SELF-COMPASSION TAKES COURAGE

Self-compassion requires looking honestly and courageously at our suffering, and then responding to that suffering with love. We tend to resist looking deeply, and instead create all sorts of strategies for avoiding the experience of suffering.  Without the courage to look and not run away, self-compassion is not possible.

My deep-seated tendency to feel judged affects my ability to truly listen and stay present, especially in difficult conversations.  I become argumentative, get defensive, shut down, feel resentful. I hold tightly to my position, and don’t really hear what the other person is trying to communicate.  Self-compassion and compassion for the other fly out the window.

So, I decided to try something new after a recent difficult conversation, using the self-inquiry tool developed by members of my Buddhist community Nalandabodhi, to deal with interpersonal conflicts.  Among the inquiries are the following:

  • Have I reflected honestly on my feelings, needs, habitual tendencies and styles of communication so as not to create obstacles to constructive and compassionate communication?
  • Have I reflected on how my speech or actions may, even inadvertently, have contributed to the conflict or misunderstanding?
  • Have I taken responsibility for my view, actions and speech, rather than attributing blame to others?
  • Am I willing to value kindness and open-mindedness above vindication or being “right” and to intend a “win-win” rather than “win-lose” outcome?

Reflecting on and responding honestly to these questions was a real eye-opener for me.   In particular, I looked at my tendency to respond defensively when I feel judged.  Looking at this tendency directly and honestly brought me to tears, as I  remembered how often I felt judged and criticized, even as a young child.  I cried for that hurt little girl, holding her with compassion.  In the process of looking honestly and clearly, all the story lines, justifications and defensiveness dissolved.

Self-compassion is not self-indulgence.  Self-indulgence includes holding on to the stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions and reactions.  In contrast, it takes courage to let go of our story lines, and look honestly at our responses.  An  old therapist would often ask me “So what are you going to do about it?” when I complained and said words to the effect “well, that’s because my mother was so judgmental.”  My therapist’s response used to irk me, but I now find it empowering.

In difficult interactions, it’s easy to focus our attention on the other person, attributing all kinds of blame on them, and maybe even try to “fix” them.  When we ignore our own responses, we miss the opportunity to deeply understand our discomfort, and cannot meet our pain with compassion.  Looking deeply at our responses, especially our deeply ingrained negative tendencies and using the tools of self-inquiry takes courage.  It’s the only way out of our suffering and into living fully and authentically.

 

©2021.  Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NAVIGATING THE POST-PANDEMIC “NEW NORMAL”:  A GRIEF COUNSELOR’S PERSPECTIVE

As a grief counselor, I have viewed the stages of pandemic life as a grief process, especially now as I  anticipate  a “new normal” in post-pandemic life.  Now that I’m vaccinated and can go mask-less in most places, I feel anxious and uncertain.  I have come to equate mask wearing and social distancing with safety.  Will I now feel more free, or more exposed and unsafe?

Grief counselor J. William Worden’s tasks of mourning model[i]  has helped me navigate the various phases of the pandemic.  Worden describes the four tasks of grief as: (1) accepting the reality of the loss; (2) processing the pain of grief, (3) adjusting to a world without our loved one, or in the case of the pandemic, without our daily routines; and (4) finding an enduring connection with who or what has been lost while embarking on a new life.

We have largely worked through the first three tasks of grief described above.  Generally speaking, we have accepted the reality of the pandemic, (the first task) and processed the pain of the losses endured during the pandemic (the second task).  With respect to the third task, we have made many adjustments to our lives over the last fourteen months, including lockdowns, face masks, social distancing and life on Zoom.

We are now on the threshold of the fourth task of grief: embarking on a new post-pandemic life.  This  task of grief involves creating a balance between remembering our loss and living a full and meaningful life.  I know that despite the difficulties I endured during this time, I have also learned so much, and have so much to appreciate.

Nonetheless, anxiety and uncertainty about the “new normal” abound:  What will the “new normal” look like in a world where I can again socialize without masks and social distancing, as Covid-19 becomes a thing of the past.  Will my favorite lockdown YouTube dogs Olive and Mabel continue their antics with play-by-play from their Scottish sportscaster “dad”?  How can I justify binge watching shows on Netflix and Hulu once the pandemic is over?

There are some things about life during this time of pandemic that I will actually miss.  Being an introvert, I have been comfortable staying home without feeling guilty about it.  Practicing with and getting to know my Buddhist community throughout the world on Zoom has been an enormous benefit, and I’ve developed many new connections and friendships with people I may not have otherwise met.

