In my work as a therapist, people often share parts of their lives with me during some of the most difficult times of their life. I’ve been trained to give people space to process what they are going through. I regularly offer validation and help people cope with their experiences by using empirically supported approaches to reducing anxiety and increasing functioning during difficult times.
I am currently going through some life changing experiences that have left me feeling uprooted from my familiar and comfortable life. And I’ve had the opportunity to put my own words to the test. I wanted to take this chance to reflect on what has been helpful from my personal experience.
Out of Balance
There are a lot of experiences that can cause people to feel out of balance. I frequently come across marriage, divorce, difficulty with children, work changes or conflicts, loss and grief, and big life decisions in my work. There are a lot of things in life that we can prepare for. However, there are even more that we can’t prepare for. And if you’re like me, maybe sometimes the more preparing you try to do to face a specific challenge could actually backfire and cause more trouble. Those are particularly frustrating experiences for me, when the more I do to remedy a situation, the more damage I can do.
Whatever the experience you have that throws you out of balance, I believe it’s a shared space we end up in feeling uprooted, taken off guard, and generally lost on how to move forward. It gives me comfort in these moments to know that I am not alone, even though the paths we are on are different.
Listening to Your Body
When we arrive in the uncomfortable space of painful experiences, it’s common to blame ourselves. I regularly have clients express to me that they worry that something is wrong with them because they cannot function like they use to. The disruption in our life can make us feel out of control and somehow responsible for the the situation we are in. And sometimes our actions do lead us to difficult situations, and it would be wise to evaluate what we can do to help ourselves. And often our experiences are out of our control, for example the death of a parent or child, the painful repercussions of other people’s choices, or the tragedy of accidents, natural disasters, or illness. Clearly these are situations that we do not have control over, but we sometimes allow ourselves to take responsibility for situations like this.
When the situations that cause us pain are out of our control I find it helpful to make that point clear, either by talking to others or having quiet conversations with myself along the lines of, “I am typically capable and prepared, but this took me off guard.” “I am doing my best to respond in a helpful way, even though I have no idea how to move forward.”
In difficult situations one of the most common responses is an increase in anxiety and stress. One way that I describe this response is that it takes you out of the present and into either the future or the past. When it takes us into the future we are worrying about what is going to happen, or how someone is going to react in some future event. Whatever the situation is it pulls our thoughts towards the future and out of the present. This also happens when we are pulled to ruminate about the past. What someone must have thought of us when we said what we said, or how we could have done something better or avoided something awkward. These are common things to do to figure out life, but when we get caught in the storm of anxiety they are some of the least helpful things to do.
What I often recommend to clients, and try to do myself, is to pull myself back from the future or the past and stay grounded in the moment. Sometimes this is as
simple as slowing down and recognizing the breeze on my face as I walk to where I’m going, or the feeling of gravity on the bottom of my feet pulling me down and keeping me in place. This is an example of mindfulness, being aware of your current experience.
I love mindfulness because it’s accessible at any time. You can practice it while waiting for difficult news in a hospital, during uncomfortable conversations or disagreements, or even just doing the dishes. When I remember to practice mindfulness, it helps me reduce my anxiety and stress and stay grounded in the moment.
I hope that during our human experiences of difficulty and disappointment we can better learn to listen to our bodies and take care of ourselves. To learn more about mindfulness I recommend the book Mindfulness in Action by Chögyam Trungpa.