We have all been thrust into a situation that is the perfect storm for creating stress: there is a threat to the physical survival of ourselves and our loved ones. Most of us will incur financial losses. We are all facing isolation and changing interpersonal dynamics. And there are many unknown elements and uncertain timelines. We know the world will never be the same, but we don’t know what the future will bring. These are the facts of the COVID-19 situation; the things we cannot change. What we can change is how we deal with it. We can face our fears and work through them as best we can. We can call upon our highest thinking, and bring forth our deepest strength. We can have hope that out of this crisis, new and better ways of being will be discovered. As a naturopathic physician, I have studied psychology, various therapeutic modalities, attitudinal healing, a number of spiritual practices, and watched how thousands of my patients have risen to the challenges in their lives. From this experience, I offer you a seven step system for facing the difficult emotions of life. May it help you to navigate this storm to find a place of greater calm.
Step One: Pause and observe your mind and body. Just noticing your thoughts, feelings and body sensations in a curious way is the first step. Gently observe with non-judgemental inquiry. Just stopping, stepping back, and noticing that this train of thoughts and feeling is causing you stress allows you to separate from the process a little bit so you can look at it and question it.
Step Two: Breathe. Bringing your mind’s focus to your breath helps to calm both the body and mind. It’s amazing how just a few deep breaths can begin to shift fear, anger, anxiety and more. You may wish to try breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, or even add a small sigh on the outbreath. Imagine the stress flowing out as your exhale. Feel your shoulders drop and feel your weight settle into your pelvis, legs and feet to help “ground” you. Apps like Insight Timer and Calm provide guided relaxation and breathing exercises to follow.
Step Three: Name the feeling. Often we get overwhelmed and just feel “stressed” in general. Here I invite you to be curious about what you are feeling in particular. Is it grief, anxiety about the future, anger at someone, powerlessness, or fear of rejection? Try and mine down to what’s really going on and put a label to that particular pattern of body sensations, thoughts and feelings. Just naming and acknowledging the feeling is a step towards acceptance. And in the naming, we are again stepping back from the feeling to a place where we can work with it.
Step Four: Self Compassion. Here is where we give ourselves the kindness and understanding that we often seek from outside ourselves. Dr. Kirsten Neff describes Self-Compassion Practice well in her TED talk, website and online guided exercises. You might say to yourself, “yes, of course you are feeling nervous about your health; how human is that? It’s so understandable.” Or you might say “how hard it is to feel such uncertainty about the future or adapt to so much change… yes, your sense of security has been rocked.” By leaning into the feelings instead of rejecting them, we are in a place to practice being with our feelings instead of wanting to escape, blame others, or act out in reflexive ways.
When we are stressed and running on adrenalin, the survival part of the brain is activated and the frontal cortex, where more creative problem solving can be accessed, is shut down. We tend to react in patterns we developed as children: fight, flight, freeze or fawn. The first four steps of this system are designed to calm the nervous system, balance the brain, and prepare us to move from reactivity to more helpful, resourceful ways of being.
Step Five: Question the thoughts that drive the feelings. Consider the possibility that behind every feeling is a thought. By identifying the thought, we can start to question it, and reframe it from a more mature, realistic, and resourceful mindset. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is the world’s most researched and successful therapy technique and it is a set of tools for dealing with life stresses in a better way. The website anxietycanada.com is an excellent way to learn about CBT and how it can help you deal better with day to day life. I love the list of questions under the section “Challenging Negative Thinking”, such as “Is this a hassle or a horror?”, “Am I confusing a possibility with a certainty?”, “Have I confused a thought with a fact?” and more.
Step Six: Affirm your strength. A lot of anxiety is really a fear that you don’t have what it takes to deal with adversity: rejection, pain, death, humiliation, grief, change, etc. I invite you to think of examples of when you have been strong in the face of adversity before, and think of what you drew on in yourself. Or think of others who have found strength in times of trouble: people you know, your ancestors, people around the world. By affirming your strength you can let go of trying to plan for every possible bad thing and how you would deal with it. You can simply trust that you will have the inner strength to face each challenge as it comes. You can focus more on the moment with self-talk like “Right here, right now, I am okay and I can deal with this moment”, “I am wise and strong”, “I am the source of the love and security I seek”.
Step Seven: Let go and accept change. It is often said that stress is the difference between expectations and reality. The outside world is changing, your life is changing, and your future will look different than you thought. I humbly invite you to be open to the possibility that just maybe some meaning will come from this experience such as a deeper sense of connectivity and inter-dependency or a new set of values and priorities. Great growth rarely happens without great struggle. I say this with deep compassion for those who are profoundly affected by COVID-19. I am choosing to be hopeful that we will rise from the ashes wiser and stronger than before.
These seven steps can be done in one minute or in a two-hour journaling session. They can be done alone or with a trusted person. You can reach out to me via a telemedicine visit or another counsellor doing telephone / video call sessions. The more each of us can commit to staying grounded emotionally the more we can help uplift others. May you find your calm within this storm.