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.”

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Use the breath during times of change

The fall equinox is always a time of change, whether it’s as simple as putting on warmer clothes or as challenging as starting a new school or a different job. This year many people have had even greater hurdles in September, as they have been hit with hurricanes, floods, fires and devastating earthquakes. Although there are plenty of stories about people bouncing back, rebuilding and starting anew, the reality often is that people struggle a great deal, and for a long time. This can have a ripple effect on overall well-being.

Whether we’re dealing with a change we’ve chosen or a change that has been thrust upon us, we usually do best by utilizing both problem-focused, actionable strategies, as well as emotion-focused methods for reducing anxiety. One of the most accessible ways to calm anxiety is with the breath. Recently I did an online yoga practice called “Metamorphosis” with teacher Claire Missingham. As we relaxed into the practice, she said,  “Let your breath begin to soothe you.” Even though I use breathing techniques a lot when I am stressed or anxious, I had never framed it as self-soothing. But I realized that, of course, that’s really exactly what it is. So what follows are some of my favorite breathing practices (I’ve tried to give credit where it’s due).

“Don’t forget to breathe”

In the 1985 movie, “Follow That Bird“, Grover gives Big Bird a piece of advice as he is leaving Sesame Street. “Don’t forget to breathe,” he says, “in and out.” Sometimes when anxiety strikes, the first that happens is that the breath gets shallow, or we even hold our breath. So the best way to start any breath practice is just to notice your natural breathing, in and out.

“Letting Yourself be Breathed”

Do this while lying on your back:

1. Close your eyes, letting your arms rest alongside your body and focus your attention on the breath without trying to influence it.
2. Imagine that with each inhalation, the universe is blowing breath into you and with each exhalation, withdrawing it. Imagine yourself passively receiving the breath. As the universe breathes into you, let yourself feel the breath penetrating every part of your body, even your fingers and toes.
3. Try to hold this imagination for ten cycles of exhalation and inhalation.

(Recommended for once a day. Adapted from Andrew Weil)

universe

4 – 7 – 8 Breathing

This is particularly good for relaxing before you go to sleep at night:

1. Close your eyes, relax your jaw, and rest the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth just above your top teeth.

2. Take one or two deep breaths to start.

3. Now begin counting as you breathe: Inhale to the count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 7, then exhale slowly for a count of 8.

4. Repeat this 4-7-8 sequence three or four times.

(Recommended for once a day. Adapted from Andrew Weil, 8 Weeks to Optimal Health)

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Balances the nervous system. Hillary Clinton says she used this technique after the election.

1. Sit comfortably with eyes open or closed.
2. Use the thumb and forefinger to alternate closing off one nostril at a time.
3. Beginning with an exhalation, use the thumb to close off one nostril. Keep it closed off as you take your next inhalation.
4. Then release the thumb and press the opposite nostril closed with your forefinger as you exhale. Inhale through the same nostril, then switch the finger and thumb again.
5. Continue alternating from one nostril to another in exhale-inhale cycles for as long as it feels comfortable.

(Adapted from Olpin & Hesson)

Anti-Stress Breathing

Sit comfortably as you would for meditation:

1. If you would like to use a “mudra”, touch the tips of your pinkie fingers and thumbs together, while keeping the other fingers on each hand together but not touching the opposite hand.
2. Close your eyes or focus on the tip of your nose.
3. Inhale deeply through the mouth, and then exhale through the nose. Then inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth.
4. Continue with this alternating pattern for several minutes.

just breathe

 

Do or do not? Procrastination’s grip.

The ancient Greeks had a word, “akrasia,” that meant doing something against one’s better judgment. To put it another way, akrasia is a failure to do what one has intended to do and what one ought to do. Our modern word for this is procrastination.

Here are the things I do when I’m procrastinating about doing something else:

  • Check my email
  • Tell myself I can read one (just one!) chapter of a book
  • Call someone
  • Do some laundry
  • Do the crossword puzzle or Sudoko
  • Organize my desk

Here are some of the things that I should be doing instead:

  • Grading my students’ homework
  • Writing for this blog
  • Catching up on work projects
  • Scanning the documents that have been sitting in a box for 3 years

Why is it so hard to get started on these tasks? I know that I can’t really relax with the book or the puzzle while these other things are hovering in the background, yet even that unsettled feeling can’t always move me to begin.

