Finding Balance in Troubled Times

By Chad Perman, LMFT
 

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.” —Clarissa Pinkola Estés
 

There’s something in the air lately, you can almost feel it. I started sensing it a few months ago, and my clients are beginning to bring it up in sessions a lot more often, too. Quite simply, we’re feeling overwhelmed—made anxious by the contentious political climate of an election year, saddened beyond words by the mass shooting in Orlando, the violence in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas, burned out by a news cycle that continues to both reflect and amplify our fears. If you’re a compassionate person, one who strives to make the world a better, more meaningful place, times like these can feel quite disheartening.

Which is why we need to remember, more than ever, to hold a space for goodness, hope, presence, and gratitude in our daily lives. It can be hard to do with so much noise and negativity all around us— believe me I know. But it’s also one of the best antidotes we have available, a way to balance the scales and reset our perspective. Our brains are quite literally set up to overlearn from negative experiences and feelings, and primed to respond in a fight/flight/freeze way to any perceived threat. Thousands of years ago, this served a distinct evolutionary advantage—the more you feared, and acted out of that fear, the better your chance of survival. However, in our modern cultural moment, the brain’s built-in ‘negativity bias’ actually works against us. It overlearns from the anxiety and fear provoked by images of violence and hatred on the news, or viral videos on social media of tragedies occurring throughout the world, or even just the email your friend forwarded to you yesterday about the upcoming election. And the more of this you consume each day, the more frightened and hopeless your perspective becomes, until eventually a sense of learned helplessness starts to set in.

During times like these, our overworked brains need to be provided with a sense of safety and balance to allow us to keep engaging with life rather than retreating from it out of fear, anxiety, anger, or despair. So how do we do this? Well, here are a few tried and true ways to go about it:

Cultivate Mindfulness & Presence
First and foremost, we need to find a way to ground ourselves and accept whatever emotions might be arising in any given moment. The best way to do this is to increase our capacity for mindfulness—“a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment”—and find ways to make this a part of our daily routine. Numerous studies have shown that just a few weeks of mindfulness practice decreases stress and negative emotions, enhances compassion, and even boosts our immune system. If you don’t already practice some form of mindfulness, here are two easy ways to get started.

  • Headspace: this is the one I most often recommend to clients (and also use myself). It’s a website and phone app which offers a free series of stuctured 10 minute meditations to ease you into developing a daily mindfulness routine.
     
  • R.A.I.N.: a simple and powerful mindfulness tool that offers us a way to work with and through difficult and intense emotions. It can be used in most any situation—especially when we are feeling overwhelmed—to help us gently reflect on what is happening inside of us, and learn to accept whatever is.

Limit Your Media Exposure
We all have different thresholds when it comes to consuming the barrage of news, media, and images available to us these days, and it’s important to know your own personal limit—and then set up healthy boundaries to keep yourself from feeling overwhelmed. Remember: It’s ok to put down your phone, step away from your computer or television, or unplug from media altogether for a bit   when the news starts to feel overwhelming. In fact, sometimes it’s necessary.

Connect with Others
We are social creatures by nature, and the more we connect with others the less isolated, depressed, and anxious we tend to feel. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the world around you, try making more time in your day to talk through it with those around you. Share how you’re feeling with the people in your life and hold space for them to do the same with you.

Take in the Good
In the midst of especially troubling times, it's more important than ever to learn how to consciously "take in the good". To make a purposeful effort to seek out and appreciate all the daily acts of goodness and kindness taking place throughout the world, as well as to reflect on the small good things that happen in your own life each and every day. Doing so helps us find balance in the middle of all the noise, and enhances our sense of humanity and gratitude. Remember, for every awful thing you hear about in the media, there are scores of amazing and compassionate acts taking place as well. These things won’t often get the same amount of news coverage or attention, but it’s not because they aren’t happening. So, we have to make time to seek them out and to remind ourselves that this world can be a beautiful and awe-inspiring place, too. If we don’t, we will very quickly lose sight of the fact that, our own anxiety to the contrary, this is actually the very best (and safest) time to be alive in human history, by most any metric.

Make Time for Self-Care
Create space in your day for the things that bring peace, contentment, relaxation, or laughter into your life. Around the Wellspring office, this takes all kinds of forms. One of my colleagues sets aside time to watch animal videos on YouTube in the midst of a stressful day, another walks around the nearby Botanical Gardens. Personally, I like to put on headphones and lose myself in a good podcast or some music I enjoy, read through a favorite book or poem (currently I’m reading Maggie Smith’s new poem, “Good Bones” several times each day), or find something online that makes me laugh out loud. Engage with nature, with art, with exercise. There’s no wrong way to do this and plenty of reasons to make time for it—even a simple 10 minute break from the stress and routine of ‘real life’ can have a beneficial impact on your overall mood and mental health.

These are difficult and trying days for many of us, and it can certainly feel overwhelming at times. But there’s work to do—to “mend the part of the world that is within our reach”—and in order to do so, we need to find ways to recharge our own batteries and bring our minds back into balance. The better care we take of ourselves, the better able we will be to engage with the world around us. And this world needs all of the love, compassion, kindness, and attention we can give it right about now.

 

(published July 21, 2016)