How to Take Care of Yourself When…Headlines are Inviting Anxiety and Depression

In the words of one of my clients: “I am barely able to function right now.  I am paralyzed by what is happening in our government.  I just don’t know what to do.”

I am hearing from clients and friends- and know from personal experience- that times are trying right now, to be euphemistic.  While there is great togetherness among caring people and communities who are standing up to celebrate and protect each other, there is an underlying and real fear of national and global catastrophe.  There is plenty of evidence every day in the news that the US federal government is entering a phase of fascism that will include mass suffering and even death.  It sounds like history is repeating itself- as the plot of a Hollywood movie depicting an apocalyptic United States.  For some of us- the most underprivileged and most vulnerable- every day can feel like a new nightmare.  This is the unreal reality that we are all facing.

Dark Skies

This storm is not our first.

I choose the phrase “unreal reality” because we are suffering from some factual events, but also from our own perceptions and expectations.  When we are suffering there is what is happening (the facts being reported by legitimate news outlets)- and then there is all that we pile on top of it.  All of our over-generalizations, fortune telling, and fallacies of external control cause uncomfortable facts to become insurmountable crises in our minds.  The fact that politician A signs an executive order is the reality, the consequences we and others dream up of that action is the unreality.  Will there be mass suffering?  Or will the order be nullified by a yet-unknown other entity?  Will the politician become embroiled in lawsuits and be unable to pursue his political agenda?  We don’t know.

At this juncture- and throughout our lives- the vast majority of our suffering in modern, Western culture comes from what we pile on top of the facts.  Let’s all take responsibility for the stories we weave in our own minds and share with each other- and refrain from catastrophizing.  So much of what we fear is not only not yet a catastrophe, but may take a sharp right turn for something surprisingly good.  We just don’t know.   

In order to reduce the collective pain right now, I’d like to share 3 straightforward suggestions for stepping off this doomsday train of fear and powerlessness.  Let’s instead choose to stand on solid ground.

 

Step Away From the Information Ledge

If you are regularly consuming news stories that leave you feeling anxious and/or depressed, it’s time to stop.  What you are doing is an emotional version of picking a scab.  Leave it alone!  Being an informed person is important, but being a happy person is more important.  If you have to choose between “informed” and “happy,” please choose “happy.”  

How stepping away from the news looks is up to you.  If you want to not watch news programs nor read news articles at all- nor even go on social media where the headlines are all over the place- you have the right to do that.  If you want to spend at most half an hour at a specified time each day scanning the headlines, do that.  Just don’t check in on the headlines with constant push notifications on your phone, peppering your day with doses of depression.  No one needs that.  Unless your profession requires that you know exactly what is happening, all the time, let it go.  

Instead of absorbing the news about distant decisions and potential fall-outs of those decisions, come back to the very real present moment, right in front of you.  Right now, are you… physically comfortable?  Have you eaten?  Are there any stretches you can do that would release some tension in your body?  All of these questions bring me to my second suggestion…

 

Treat Yourself Well

In the space created by not exposing yourself to the news so much, make self-care your priority.  Again, that can look many ways: pausing to do some stretching, making yourself a healthy meal, uplifting reading or listening, simply enjoying silence and your in-and-out breaths.  Going outside for a ten-minute walk.  Investing in personal psychotherapy or massage therapy every week.  When stress is high, your self-care needs to be higher.  

I have heard it said that if you usually meditate for half an hour each day, very busy times call for sitting a full hour.  That is the paradox of self-care: so many of us throw caring for ourselves out the door when we feel overwhelmed… which is exactly the time we need to narrow our vision to the bare essentials: livelihood, family obligations- and self-care.  

I can’t over-emphasize the importance of checking in with your physical and emotional needs at this time and taking a warrior stance in shoring yourself up.  Only happy and peaceful people can create happiness and peace in the world.  Begin with yourself, and move out from there.       

 

Lift Up Your Voice

Finally, a positive outcome of the alarming news is that all kinds of people are newly becoming actively engaged in US democracy.  Whether meeting together in private homes or town halls or on street corners, you are not alone.  You are part of the majority.  There are a lot of people now working on the issue of preventing the growth of fascism, in official and unofficial capacities.  It is healing to be part of that group.  Again, your choices are wide here.  Depending on the influence you have in your professional and personal roles, you can be an organizer or a joiner.  You can be a marcher or a donor- or a fund withholder.  Do you have any financial ties to organizations that are supporting destruction and human rights violations?  Eliminate those ties immediately.  Our voice is expressed in numerous ways, and the dollar is a powerful form of voice.  

