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… You Have Downtime

A question raised by a client: “As soon as I get some days off of work, I Iike to jet off somewhere for a vacation.  Is there any better form of self-care?”

Travel can be an excellent option for self-care.  Whether it includes total rest or exploring new places, meeting new people, or learning new skills, you can support your mental, physical, spiritual, and social needs going somewhere outside of the places you ordinarily see.  A travel vacation is a gift to yourself.  There are also plenty of other ways to meet self-care needs and to gift yourself.  Other options are often less expensive than travel and can be as powerful of an experience.  Before you catch that plane or train or jump in that car, here are some excellent ways to care for yourself when you have several days that are unscheduled.   

Cozy Cabin

Reboot

Many of us have some changes we would like to make in our daily habits, and a few free days are a good time to practice incorporating the new habit or eliminating the old habit.  When you see the new habit in action, you can determine how practical it really is going to be in your usual, busy schedule.  You can also see how you feel without enacting the old habit.  You can identify barriers and scheme for how to circumvent those barriers.  Bringing a healthy lunch to work every day might be a challenge if you get home late at night and don’t have the energy or desire to prepare it before bed or in the morning.  These days off are a chance to explore some healthy soup recipes or even research some healthy-lunch hacks the food bloggers of the world can offer.  

Different from the conceptual making of a resolution to do something, creating a habit is done through nuts-and-bolts actions.  Do you want to meditate for 15 minutes every day upon waking?  Some down time is an opportunity to see what that’s like.  Of course, creating a habit is a multi-layered, longer-term endeavor.  First, conventional wisdom says that it takes about 2 months to establish a new habit.  So, after your few days of playing with the new habit outside of your usual routine, keeping it up during the busy periods will be a test.  It is very helpful to focus on the benefits of the new habit in that critical moment, or “choice point” at which you do the action… or you don’t.

For example, if you are laying in bed and deciding to get up to go sit on a meditation cushion, you may rather sleep for another 20 minutes instead.  At that critical moment, it’s important to recall how serene you felt for the rest of the day yesterday when you gave yourself the gift of getting on the cushion.  In fact, viewing the new habit as an indulgent treat you give yourself makes the “activation energy” of the behavior a lot easier to mount.  You are really loving yourself when you set aside time for meditation, feed yourself food that nourishes you at work, coach yourself through a vigorous workout that will keep your cells thriving.  Feeling cared-for is a lot more motivating than feeling cattle-prodded.  The choice in perspective is yours.

Sometimes there are some deeper psychological barriers to adopting a positive new habit / eliminating an old habit.  This course by Kelly McGonigal is an excellent choice if you want to address those elements of change during your time off.  I recommend it.

 

Dive In

Sometimes we have some unresolved experiences or feelings that keep calling for our attention, but it never feels like the right time to really look into them and do the work of “processing” the feelings or experience.  A few free days are a great time to safely look at difficult situations and allow the process of resolution to unfold.  This can be as simple as sitting down with a journal and writing out our thoughts and feelings about the experience, then going on a bike ride.    

Scheduling a retreat at a local church or meditation center is a way to delineate the time during which you are going to “sit with” the unresolved experience.  These venues also offer teachers / spiritual leaders who can offer support if your processing brings up some feelings you aren’t prepared to manage.

You can also bookend your few days of delving into your heart and psyche with appointments with your personal psychotherapist.  He or she may also have suggestions for exercises you can do during your time to welcome movement and healing in your journey through the difficult situation.  A therapist can also help you interpret what you experience, to integrate what you learn into your self-concept and your understanding of your life until now.   

Connect

A few free days are an excellent chance to reach out to loved ones near and far.  In our everyday lives, it’s easy to deal with what’s directly in front of us and mostly forget our web of support- all our friends and family!  With some free days, you can make plans to visit some of your loved ones, either locally or even a short flight away.

You can also plan your days of connecting as a “stay-cation” at home: days of relaxation and other self-care, punctuated by writing letters to distant loved ones and a few hours on the phone.  A whole day free makes it easier to ring up the people who cross your mind often, but with whom time-zone differences tend to prevent contact.  Maintaining the social fabric of your life is an act of self-care and loved-one care, at the same time.  Connecting with others is a basic need we all have to feel secure and seen.  Offering connection to others helps those in our lives who may not be as skilled at reaching out to receive those benefits, as well.  

 

Enjoy your downtime!      

