Afraid? Stressed? Two Simple Ideas for Coping
“I feel so stressed.”
“I am so worried.”
“When will this end? I am so anxious.”
In this moment, I hear these statements all day from every avenue. They fill my therapy room, my email, the internet and every other form of media. I cannot answer the questions about when will it end or how our lives will be shaped by this, but I can offer two ideas to help you get through the pandemic in a calmer way.
Humanity's Affair with Worry
Humanity has a long history with the idea of worrying. It is a form of superstition that through history secretly traded in charms and fetishes to ward off misfortune. On an unconscious level, we believe that worry somehow helps. If we don’t worry, we will not be motivated, or it demonstrates we do not care. We fear we might be punished for our compliant attitude. We act as if worry is the magic chant that will win favor with the unseen gods of good fortune.
Intellectually, we know that worry does not change anything. Yet, no matter
what we know, we continue to fret, obsess or simple think about the situation. Today, I want to offer you two simple tools you can employ anytime, anywhere to help you manage our worry, fear, hurt and stress. The best way to illustrate how it works comes, once again, from one of my favorite fictional characters, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of the provincial police force in Quebec in a series of mystery novels written by Louise Penny.
After one particularly disastrous police raid, several of Gamache’s officers were killed and he was critically wounded. His wounds were not just physical. He felt guilt and shame because he felt was responsible for their deaths. His injuries prevented him from returning to work for many months and he could do little
but rest and think. During his recovery, he would become worried and obsess over the events that lead to the raid taking such a catastrophic and deadly turn. The worry, shame, guilt and pain were interfered with his body’s ability to heal.
His depression became so acute, he finally sought the help of a therapist. As he opened his pain and shame to her, she was able to help him find another way to deal with the overwhelming memories.
The first tool she gave him was a new way to breathe when the feelings became overwhelming. She knew that the first step is always to calm the body. Our bodies activate through the nervous system, so it is the nervous system that has to be
calmed. This cannot be done by telling ourselves to relax and calm down. It is done through breathing.
Learning to Breathe
This is not ordinary breathing. It is a simple method that can be done anywhere with anyone. It is done in such a way that no one will notice. You simply inhale to a count of four and exhale to a count of 4. This opens up the nervous system and calms it. At first, it may seem like it will not help, but do it several times and
discover its magic.
The second tool is a thought exercise that helps you control the stress you feel. Stress begins in the nervous system and is exacerbated by the thoughts we dwell upon. Therefore, we must treat it through a dual method of body and mind. Again, we turn to Gamache for the example.
Something Beautiful and Soothing
Once Gamache could get his body calm, his therapist was able to teach him a way to calm his mind and thoughts. She taught him to think of the things in his life that brought him love, peace joy. He would think of the people he loved, positive events in his life and the things that brought him pleasure. He would visualize his wife’s face, imagine trees blooming in spring, remember the taste of a warm croissant, feel the warmth of his dog’s body, hear a beautiful symphony, smell the scent of coffee in the morning. As he immersed himself in these memories, he would slowly feel his body calm, his emotions settle and his breathing return it its normal rhythm.
Life is not fiction and we cannot wrap-up all our problems in a few minutes, days or weeks. The problems the world is facing will take time to bring under control. We can manage ourselves and the stress we have to face with help from inside and out. Although we must keep physical distance, we do not have to be isolated and alone. Take advantage of the ways in which you can have contact with friends and family. This too shall pass.