Tag

coping

I’ll take it under advisement.

You know how sometimes someone gives you a thought or anecdote and you appreciate it, but move on, but sometimes someone gives you a random thought or idea and it REALLY sticks and kind of changes everything for the better?

This is that.

Several months ago, I sat in a therapy session discussing a really frustrating pattern I had been having lately.

“I KNOW it’s not a big deal if I wake up really anxious or really down,” I said. “But a part in me kind of panics and is like Oh my god this is a really big deal because what if you don’t ever feel better and what if this lasts forever and how will you ever get things done and be a good wife and be a good mother some day and we have to worry about this and solve it right away and only focus on this.”

“Well,” she responded. “It sounds like your Self is trying to say, ‘It’s okay, don’t worry’. But this other part of you is trying to protect you by ensuring you think about each possible horrible outcome. And it’s very sweet of that part to do so. The problem is, it’s creating fires where they don’t exist, and trying to solve a non-existent problem in a very unhelpful way.”

“YES!” I agreed. “Exactly. And my Self believes all those things: I can be where I am, feelings come and go, this moment is just this moment, but then I start to worry and spin and before I know it, I’ve only been awake for ten minutes and I’ve already come to all these dramatic conclusions about the probability of how successful I’ll be in my life and what the hell is up with that?”

“So, let’s acknowledge that little panicky part,” she said. “Because really, it has good intentions. It’s trying to protect you. But you don’t really need its constant chatter. So allow it to speak, hear what it has to say, and humor it. Respond to it and say, ‘Thank you for your concern. I’ll take it under advisement.’ It’s up to you if you actually take its content to heart and spend the rest of the day pouring over the worries it brought to the table. But this way it’ll be happy, because it got heard, and your Self is still the one making the decisions and calling the shots, so it’s a win-win.”

I loved it.

And I’ve been doing it constantly. Rather than getting upset when I have a thought, or a worry, or a fear, rather than immediately following its instructions (We need to worry about x, panic about y, analyze z) I calmly listen to the suggestion. Because after all, it’s a part of me. And has anyone really had success with internal hatred?

(Years ago, in the midst of a panic attack, I said to a friend, What the f***! I shouldn’t be feeling this way! I just need to snap out of it, this is so stupid!!  She responded with her loving sarcasm: Ohhh, so you’re going to berate yourself out of a panic attack? Yeah, let me know how that goes. Right. Point taken.)

So anyway, yes, I listen. And then I play the role of Leader of the Council Board, and I acknowledge it. Telling it, “Thank you for your concern. I’ll take it under advisement.”

Only, usually, I don’t spend any more time on it than just that. And I move on. Because I am the leader, and I call the shots, and while I am an excellent listener, I certainly don’t have to take all of the suggestions I am given.

Not anymore.

A year of grief

One year ago today, my mom called to tell me that my grandpa passed away. The month before that had been spent with grenades and bombs and tsunamis as the information had come in – my healthy grandpa was sick, my healthy grandpa had a mass, my healthy grandpa had cancer, my healthy grandpa was going to die within the year, my healthy grandpa was going to die in a few weeks.

We went down to Florida during that month, for one day, to say goodbye, when the call had come in: “If you want to see him one last time, you need to go. Now.” And we did – and I put on a smile the entire day. Trying to enjoy my time with him. Trying to be strong for my Gram. Trying not to fall apart when he looked me in the eye and said, “This is a bad way to go out, kid.” Trying to not die inside when he told us he wished he could be at our wedding. Trying.

And I never processed it. Because two days later was Thanksgiving. And I spent the day putting on a smile. Yes, it was so great to see him. Yes, we’re so happy we went. Yes, it was so meaningful. 

A week later he died. Four days later was the funeral. And six days later was my baby cousin’s Bat Mitzvah. Where, yes, I spent the day putting on a smile. How lovely it is that we can celebrate such a happy occasion. Thank goodness for the happy times. 

Do we sense a theme?

For those next few months, I certainly grieved. But not for myself. My tears, my anxieties, my depressions, my worries, were spent on my grandma and my mom. I cried for my mom, who lost her dad. I sobbed for my gram, who lost her husband. I worried about my gram being alone. I had a pit in my stomach every time I imagined her waking up alone, eating breakfast alone, going to bed alone.

And I didn’t really speak about it. I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how to say it. So it was buried.

And then I was about to get married. And there were seven zillion things to do each day, and I was focused in on that. And I got married, and it was beautiful, and magical, and incredible, and the honeymoon was a fairy tale.

But then things quieted down, a month or two passed, and life calmed down.

And I noticed that I started crying more. And I noticed that my chest constricted and my stomach convulsed each time I called my Gram because I knew I would feel her pain and feel her loss and I was so worried about her and sad for her and I just couldn’t bear it.

I noticed that I felt like I had been punched in the stomach each time I looked at our wedding photos and Grandpa wasn’t in them.

I noticed that in walking around my apartment, I averted my eyes from Grandpa’s paintings on the walls.

I noticed that my voice became flat. That I lost my appetite. That I just cried, a lot.

And by early September, when Rosh Hashanah was around the corner, when in every year past I had felt elated and excited at the thought of Gram and Grandpa coming to celebrate our New Year – I felt dread. Despair. I couldn’t bear the thought that she was coming alone.

What is wrong with you, I chided myself. People lose people all the time. They cope and they deal. It’s been more than six months and you should be coping a lot better now. I then helpfully added, He was only your grandpa. My mom and her sisters lost their father. Gram lost her husband. I have no right to be as upset as I am. And to clinch it, I oh-so-kindly reminded myself, I have friends who have lost their moms or dads this year. They have a right to be upset, but I don’t. Just stop it.