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Communication

Looking Deeply

Habit-Creating

Rest

Creating Community

Healing

Journaling

Share Your Experience
How do you use your time off for self-care?  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… You Mistakenly Thought You Could Have an Intellectual Discussion on the Internet

“I was intrigued by an acquaintance’s statement online, so I joined the conversation and added my perspective, only to receive ad-hominem attacks by another commenter.  My acquaintance didn’t even respond.  Is it me, or is respectful, logical, intellectual exchange no longer possible?”

All it takes is one glance at the online comments under the average YouTube video or web article- which are often unmoderated- to get an eyeful of more pointless, racist, sexist, homophobic, and crude language than you ever wanted to see.  The number of people trolling (joining conversation threads with the only intention of spewing ugly words and hurting others) is large.  While there are many reasonable and reasonably kind people online, it only takes one troll to shift the energy of a conversation towards the uncomfortable or even abusive.  

On the other side of the spectrum, many people don’t want to engage in actual dialogue online.  They may feel fine posting articles or making comments that put forth debatable perspectives, but if anyone shares a contrary perspective, they will not engage or may even delete your comment.  (Believe me, I’ve seen it happen.)  So, how does someone who appreciates intellectual discourse and wishes to be engaged with others by sharing thoughtful and respectful dialogue get his or her intellectual and social needs met?  If you haven’t guessed it yet: NOT online!  Here are some tips for recovering from your mistaken attempt at online intellectual discourse.           

 

desertbench

“Is there anyone reasonable out there?”

 

Remember: What You See Online is Not Representative of Reality

As an intellectual person, you value respectful discourse.  You may even be sensitive to others’ words and intentions, which is why you are drawn to talking things out: to make sure everyone is understood, to break down barriers to communication, and to find the common ground where many parties can find agreement.  And then you witness the underbelly of our society: people spewing hateful words, for no beneficial reason, derailing actual dialogue.  This can be demoralizing.  A resilient way to respond to this situation is to accept that some places are dark and negative, and you have no obligation to go to those places.  Avoid them, if that is better for you.  I would propose that this is better for all of us, but for various reasons some people are drawn to the dark and negative and intentionally go towards them.

Another resilient response is to recognize that there is a disproportionate quantity of negativity online because the negative, trolling individuals are making their voices heard, while those who are conflict-averse are not posting at all and those in the middle are getting shut down by the trolls.  Additionally, one troll can be accountable for great quantities of vitriol.  In this This American Life podcast, writer Lindy West talks about her experience with online trolls and discovers that one person was responsible for several- apparently different- troll attacks that she sustained.  The podcast is definitely worth a listen.

 

Accept the Limits of Internet Dialogue

Now that you have experienced first-hand the limits of internet dialogue, it may be easier to accept those limits.  The unmoderated internet is, at its worst, wide open to being co-opted by trolls.  People who want to have intellectual discourse have no control over that (aside from heavily moderating the comments made by guests to a given website.)  Besides the troll factor, the difficulty in ascertaining tone and intention behind typed statements prevents the genuine understanding that could be possible between people speaking face to face.  This is not surprising when you consider that even speaking face to face about contentious topics with someone you know well is fraught with potential misunderstanding and communication breakdown.

Your thoughts- no matter how well-considered and reasonable you consider them- have a high likelihood of being misunderstood and negatively interpreted if you toss them into the ether of the internet.  It is silently- and silencingly– frustrating to be pedantically told how you are wrong by someone who then puts forth a position that is intellectually inferior to your own.  When you think about it, do you really want to engage a stranger in mutually trying to educate each other through written text, in a forum that is visible to and available for further comment by anyone with an internet connection?  Probably not.  That, unfortunately, is the nature of the internet: people who don’t know the experiences or education of others, interpreting their black-and-white words through one’s own flawed, limited perspective, and then critiquing others’ knowledge/logic/intention/decency.  Any expectation you have for compassionate and intellectual dialogue is misplaced on the shoulders of the person in front of the computer at another node of the internet.          

 

Get Your Intellectual Stimulation in Person

So, you now know that the dark side of the internet is not (entirely) indicative of the intellectual decline of the human race, and you know that you can’t expect the internet to provide the understanding, rational, intellectually curious dialogue you wish to have.  How do you meet your need for thoughtful intellectual discourse?  Look for places that foster face-to-face dialogue.  Mainstream, generic culture does not bring us into places where we can have meaningful discussions.  Most people are neutralized in their non-work time by television, passive internet usage, and substance use.  