In navigating this fourth task of grief, I have found it helpful to contemplate and journal about  what this time has meant to me. Here are some questions to contemplate to help you move forward and navigate the  post-pandemic “new normal”:

  • What have I learned about myself during this time of pandemic loss?
  • What do I want to keep from this grief process, and what do I want to discard?
  • Have my values or spiritual beliefs changed during this time, and if so, how?
  • What do I appreciate about how I have navigated the pandemic?
  • What did I take for granted before the pandemic that I no longer want to take for granted?

May your journey be fruitful, and may you flourish as you shed your pandemic masks.

 

 

© 2021. Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Worden, J.W. (2009).  Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy:  A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, 4th ed., New York:  Springer.

LIVING WITH CUMULATIVE GRIEF:  SOME TIPS FOR SELF-CARE

I seem to wake up to news every day that magnifies the sense of loss that has become an undercurrent of my daily life.  The deaths of loved ones, the daily losses of the pandemic, social injustices and divisiveness can leave me feeling stretched thin, like a rubber band about to break.  I know that my experience is hardly unique, and seems to be universal.  Grief counselors call what we are experiencing “cumulative grief.”

The experience of grief can be physically and emotionally stressful, and that stress is compounded when we are experiencing cumulative grief.   Here are some suggestions for taking care of yourself at this time:

  • When your feelings of grief comes up intensely, take a “mindful gap” to breathe and feel the physical sensations. Feel their intensity and then relax and let them go – over and over again if necessary.
  • Because grief is so stressful on our bodies, be sure to eat nourishing foods (with the occasional indulgence in “comfort food”), and get plenty of rest.
  • Move your body. Mindful walking is one of the most effective tools for moving through grief.
  • Allow yourself to cry when tears come. And, at the risk of sounding like my dear departed mother, make sure to drink plenty of water, because crying is dehydrating.
  • Maintain your meditation and other spiritual practices. If you can’t meditate some days as long as you had intended, give yourself a break, but continue to practice on a regular basis.
  • Solitude can be helpful, but isolation is not. Avoid the urge to isolate yourself.  Reaching out to just one person a day can help us avoid the
  • Express your emotions in journaling, painting, collage or other creative form of expression. The word “ex-press” means to push out – We’re pushing out all the intense feelings and giving them space so that they’re workable.
  • Talk to others who can listen. If your feelings are particularly intense or distressing, unduly interfering with day-to-day functioning or do not subside to a manageable level over time, reach out to a grief counselor or another professional trained in working with grief.

 

 

 

© 2021 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU

Have you ever noticed that the people in your life have different opinions and viewpoints about you? If the “self” or “I” were solid, how would that be possible? People’s views are merely their own projections, and no two people see things in exactly the same way.

I can now laugh when I remember all those times in my dating life when someone would break up with me saying, “It’s not about you; it’s me.” It used to be really painful to hear this, thinking that something must be wrong with me. What makes me laugh now is that I’ve come to realize that what they said is really true! It’s not “me” those guys were breaking up with; rather it was their projections about who they thought I was.

This concept has been very helpful for me in my personal and professional relationships when I feel judged or criticized. I’ve learned that when I am able to get my ego out of the way, I can actually hear what another person is saying or requesting, without the need to defend myself.

For example, when someone criticizes something I did, my mindless habitual tendency is to immediately defend myself. At those times, when I’m not mindful, my ego rears its head, and I don’t hear the request underlying the criticism or the person’s projections about me. Through mindfulness and discipline, I am now able to let go of my knee-jerk reaction to protect my ego … at least most of the time.

One of the best tools I have found for letting go of the tendency to defend my ego is to slow down and feel the body sensations connected with my emotional response to what I perceive as criticism or judgment. Dzogchen Ponlop, in his book, Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You[i], calls this space  “Mindful Gap.”

For me, it’s a clenching in my stomach and jaw, and fluttering in my heart.  When I am able to slow down without immediately reacting, I take a breath and ask myself what those body sensations are telling me. My body often tells me at those times that I’m feeling hurt and misunderstood.

Here’s a simple practice for working with difficult emotions that arise when you feel judged or criticized:

  • Slow down and feel the body sensations, in the space of Mindful Gap.
  • In the feeling space of Mindful Gap, look and see what your body sensations are telling you, noticing your habitual responses without reacting. Dzogchen Ponlop calls this “Clear Seeing.” The more you practice Clear Seeing you will more quickly recognize your habitual reactions as they arise and not respond in a way that is harmful to yourself and others.
  • Take another deep breath, let go of the tension and relax. In this more relaxed space of what Dzogchen Ponlop calls “Letting go,” you will know the best way to respond (which may be to not respond at all) and relax.

