”

Just as my summer solstice this week will mean the approach of winter for someone in the southern hemisphere, what you see and experience depends on where you’re sitting at the present moment. For me, the solstice signals the beginning of summer, a time of ease. It means giving myself permission to be a little less effortful. Maybe I can sit in that good space for a while and discover some contentment there. Where will you find your good space?

 

Staying out of troubled waters

There’s an adage that goes, “Never meet trouble halfway. Let it travel the full distance. Something usually happens to it before it arrives.” Good advice, right? So why is it that so many of us go looking for trouble?

  • Do you wake up at night and start worrying about what might happen tomorrow? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.
  • Do you get stuck in the middle of a project because of self-doubt? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.
  • Do you come up with a million reasons not to take the risk to do something that you know you will love? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.
  • Do you believe that the problems you’re having today will last forever? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.

When we don’t make trouble travel the full distance to reach us, we easily become paralyzed, anxious and overly cautious. Productivity suffers, and we definitely can’t grow or change in a meaningful way. Studies have shown that anxiety and worry are negatively associated with self-efficacy, the belief in one’s capabilities and confidence that goals can be achieved.psychology-2422439_960_720

It’s tough to break the habit of anticipating trouble, or the vicious cycle of negative beliefs and avoidance.  Yoga teacher Kathryn Budig is one of the people who inspires me when I need a kick in the pants to make an intentional effort toward positive thinking. Her practices are all about empowerment, taking risks, having fun and not letting those nagging worries f*** with your head. During a challenging moment, she’ll simply say, “You’ve got this.” Or, “You know what? If you fall, you’ll just get back up and try again.” During tough moments, I remember her voice and repeat to myself, “I’ve got this.”

There are other ways to make trouble travel the full distance. One is to use visualization to flip the scenario that you’re imagining in your dark moments. Instead of picturing the worst, can you picture the best outcome? Build as many details into your mental picture as possible, until it becomes believable. The mind can be a powerful tool to your benefit, but sometimes it has to be gently coaxed to turn in the positive direction.

Looking back to your past can also be useful. In most cases, you know that you’ve been able to rise to challenges like this before. You can remember other times when your worries have been unjustified, when the outcome that you feared did not come to pass. The bottom line is that you probably have as much reason to expect the best as you do to expect the worst. So focus on those proven moments when you have been successful.

Choose some small change to make in order to build self-efficacy. Not something life-changing, but something achievable. When you see for yourself that you are capable of making the change, confidence in your abilities will grow and you can move on to something bigger. The more self-efficacy you build, the less anxiety you should have — because your belief in your ability to cope will be stronger. You will more often be making trouble travel the full distance to reach you.

Most important is to be firmly grounded in the present moment. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, each new day is a precious gift. Greet the peace and happiness that the day offers. Breathe it in. For this moment, don’t look any farther into what’s ahead.image

 

How to disable the rudeness virus

What was the first thing you did when you got to work today? Greet someone warmly, or snub someone in the elevator? Hold the door for someone, or send the nasty email you were stewing over all night? Compliment someone’s work, or leave a mess in the kitchen? While you may think that your action ends there, it has repercussions throughout the day – for anyone who witnessed it.

Like many emotional states and behaviors, rudeness is actually contagious. And when someone witnesses what they perceive to be rudeness early in the day, it tends to color their perceptions of all the subsequent interactions they have during the remainder of the workday. It contaminates their view, and makes them more likely to perceive something as rude later in the day. That makes rudeness something more than just an encounter between two people; it has ongoing social ramifications that could really impact a workplace or community.Spain-Barcelona (87)

Much of the recent research on the contagion of rudeness has been conducted by Trevor Foulk, a professor at the University of Maryland. And while a great deal of that research has focused on the workplace, there are parallels to what we see every day in the larger societal sphere. A rude tweet early in the morning sets the stage for an escalating battle of words throughout the day, and a tendency to take offense at even the most benign statements because rudeness has been “activated” in people’s associative networks.

Every time we witness something like this, we make an assessment as to what to do about it, using up valuable mental resources that could be better spent on work tasks or other activities. It also makes us more likely to just avoid such social interactions. People with higher self-esteem and a stronger locus of control may have a greater ability to cope with these situations, but even for them, it’s a drain on resources.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about something similar — the Buddhist concept of “knots:”

When we have sensory input, depending on how we receive it, a knot may be tied in us. When someone speaks unkindly to us, if we understand the reason and do not take his or her words to heart, we will not feel irritated at all, and no knot will be tied. But if we do not understand why we were spoken to that way and we become irritated, a knot will be tied in us.

knot 2He goes on to say that these knots will grow tighter and stronger if they are not untied, and lead to feelings such as anger, fear or regret, creating “fetters” that effect us, even if they are repressed. They eventually express themselves through “destructive feelings, thoughts, words or behavior.” In other words, rudeness and unkindness are as contagious as a physical illness, and we can become carriers without intending to be. It’s not too much of a leap to see a connection to the recent decline in civility across American life and the erosion of trust among people.

How can we inoculate ourselves from the contagion of rudeness? Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we need to “live every moment in an awakened way.” We must be aware of our feelings and motivations. Where are they coming from? Can we hold them in our consciousness and examine them without discomfort overwhelming us?

If awareness is the first step, then perhaps the second is to recognize the power you have to control your own feelings and thoughts. Not everything is personal. Practice your ability to change negative thoughts into positive ones, remembering that you always have a choice in how you interact with the world around you.

Be more intentional in your words and actions. Too often, we are reactive and impulsive in our responses. But if rudeness is contagious, so can kindness be. Choose your words more carefully, thinking first about how they will be received. Set an intention to start each day with an act of kindness. As Aesop wrote so long ago, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”