If you crave real interactions and talking about serious issues with other people, you need to connect to groups of people that meet for some common objective.  Groups of people where you are likely to have meaningful conversations with other members would include activist groups, church / spiritual groups, debate clubs, poetry slams, Toastmasters clubs, and other places where people meet to either look deeply into things or to develop the art of communication.     

Hostility on the internet does not have to silence you; turn your attention to places and communities that celebrate dialogue and cultivate understanding.  Help build those communities, help bring in other people who, like you, are engaged thinkers looking for their tribe.

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Accepting

Creating Community

Share Your Experience

What have you learned about self-care through internet dialogue?  Where have you found good outlets for intellectual inquiry?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!  Don’t worry: I monitor the comments.  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… A Relative Has Estranged You

“My grandfather doesn’t approve of my marriage, and has cut me out of his life.  I can’t be someone I’m not… but I also feel incomplete without my grandfather in my life.”

 

Estrangement is a very painful- and often hidden- part of many families.  Sometimes, the estranger (the one deciding to end communication with another) is explicit in his or her intentions: “I don’t want to see or hear from you again.”  Other times, the estranger simply never responds to efforts at communicating from the estranged (the one being estranged) and doesn’t reach out to the estranged.  My assumption in writing this article is that if you are identifying as an estranged person, you have tried to communicate with the estranger, and they have either not responded to your several attempts via different avenues (telephone, email, letter, stopping by) or they have explicitly said they do not wish to be in communication with you.  At this juncture, it is safe to say that you have made all the reasonable effort you can make, and that a return to communication will have to happen through future efforts of the estranger.  

When you become estranged, rejection, loss, grief, shame, unworthiness, and a host of other debilitating feelings may come to the fore.  To be estranged- especially by a relative- is one of the most triggering of the human experiences.  A family is oftentimes a symbol of security, love, and acceptance- and yet, here, you are experiencing instability, indifference, and rejection.  The most important thing for you to know is that the estrangement is often not about who you actually are.  In fact, estrangement is most often indicative of the social and emotional intelligence of the estranger.  Many people- when they have a disagreement with someone- are able to initiate a dialogue about the conflict and come to a place of healing and relationship preservation.  Not so, with the estranger.  Barring a hard “no-contact” boundary on account of abusive history perpetrated by the estranged, the estranger is often incapable of maintaining healthy relationships with people whom they find challenging- and sees no reason to develop this capacity.     

Some people deeply value family and family connections, and others don’t.  This can be one way that estrangement happens: if a relative does something you don’t like and you don’t value family, it might be easy to decide you never want to see that person- or his or her children- again.  On the other hand, some people deeply value family and family connections- so much so, that they have developed an enmeshed experience in their families, where identities blur and the choice of a relative is seen to reflect either poorly or positively on oneself.  In this case, it may be very painful to estrange a relative who has made a choice you wouldn’t make for yourself- and yet you might value your “pride” or “honor” over keeping the relationship intact.  

I put the words “pride” and “honor” in quotations because they are smokescreens hiding something not so positive in the shadow aspects of the estranger’s consciousness.  Much estrangement comes from the estranger judging something about the estranged and “disowning,” or cutting that person out of the estranger’s life- and sometimes, out of a whole nuclear family or branch of the extended family.  The example quoted at the beginning of this article is an example of such a case.  When the estranger is judging the estranged, it is very often coming from self-hatred, via the psychological process of projection.  The estranger sees something in the estranged that the estranger has been rejecting in him or herself, pushing consciousness of these traits or tendencies down so as not to think about them- though they often do manifest, anyway- simply in ways the estranger is not willing to see or address.  A dramatic example of this is the phenomenon of right-wing, openly homophobic politicians who are found to be soliciting gay sex in public bathrooms.  These politicians are projecting their fear and hatred of their own homosexuality onto others, actively oppressing an entire group of people.  At the same time, they are engaging in the action they say and believe that they hate- albeit surreptitiously and anonymously (until they are arrested, publicly shamed, and their political careers are ruined!)  While projection doesn’t often have such a dramatic consequence, the consequence of families being broken apart on account of someone’s unchecked projection is a major disturbance in the fabric of the family and in the emotional well-being of all family members involved.     

If you have been estranged by a relative or a branch of the family, the pain is real.  You may not be able to reunite your family, but there are several things you can do to take care of yourself.