Having just finished teaching a unit on time management to my students, I know that  researchers characterize people like me as either avoidance or arousal procrastinators. Avoidance procrastinators tend to be self-critical, often have a maladaptive sense of perfectionism, and possess irrational beliefs about the outcome that would result from actually doing the thing they avoid. Arousal procrastinators, on the other hand, claim to work best under pressure (which is usually not true) and seek the thrill that comes from doing things at the last minute.

I’m pretty sure that I’m an avoidance procrastinator, although I do have to admit that I get a little adrenaline rush when I’m working up against a deadline. We avoidance procrastinators often believe that unless our work is absolutely perfect and liked by everyone, our self-esteem will be threatened. On other tasks, we switch into avoidance mode because they require us to do something that is out of our comfort zone, and we question our ability to even accomplish them.2016-04-02 12.50.04

Those of us who struggle with procrastination could try jolting ourselves out of it with the Nike motto, “Just do it.” Or we could use Brian Tracy’s metaphor, “Eat That Frog!” which comes from a Mark Twain quote: “If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.” In other words, get the tough stuff done first and then it’s out of the way.

Those tricks might work for some of us some of the time, but it’s important to realize that procrastination isn’t just laziness or lack of willpower. For some people it can have lifelong consequences, such as an inability to make and achieve career or financial goals, a tendency to anxiety and depression, and poorer physical health. Fortunately, procrastination can be treated with cognitive behavior therapies such as REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy). REBT asks you to imagine doing the thing you’ve been avoiding, and then predict and label the emotion that you would experience with it. It’s like a trial run for the real thing.

Practicing mindfulness might also help. A study done by Sirois and Tosti showed that higher mindfulness scores were associated with lower levels of procrastination and with more unconditional self-acceptance. It may seem counter-intuitive that the present-moment awareness of mindfulness would be beneficial to procrastinators who already have difficulty being future-oriented and goal-directed. It’s true that many procrastinators are too focused on short-term pleasure and current rewards, but that’s not the same thing as mindfulness. When we practice mindful acceptance of our present experience, we can accept the discomfort of the difficult task and also generate more self-compassion while we do it.

As Thich Nhat Hanh has written,

“When fear manifests, we want to have the seed of mindfulness also manifest to embrace it. So we have two energies present — the first is the energy of fear, and the second is the energy of mindfulness. The fear receives a bath of mindfulness and becomes a little bit weaker before it drops back down to  the depths of our consciousness in the form of a seed.”

Navigating a disturbance in the force

Ever since the first Star Wars movie burst into our cultural consciousness almost 40 years ago, its lexicon has become a part of our conversational lives. From the moment Obi-Wan uttered the line, “I felt a great disturbance in the force,” we understood that it was possible to feel shifts in the energy that “surrounds us” and binds us together. There’s no better metaphor for describing the unsettled feeling that arises when stress hits us and our homeostasis is threatened.

I’ve been experiencing just that kind of disturbance in the “force” for the past 6 weeks or so, ever since my son announced that he was moving across the country. While I’m happy for him and feel hopeful that he will be successful in his new life, I have many moments of anxiety about both the change and the process of getting there. In addition, my own home is experiencing upheaval as the things he wants to keep, but can’t take, somehow materialize here for storage. So I decided to look for some Star Wars wisdom to help me:

“Search your feelings.” (Palpatine) This seems like a good first step. Why exactly am I feeling anxious? Is it anticipation of loss? Is it fear of his failure? Fear of my failure? Do I not have enough trust? These are uncomfortable questions, but we can’t hide from emotions that make us squirm. It’s worth sitting a while with the discomfort to gain some clarity and see the path forward.