There are people hosting parties to write letters to politicians about the issues.  There are groups planning the next march.  There are churches and schools determining how to protect their community members who are not US citizens.  Are you a writer?  A builder?  Those talents can be used.  Your particular voice matters, and I encourage you to find a constructive and personally meaningful way to speak out.  Speak out both independently and alongside the many, many other voices already speaking out.  

 

By taking care of ourselves and standing up together for what is beautiful in this world, we truly can- and are- shaping the future.  As one of my teacher says, “the best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.”  Taking care of your present moment by taking care of yourself and your community is a form of activism.  Taking care of the present moment is already creating the future you want.  Here’s to arriving in that bright future happy, healthy, and surrounded by Tribe.

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Creating Community

Generosity

Pausing

Setting Boundaries

Letting Go

Share Your Experience

Do you have techniques for managing anxiety-provoking news?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… There is Suffering Everywhere

In the words of one of my clients: “The state of the world makes it hard for me to feel joy.  Even though things are going alright in my life, I feel overwhelmed by the daily news of violence, environmental degradation, poverty…”

 

It is undeniable that there is great suffering on this planet.  The main news outlets are mostly filled with accounts of both local and international suffering.  Of course, logically we know that beautiful, joyful events are also happening everyday- and yet it can be a challenge to even find information about these examples of progress, generosity, kindness, and hope.

So, how do we cope with the pain of the awareness of the great quantity and depth of suffering impacting people and ecosystems all over the planet?  Like all pain that we experience, the best response is twofold: acknowledging the pain and then proactively addressing its source.  

 

This Hurts

Contrary to the messages of polite society, there are no emotional nor social benefits to being a robotic automaton without sensitivity to the pains and joys that roll through this life.  On the emotional front, anything pushed out of awareness only comes back in worse form- exaggerated reactions to pain in the future and / or physical illness, for example.  On the social front, others will find you cold and lacking personality- and deep interpersonal connection will be elusive.  An authentic, fully-developed adult recognizes and allows their own pain and processes it- allowing it to transform- in a responsible way.

If you are in pain, hold that pain for as long as you need.  Get intimate with it.  What does it feel like in your chest cavity when you see the city cut down a thriving 80-year old tree because its roots are causing problems with the sidewalk?  Where in your body are you impacted when you hear news of a serious accident in which lives were lost?  Sometimes, we only need 10 seconds to allow painful information to work its way through us.  Other times- especially when the suffering is especially deep or near to us, we need to hold and process our experience of it more deeply.  This can look many ways.  

One form of processing is to strike up a conversation with a loved one about the situation.  Just hearing another person say, “I know- that is really sad!” helps to not feel alone in holding the suffering of the world.  On a similar front, bringing the situation up in your own personal therapy can be helpful.  A therapist will likely direct the conversation towards the personal significance, to you, of this particular situation that is impacting you.  Some people find ceremony helpful.  When I hear about brutality in the world, I find the time to light incense, meditate, and pray for the victims and perpetrators to find freedom from their immense suffering.  

Golden Hour

Coming home to our beautiful planet is the best medicine.

In addition to other people and your source of spiritual life, you can also find support from the Earth.  We all came from and return to the Earth- which is able to create and absorb anything that we humans can imagine, and more.  One of my teachers takes daily walks in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado, a place filled with beautiful geologic formations.  When she sits there, she feels her troubles being held not just by herself, but by the Earth that is reaching up and holding her as she sits.  When we can transcend the illusion of isolation and see the various entities- human and otherwise- that surround and support us, our burdens become much more manageable.

We can also harness the mind-body connection and use physical ways to process our emotional pain.  Take a walk, do yoga, go on a run, surf, swim- do whatever it is that centers you and also increases your literal “flows” in your body, via the many systems (circulatory, digestive, lymphatic, etc.) of the human body.  Another benefit of some of these activities is coming into direct contact with the natural world.  One thing I do when I run through the forest where I live is to become aware of the sweet smell of the ponderosa pine trees, the fragrant earth after a rain, the slightly oceanic smell of the creeks and rivers.  I use my sensitive scent palate to find healing.  When I deeply inhale the exhalations of nature, I take them in as healing agents, filling my body with the life-force of the earth, working their way into every corner- including the places in my heart that hurt.  I’m aware this is a practice in imagination- and also that our minds have much sway in our physical health.  If there is a way you can incorporate positive imagery into your practice, why not try it?