Tibet’s famous yogi, Milarepa, sang that “Mind has even more projections than there are dust motes in the sun.”  I often hum that line to myself when I feel criticized or judged.  I have found this to be a powerful reminder for letting go!

When I’m able to leave my ego at the door, I can breathe into my hurt feelings with self-compassion and let them go. I can then determine what the underlying communication truly is, and respond responsibly. This is the opening into true compassion and connection.

 

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[i]Dzogchen Ponlop. (2016).  Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion Into Energy That Empowers You.  New York:  Tarchen/Perigee.  For more information about Emotional Rescue courses, go to http://www.emonalrescue.info

© 2020 Beth S. Patterson.   All rights reserved.

 

DISCONNECTED: A POEM FOR THESE TIMES

DISCONNECTED

I connect via pixels on the computer screen,

And disembodied voices on the phone,

Pinging from cell tower to cell tower.

 

I miss warm hugs with family and friends.

Virtual hugs just aren’t the same

As a good bear hug.

 

I yearn to reach through the screen and touch those pixels,

Hoping they will transform into

A body I can touch, a hand I can hold.

 

And, then there’s the warning that pops up on my screen:

“Your internet connection is unstable.”

No, I want to say.  It’s being disconnected that’s unstable.

 

Yet, I do have my body.

The ground under my feet.

A warm purring cat at my side.

 

I remember to breathe, to feel,

And connect to what is real.

Right now in this very moment.

 

 

 

© 2020 Beth S. Patterson.  All Rights Reserved.

 

A BUDDHIST APPROACH TO WORKING WITH PAIN:   FROM SUFFERING TO LIBERATION

I have been pondering how to use my Buddhist practice to work with suffering when my chronic pain flares up.   The Buddha’s teachings on The Four Noble Truths came immediately to mind.  These teachings provide a roadmap for living a life free from suffering.  Experiencing my  pain directly, without judgments or resistance, has allowed me to use the Buddha’s roadmap on my journey from suffering to liberation.

 The Four Noble Truths

In his first teaching after attaining liberation, the Buddha taught The Four Noble Truths:  the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path to liberation from suffering.

The First Noble Truth recognizes the existence of suffering. We humans will do everything we can to resist or deny the existence of suffering.  Paradoxically, resisting or denying the existence of suffering only increases our suffering. Recognizing the existence of suffering, without additional thoughts or denial,  is the first step to letting go of the suffering that accompanies my chronic pain.

The Second Noble Truth, the cause of suffering, is clinging to things – especially ourselves – as real and permanent.   My knee-jerk reaction when my pain flares up is self-pity.  My self-centered thoughts and negative judgments increase my suffering.  When I let go of my thoughts and focus instead on the direct experience of my pain, there is an immediate sense of relief and spaciousness.

Focusing on the pain itself, rather than clinging to it as something unique to myself, leads to the cessation of suffering – The Third Noble Truth.   Working directly with the energy of physical pain has become my path out of the suffering that accompanies my pain. This path is related to the Fourth Noble Truth, the path to liberation from suffering.

“Don’t Shoot the Second Arrow”

The Buddha’s teachings on the “two arrows” has also been extremely helpful for me. When we experience physical or emotional pain, it is like being shot by an arrow.  According to the Buddha, the first arrow is not problem.  After all, we all inevitably experience pain of all kinds in our lives.  The problem is that we then shoot ourselves with a second arrow with our thoughts,  judgments and resistance to the initial pain.  According to Buddhist teachers Jack Kornfield and Donald Rothberg[i]:

According to the Buddha, our reaction [to pain] is equivalent to being shot by a second arrow.  We can call this second arrow suffering. Suffering arises because when we experience pain … we typically react by lashing out, at ourselves and others.  We believe somehow that this will dispel or mitigate the pain.  We act in such a way that a second arrow is shot, at us or others, on account of the pain of the first arrow.  When we act so that the second arrow is shot, we ‘pass on’ the original pain.

When I “lash out” at the perceived injustice of having a chronic pain condition, I am shooting myself with a second arrow.  My mindfulness practice allows me to notice my thoughts and judgments as they arise, let them go and return to the object of my meditation.  When I’m experiencing pain, I allow that to be the object of my meditation.  As thoughts and judgments arise, I notice them lightly and return to the direct experience of pain.