“Fear is the path to the dark side.” (Yoda) It’s very easy to slip into darkness and inertia when we let fear take over. I recognize that my own fears and anxieties don’t help my son, yodabut only make him more anxious. If I catastrophize about this move by engaging in negative self-talk about it, that can only hurt. Focusing on strengths and practicing positive self-talk will help dispel fear, and leads to:

“Your focus determines your reality.” (Qui-Gon Jinn) If we think only about what can go wrong, something probably will go wrong. If we can stay focused on positive outcomes, our actions will move us in that direction.

“Patience you must have..” More wise guidance from Yoda. Not only must I have patience with my son, who doesn’t always follow the path I want him for him, I must have patience with the process. Transitions take time, and frequently there are bumps in the road. Not everything is on my timetable. I will take a breath, and allow things to fall into place with time.

“Many of the truths we cling to depend on our point of view.” (Obi-Wan) Or as we say in stress management, perspective is everything. Sometimes there is no universal truth, just different versions of the story. Can I shift my point of view about my son’s capabilities, about my role in his life at this point, about what is a good outcome? Can I be flexible enough to let go of beliefs that don’t serve me or him anymore?

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” (Yoda) My naturally cautious son has suddenly adopted Yoda’s philosophy, and is just going to do this. He is letting go of fear and stepping off the diving board. As for me, there can be no “try” either when it comes to supporting him. I must just do it.

“Remember — the force will be with you always.” If we change the word “force” to “love”, this is the message I am left with. No matter what happens, I will always love my son and be here for him. I am cheering for him as he embarks on this journey, and ready to live with all the uncertainty that risks worth taking bring.

Wobbling toward trust

Bob Dylan sang, “Trust yourself …If you need somebody you can trust, trust yourself.” Somehow I think he must have known just how much many of us need to hear that.

Reckless personWhen I wobble in tree pose, or can’t bring myself into a headstand in yoga, it’s not just equilibrium or core strength holding me back – it’s lack of trust in my ability to do it. When the anxiety over my recent move took hold of me, it wasn’t because anything was going wrong — it was my failure to trust myself and my strength. When I worry about one of my kids doing something new, it’s not so much about them, but about me not trusting that I taught them well.

According to Psychology Today, not trusting ourselves often evolves out of being hurt by someone or something we trusted. We become afraid to trust anyone again, and we start to question our judgment. From there, faith in our selves begins to dwindle. So how do we rebuild trust in our own abilities, capacities and judgment?

The magazine offers this simple somatic exercise as a first step to restoring trust in yourself:

“Sit or lie down so that you are comfortable and in a safe place.
Now, how can you make it even more comfortable? Get a blanket, a pillow… whatever will make you feel relaxed and content.
Once you are settled, ask yourself: “How do I know this is comfortable?” This might appear to be a silly question, and perhaps even confusing. However, it is an important one in increasing your skills of building trust.
Continue to explore what sensation you feel that you recognize as comfort. For example, you might think, “I do not feel any pain,” “I breath easily,” or “I feel relaxed.”
You might be anticipating that this feeling won’t last, which is true. We can’t control or grasp on to this pleasurable feeling. It’s only important that you are in the present moment right now, not drifting into thoughts of the future or the past. Thinking of the future can create anxiety; thinking of the past can create depression.
Remain aware of any sounds, the temperature, the light, and your physical sensations. Can you let yourself simply enjoy the moment?
You can practice this exercise for as long as you prefer and as time allows you. Just keep checking in with your level of comfort. What feelings indicate that you are comfortable? With time, you may start to trust your feelings again.”

When we were babies, we learned to trust when our needs for food, safety, warmth and love were satisfied. This exercise takes us back to those basics. If I believe that this warm, comfy feeling I’m experiencing right now is real, then I can have faith that it will come again and I will be able to recognize it.

Great Ocean Road_23.1The other thing worth noting about this exercise is that it is very much focused on present-moment awareness. If we think about trust as the flip side of fear, then the inability to trust is all about fear of what the next moment, or the one after, might bring. By staying focused on the present, we only have to trust what we are experiencing in this moment.

Life is full of surprises, dangers, joys, hurts, disappointment, elation, boredom, passion. In order to have the good with the bad, we need to worry less about what’s around the corner and focus more on everything that is absolutely right, right now. As Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, instead of asking, “What’s wrong?”, we should learn to ask, “What’s not wrong?”