After holding and allowing your pain to transform, one outcome may be a resolve to make a difference in the area of suffering that hit you hard in the first place.  If so, read on.      

 

I Have the Choice to Do Something

There are people working on every issue of injustice and suffering in this world.  Are you already, or are you meant to be, one of them?  This is something only you can decide for yourself.  The key concept here is “I have the choice,” not “do something.”  A friend of mine recently made reference to his “ego-based belief” that he needed to make everything alright.  It can be very empowering to see a need and to address it- you see a homeless and potentially hungry person and you offer the person food.  You visit the beach and pick up the trash you find there.  It is good and feels good to be a force of love and healing in the world.  

The challenge is that if you stopped to address every injustice and every place of hurt that you saw… you would have a hard time functioning in this world that requires that most of us spend most of our waking hours working, usually in careers that are not directly addressing these areas of need.  This is why so many people are actually blind to the great magnitude of suffering everywhere- in our own neighborhoods, schools, homes.  It is overwhelming to be aware and to have the kind of compassion that actively works to alleviate all of the suffering around us.  Unless we are able to let go of our worldly ties and dive headlong into service, like Mother Teresa, we have to choose when to address suffering and when to not address it.  If you are reading this article, chances are that you have the blessing and the curse of clearly seeing much of the suffering in this world, and it can get you down.

Many years ago I asked a spiritual teacher what I should do when I saw a man hit a dog.  I had been traveling in a developing country the week before, and I had become upset when I saw a man on the street hit a dog.  My teacher gave a long answer, but the first observation he made was, “It sounds like you are attached to the idea that the dog shouldn’t suffer; that all beings should be free of suffering…” This observation was correct.  I was operating on the assumption that a paradise of freedom from suffering for all beings was possible and that I had an obligation to correct unnecessary suffering that I saw… even though I know that suffering is a key piece of life and that there is no freedom from suffering if there is no suffering (non-duality.)  My teacher also spoke to practical approaches in the situation I presented (such as addressing the suffering of a man who would hit a dog,) but my primary take-away was the reminder that there will be suffering, and that it’s not my job to fight that fact.  It turns out that there is great freedom in relinquishing responsibility for the happiness of all beings on the planet!!  

I bring up this story to remind us that, while we can work for freedom from suffering, we must do it without attachment to the idea that we will eradicate suffering.  Like my friend who became aware of his ego-based need to make everything alright, we need to be aware of our actual position in the cosmos.  We are each one being in an infinitude of beings on a tiny planet in one small corner of the universe.  We can only go about making change in the world in a healthy way that preserves our own emotional and spiritual health when we recognize that the journey of other people’s lives, of animals’ lives, of the life of the planet are their own journeys, directed by infinite factors.  No one person’s effort- and maybe not the efforts of every human on the planet- can “fix” a single person’s life challenges or the challenges of the Earth.  In other words: let the weight of the world slide right off your shoulders, because you are not the boss of things.       

With this awareness, is there a way that works for you that you can address the world’s suffering?  You could choose one area of focus and then choose how deeply you want to dive into it.  For example, you may decide that child abuse is something you want to help reduce.  On a small scale, you can bring awareness to Child Abuse Prevention Month via social media.  You could donate to local non-profits that work with at-risk children and parents to prevent child abuse and neglect.  You could become a volunteer court appointed advocate for children in foster care.  You could go to school to become a social worker and work in child welfare.  You could do as Mother Teresa and join a monastic order dedicated to caring for impoverished children!  

Another approach could be to have a rule for yourself regarding how you address the suffering you come directly across.  For example, you could decide that if you cross paths directly with someone suffering- a hungry or homeless or distraught person- you will stop what you are doing and offer help.  You can decide that you will donate money once a month to a specific charity and that you will otherwise not get involved with strangers on the street.  At the same time, you can decide to not follow social media or the news because being aware of the suffering of the world- when you can’t directly change the vast majority of it- is hurting your mental health.

The person whose well-being you have the most ability to support is yourself.  When you make the choice to acknowledge and care for your own pain related to the suffering of the world, you are more able to make a difference through action- in the appropriate, thoughtfully considered way that you choose.        

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Boundaries

Looking Deeply

Generosity

 

Share Your Experience
How do you handle the suffering of the world?  How do you process the deepest suffering?  How do you decide when to act, and when to not act?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!