Working Directly with Physical Pain as a Path to Liberation

Here is an exercise for working directly with pain to alleviate the second arrow of suffering that often accompanies it. This exercise can be used for both physical and emotional pain.

  1. Focus on the pain and breathe into it.
  2. Explore the pain with a sense of curiosity:
    • Where  is the pain located?
    • How big is it?
    • What’s its shape?
    • If it had a color, what color would it be?
    • Is it hot or cold?
    • Is it static or does it move or vibrate?
  1. As you explore the pain in this way, notice how it shifts and moves. This is a good reminder that everything is impermanent.
  2. Remember that we all experience pain during our journey on the Four Rivers of Life — birth, old age, sickness and death.

When I work with my pain directly in this way, I am fully in the present moment. My thoughts, judgments and resistance are gone, and so is the suffering that I’ve added to the pain with those thoughts, judgments and resistance. In that present moment, I am liberated from my suffering.   As the old adage goes, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

 

Reference:

[i] D. Rothberg & J. Kornfield (2006).  The Engaged Spiritual Life:  A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. Boston:  Beacon Press.

 

© 2020 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

HEALING PANDEMIC GRIEF:  WHO AM I NOW?

Now that the pandemic has entered a new phase, I am contemplating how to heal pandemic grief.  I am asking myself many questions:  What will my life look like as things get back to “normal”?  Can I really go back to the way things were?  What have I learned from this loss that I can carry forward in my life to be of benefit to myself and others?

As grief educator Ken Doka has said, “Whenever we experience a loss…it helps to recognize that loss and grief have changed us.  We cannot go back to the way we were before. Our situations are different.  We are different as well.”

Instead of pondering what is widely called the “new normal”, perhaps it is more beneficial to contemplate the “new me.”  Indeed, who am I now?

I have been learning so much about myself during this pandemic, spending more time with myself without my usual distractions.  On the one hand, I see my neuroses more clearly, and I don’t always like what I see.  On the flip side, I have learned to be more patient and compassionate with myself, neuroses and all.

I am also seeing more clearly what is important to me now, and what I want to bring forward into my life, both for myself and others, as I move into the post-pandemic world.   As Zen teacher Vanessa Zuisei Goddard says:

What we need is the willingness to look honestly at our wants and our choices and ask ourselves, does this make sense—not just for me, not just for now, but for everyone and for our future?”  What sort of “normal” do we want to return to when the worst of the pandemic is behind us? Stepping forward from this point, what kind of world will we co-create?”

At the beginning of the pandemic, I made all kinds of grand plans: to read those 1000 page dharma books, meditate for three hours a day, and on and on.  After berating myself for a while for not living up to those expectations, I’ve decided to let myself be.  Spending time with my cat purring in my lap, looking at the birds in my backyard, pulling weeds in my garden…This is all practice too, and has been so freeingIntentionally sitting and letting myself be bathed in all of my senses is the best meditation practice of all.

Practices for healing pandemic grief:

There are times when I am afraid that I will drown in profound grief and anxiety, hopelessness and despair.  I’ve also found ways out of these intense emotional states that have lifted me up me when I am afraid of drowning in them.   Here are some practices you can use:

  1.  Connect with gratitude. If you are finding this difficult because of your grief and despair, at the end of the day, write down five things you are grateful for that happened that day.  The little things count most, like hearing a beautiful birdsong, seeing a plant bloom, smelling a delicious meal before tasting it.
  2. Connect with your senses. Intentionally tune in to all of your senses – touch, sight, smell, sound, taste, with whatever you are doing.
  3. Contemplate interconnectedness. We often feel that we are a single identity, alone in the world.  The truth is that we and everything around us is interconnected.
  4. Express your appreciation. We often take the people in our lives  — including ourselves — for granted.  Letting them know you appreciate them opens our hearts to ourselves and to them.  After all, we are all truly interconnected.
  5. Memorialize your self-discoveries and new intentions. Use this time to notice how this time has changed you.  Journal, paint or draw about who you are now, and the world you want to create for yourself and others going forward.

 

© 2020. Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NAVIGATING PANDEMIC-INDUCED GRIEF

I’ve been wondering why this second month of the Covid-19 pandemic feels so much harder than the first month.  As a grief counselor, I’ve observed that the second month of grief after a loss is often much more intense than the first month.  Does pandemic-induced grief fit this pattern?  The answer is yes.

In the first month after a loss, the bereaved are busy with making funeral arrangements, visits from friends and family, receiving telephone calls, sympathy cards and casseroles.  There is also a lot of busyness with wills, death certificates and the like.