           

Cultivate Your Compassion

The very first thing we need to do when we’re in pain is to acknowledge the pain and to be gentle with ourselves.  If someone asks about the relative who has estranged you, it’s okay to say you haven’t heard from that person and that it’s something you’d rather not discuss.  Take time to journal if that helps you.  This is also a great time to seek the company of friends and other relatives who will be able to support you as you navigate the waters of estrangement.  The care of a psychotherapist is a powerful tool on which to call, especially at a time like this.  In your work with a therapist you may be able to uncover your personal emotional and cognitive symptoms resulting from the estrangement and develop coping strategies for them.  You may also be able to address the healing possibilities described in the next two sections, Heal Your Relationship, and Fill Your Life With Loving People.     

Further, when we consider the deep suffering that the person who has estranged us must be experiencing, it is a little bit less painful to be estranged.  When we see that this rift is on account of someone else’s suffering and that it is out of our hands, we are able to let it go.  Take some time to consider the magnitude of confusion and pain that the estranged must endure every day to be able to cut a part of themselves off- like cutting off a hand, or a leg.  When you envision this suffering, you may begin to realize that your own suffering is not even the half of it.       

 

Heal Your Relationship

While the estranger has made it clear that they no longer wish for a relationship with you, you still have the capacity to heal your relationship- or the representation of that relationship- within yourself.  Two ways I suggest doing this are through prayer and forgiveness meditation.  Prayer means different things to different people, but in this case, it would involve sending up prayers for the estranger to find peace and healing.

Forgiveness meditation is a process where you allow your heart to rest on the ways you have hurt yourself and others, and the way others have hurt you- all out of confusion and pain- and to cultivate forgiveness towards yourself and others.  When you are able to see the pain and confusion out of which you and others have acted, you are more able to actually feel forgiveness.  People who are suffering cause others to suffer.  This meditation cuts through the illusion that the estranger is acting from a place of strength, pushing you down and hurting you.  Remember that to forgive does not mean to forget.  While forgiveness may allow you to not carry hatred any longer in your heart, you are still able to use discernment about whom you welcome into your life.  I have heard it said that forgiveness is “the abandonment of the desire for the other to suffer.”  Here is a text version of a forgiveness meditation, as well as a 10-minute video meditation, both by Jack Kornfield.      

 

Fill Your Life With Loving People

 

sparkler

The World is Filled With People Who Want To Be Near Your Light

The beauty of our highly populated and internet-connected world is that there are so many people to befriend.  What may seem like a loss of the estranger is actually an invitation to broaden your “family” to include new people.  Your tribe can be an international powerhouse of loving, supportive people- if you want it to be!  Unlike the distant days of small villages and only ever knowing the same 200 people your entire life, you can now build a family of choice.  Whether in your city or town, or with people you have met while traveling the globe- in person or virtually- you can find community.  Don’t let the grief of familial rejection hold you back from finding your tribe.  And don’t let that grief cause you to shutter your light.  Let your light shine, and find others who are sending out the same signal.  There is a community for everyone, and community is- from my personal and clinical perspective- the most important factor for mental health.  There is a tiny fraction of the human population that genuinely does not feel benefit from being in community- if you know you can benefit from building your social circle, reach out and find your people.

Even deeper than the general concept of community, we also all need people in our lives who fill certain roles.  There are numerous archetypes- or characters with specific traits and behaviors- that cross cultures and are found in all of our psyches, according to Carl Jung.  Examples could be the mother, the brother, the priest, the hermit, the father, the crone, the fool, the teacher, the judge, etc.  When we are able to embrace the elements of these archetypes within our own psyches, we are most whole.  It is also helpful and stimulating of growth to have people in our lives who play some of these roles for us.  In an intact family, you would have an actual mother who is nurturing and compassionate and patient and an actual father who is supportive and loving and encouraging.  However- whether through estrangement or not- some parents aren’t actually like this.  In that case, you can become friends with older women or men who treat you in these respectfully maternal or paternal ways.  I want to be clear that this is very different than the often-criticized “daddy issues” or “mommy issues” that some people have: a need to be taken care of by an older man or woman (often in a romantic relationship) on account of being rejected by one’s actual mother or father, or an angsty need to rebel against an older man or woman (such as a boss at work, landlord, or professor) on account of some unresolved anger towards one’s actual mother or father.  

Your tribe can be comprised of not only age-peers who have your same interests, but multi-generational kindred spirits who are role models and mentors for you, and for whom you are a role model and a mentor.  You don’t have to have any actual sisters or brothers to love people as if they are your own siblings.  Let this estrangement be an invitation for you to turn around and embrace others.  

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Creating Community

Journaling

Compassion

Acceptance

Forgiveness

Prayer

Share Your Experience
If you have experience healing from estrangement, please share it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!