Similarly, in the first month of sheltering-in-place, we were busy buying toilet paper, making disaster plans, finding or making face masks, figuring out how to stay connected via Zoom, and navigating grocery shopping.

After the first month following a death, the phone is quieter, the cards and casseroles have stopped coming and we are somehow expected to be back to “normal.” The bereaved are left to navigate this new land without their loved one. They wonder if they are handling their grief in the “right way”, and may be feeling anxiety in the face of not knowing what their new life in the “new normal” will look like.

Likewise, in this second month of pandemic shut downs, much of the doingness of the first month is over.  We have stocked up on toilet paper and grocery staples.  We have figured out how to stay in touch with our friends and community via Zoom.  Like after a death loss, we are left with the question “now what?” We wonder when, and how, things will change in the post-pandemic “new normal.” We are fearful and anxious, with more questions than answers.  It feels like a big void, where we are seeking ground in utter groundlessness.

The Tasks of Mourning

William Worden’s task model of grief[a] provides a useful road map for navigating pandemic-induced grief. There are four tasks in this model, the first two of which are relevant now: (1) accepting the reality of the loss, and (2) working through the pain of grief.

Task 1:  Accepting the Reality of the Loss:  The first task of grieving is to accept, both intellectually and emotionally,  the reality that a loss has occurred.  The task in working with pandemic-induced grief is to acknowledge the reality that life has changed.  I find myself reminiscing about life in the “good old days” before the pandemic – the ability to come and go as I pleased, getting together with friends, hugs and freedom from fear. Although I am confident that much of my prior life will be restored, I am coming to realize, both intellectually and emotionally, that it won’t look the same.

Task 2:  Working Through the Pain of Grief:  I imagine that most of us would prefer to skip this task, for fear that our pain will overwhelm us.  Nonetheless, working through the emotions of grief is critical for healing from pain.  Failing to do so may manifest itself as physical illness, substance abuse to numb the pain, or result in depression or complicated grief.

 Here are some tips for working through the pain of pandemic-induced grief:

  1. Take care of your body.Eat nourishing foods (with the occasional indulgence), limit caffeine and alcohol, enjoy a soothing bath or shower.  Exercise.
  2. Remember to breathe, deep diaphragmatic breaths.
  3. Allow yourself to cry (and drink lots of water as crying is dehydrating).
  4. Express your feelings through journaling, art or movement or talking with others.
  5. Appreciate nature. Listen to the sound of a bird, notice the trees and flowers blooming this spring.
  6. If your feelings are overwhelming, speak to a trained grief counselor or psychotherapist.

“Tragedy holds the seeds of grace.”

In the words of author Stephen Levine, “tragedy holds the seeds of grace.”  Through experiencing the pain of own unique grief, we can tap into grief’s universality, lessening our hopelessness and isolation, and deepening our connection with others and our world.

 

[a] Worden, J. William (2002). Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy:  A Handbook for the Mental Health Professional. New York:  Springer Publishing Company.

 

(c) 2020 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

BEFRIENDING THE INNER CRITIC

We therapists often advise our clients to ignore or reject the inner critic.  That’s a little like trying to ignore a pebble in our shoe.  What if we can do something productive, like removing the pebble from our shoe?  Ignoring it just doesn’t work. What if we were to actually listen to and befriend the inner critic instead of ignoring it?

My meditation practice has helped me separate myself from my inner critic.  Through increased awareness, I started to pay attention to that loud voice, rather than it simply being background noise. In fact, I named my inner critic “Bertha.”  I have usually told her to go away when her voice gets loud. Nonetheless, in times of stress, Bertha comes around more often, and telling “her” to go away just makes her voice louder.  It’s like that pebble in a shoe that gets more and more irritating until we do something about it.

Be Grateful to Everyone

 Befriending my inner critic has been a transformative and empowering experience.  It started with asking myself: What if Bertha is trying to be helpful but just doesn’t know how to communicate kindly and skillfully?

I am reminded of the Tibetan Buddhist mind-training slogan[a]:  “Be Grateful to Everyone.”  In her seminal book, Start Where You Are:  A Guide to Compassionate Living,[b] Pema Chodron notes that this mind-training slogan is about making peace with the aspects of ourselves we have rejected.  When we meet someone who pushes our buttons, instead of pushing them away, this slogan teaches us to welcome them in, knowing that they are triggering a part of ourselves we don’t like.  Tibetan Buddhist teacher Traleg Rinpoche notes:

If we can shift our focus from our rigid, narrow and habituated points of view, we will empower our ability to embrace situations in a new way so that every situation will start to seem more workable….We should endeavor to think good thoughts about people who have…made our lives quite difficult at time and try to turn those negative situations to our spiritual advantage, so that we become wiser and stronger.[c]

Of course, Bertha is not a real person, but I find this teaching very helpful in working with that part of me that is self-critical.  As a result, I have started listening to my inner critic with compassion and curiosity, like I would with a young child who doesn’t yet have the skills to express her needs.  Instead of immediately rejecting Bertha, I have started exploring what she is trying to communicate.  For example, if Bertha reproaches me for being forgetful or clumsy when I’m stressed out,  I can thank her for encouraging me to slow down and take a breath.  Befriending my inner critic has helped me embrace parts of myself I have rejected, in a way that empowers me rather than causing  harm. I can then actually be grateful to Bertha,  for reminding me to be self-compassionate.

 

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[a] There are 59 slogans for training the mind to cultivate lovingkindness and wisdom, as a way to bring the Buddhist teachings into everyday life.  The Tibetan term is “lojong”, which means mind-training, or heart-training.

[b] Chodron, Pema, Start Where You Are:  A Guide to Compassionate Living. Boston:  Shambhala Publications.

[c] Traleg Rinpoche (2007. The Practice of Lojong:  Cultivating Compassion through Training the Mind. Boston & London:  Shambhala Publications, pp. 96-96.

 

 

(c) 2019 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

WAITING FOR A HURRICANE: ANTICIPATORY TRAUMA IS REAL

As I wait for Hurricane Dorian’s arrival and observe the “cone of uncertainty” about where it will land, I’ve been wondering if there’s such a thing as “anticipatory trauma.” So, when the going gets tough I go googling.  My research shows that anticipatory trauma is indeed real.

“One writer has said[i]some people are already experiencing the fallout [of the impact of climate change] – in the form of what’s being called pre-traumatic stress reactions.”

Coincidentally (or not), while writing this article, I  received a link to a Ted Talk by science writer Britt Wray, on how climate change affects our mental health: https://www.ted.com/talks/britt_wray_how_climate_change_affects_your_mental_health

Wray notes that that “we …need our actions and policies [regarding climate change] to reflect an understanding of how our changing environments threaten our mental, social and spiritual well-being.”  Wray says some of the psychological effects of climate change include anxiety, grief, depression, increased PTSD and existential distress.  She also includes pre-traumatic stress in the list.

As a trauma therapist, I have come to understand that the brain acts like a binary computer.  It links different experiences together as if they were the same and creates what I call “knots of association.”  For example, my brain has now linked Hurricane Dorian with Hurricane Irma and all the memories I have of that powerful storm two years ago.

I remind myself that  “This is not that”  as I untie those knots of association. In fact, in remembering that this is not that, I recall positive memories of my volunteer work in a hurricane shelter with those left homeless by Irma’s destruction.  I remember their remarkable resilience, optimism and strength. I learned that their resilience came from caring for each other, rather than isolating themselves in despondency and despair. (See my blog article “Resilience in a Hurricane Shelter” for more of what I learned:  https://bethspatterson.com/resilience/).

I have offered my “mantra” that this is not that to others experiencing anticipatory trauma.  Here are some other tips that may help as we grapple with hurricanes and other environmental disasters:

  • Practice self-compassion. It doesn’t help to judge yourself for your reactions.
  • Focus your attention on your body instead of your thoughts. For example:
    • Inhale deeply through your nose, from your diaphragm to your collar bone. Then exhale slowly through your mouth.  Imagine cool, nourishing air coming in through your nose as you inhale, and warm, stale air leaving as you exhale.
    • Place one hand on your heart center and the other on your solar plexus, Notice the rise and fall of your torso, as you feel the connection between these two chakras or energy centers.
    • When disturbing thoughts and images arise, simply notice them and return your attention to your breath and body.
  • Become an activist to bring attention to climate change or other issues that may have a negative impact on your wellbeing.
  • Volunteer your time to help those impacted by natural disasters.
  • Journal about your feelings. This helps get those swirling thoughts out of your head and so they become more workable.

Most importantly, avoid any tendency to isolate yourself.   You are not alone in feeling distress and anxiety about the “cone of uncertainty” as we await Hurricane Dorian’s arrival.

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[i]S. Colino, “Fearing the Future: Pre-Traumatic Stress Reactions,”  US News, May 24. 2017.

 

© 2019 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.