And so, for more reasons and a more complicated back story than is necessary to get into here, I decided it was time to do something about it.

I spent each week crying, sobbing, as we processed the traumatic memories. Florida. Thanksgiving. Rosh Hashanah.

I sobbed, as I told her, “I spent the last year either pushing it down, or grieving for my mom and my aunts and my Gram. But I never grieved for myself, and I’m just so sad, so devastated, so heartbroken that I lost my grandpa. I just miss him, and I am so sad that he’s gone.”

And it got a little easier. I got to a point where I could talk about him, think about him, think about Gram, talk to Gram, without falling apart. But time is funny, and so just a few short weeks later, here we are. We had Thanksgiving without him. And today is the one year anniversary of his passing.

And so now I’m crying more often, sobbing a bit harder. And a year later, it hasn’t really gotten any easier. But I’ve learned:

This is grief. There is no rule book. There is no hierarchy. I have every right to feel however I feel. If I have days where I cry, that’s okay. If I have days where I’m just down, that’s okay. If I have days where I feel fine, that’s okay, too. I don’t have to justify my grief, or the form it takes. It might get easier, it might get harder. And I need to ride that wave – and be where I am. Without judgement, and instead, with kindness, acceptance, and compassion.

The elf and her protector

One day, when the elf was a very young girl, she was out in the garden with the toads. Other creatures strolled about, including a garden nymph, watering a moonbeam lily nearby. The elf didn’t seem to want to play the usual games, and one of the toads asked her why.  The nymph watched the little elf pause, think, and open her mouth.

But just as soon as she had opened her mouth, she closed it.

For a protector had appeared and stopped them from going any further.

“Whoa, don’t do that!” it exclaimed. “If you let those words out, you can’t get them back. If you talk about it and say it, then you’ll worry people. And then they’ll feel sad about the words you spoke. And then you’ll feel even worse. So – let me hold onto your words. I’ll keep them safe right here, in this safe little nook between your chest and your throat. And then you won’t worry anyone, you won’t burden anyone, and you won’t have to worry either.”

Well, the little elf thought this was a great idea. She appreciated this protector looking out for her best interests, for watching out for her.

“Okay,” she happily agreed, and skipped away.

From then on, she had a solution. Any time those silly words wanted to escape out her mouth, words that would cause her friends and family sadness and anguish, her protector caught them and held them for her.

It was perfect.

Years later, the elf had constant tightness in her throat, pressure and heaviness in her chest. No herbs or elixer seemed to make it go away, and she feared that she was very, very ill.

One day out in the garden, that same nymph from years ago was tending to plants, fertilizing the mintberry plants. She noticed the elf laying in the hammock, and went up to her, asking her how she was doing.

When the elf replied, “I’m afraid I am not well,” the nymph knew it was time to speak the suspicion she had carried for so many years.

“Dear elf,” the nymph began. “I wonder – does that protector still live in that space between your chest and your throat?”

“Why yes, of course,” the elf replied, surprised.

“I find it curious,” the nymph continued, cautiously, “that this illness which has befallen you is occurring in the same spot as where your protector has held all of your many, many words, over the years.”

The elf listened, curious.

“You see, dear elf, I can’t help but wonder if there is simply not enough space for all of your words anymore. If maybe your pain is the words trying to get out, because they are crowded and in pain.” the nymph added.

“I just don’t see how that could be,” the elf said. “My protector assured me that this would protect me from the things I fear the most. The protector would never had lied.”

“Oh, of that I have no doubt,” the nymph reassured. “Protectors never lie, though I must tell you that over time they become very stubborn. Of course, sweet elf, it’s all out of love and care. But I do believe that now, your protector needs to be told that its services are no longer needed. That you will continue to become more and more ill if it does not begin to let the words through.”

“I’m afraid,” the elf told the nymph. “If the words come out, people will hear them. I will never get them back. And isn’t it safer to keep them hidden in their spot?”

“What’s the price of safer?” the nymph questioned. “I watch you day after day from my spot with the plants in our garden, and the price of ‘safer’ seems to be your health. I believe it’s worth a risk to save your life. And your friends, the toads and the nymphs and the fairies – they’ve been waiting, for years, to hear the words that your protector has hidden.”

The elf heard what the nymph was telling her. She knew that the nymph was right. She spoke to her protector that very night. “Oh, dear protector, I need to thank you,” she told it. “You did what you thought was right – and maybe when I was just a little girl, it was right. But it’s no longer working, for it’s making me very, very ill. Dear protector, I am not upset with you. I am grateful to how you’ve looked over me all of these years. But it’s time for you to go. And I will be brave. And I will know that all of my words – even the loud and hard and scary and deep ones – they will all be greeted warmly by the fairies and toads and nymphs. So, my dear protector – goodbye.”

And it left.

And that next morning, out in the garden, while drinking lilac-melon tea with a water fairy, the elf opened her mouth, and the words came out, and they rode right into the fairy’s heart, who welcomed them, hugged them, loved them.

Moments later, the elf felt better than she had in years. Her chest had opened. Her throat had relaxed.

She was no longer ill.

She was going to be just fine.

Acknowledging it

You know how some days you feel down and blah, and sometimes you’re okay with that, but sometimes it makes you panic, Ohmygod what if this feeling doesn’t pass, what if I never feel happy again, what if this is my new normal, I don’t know why I feel this way, the walls are closing in, I’m drowning, I’m regressing, all my hard work is undone…..and you go from 0 to 100 in about three milliseconds? (Or maybe you don’t know….but humor me).

Anyway, in processing that idea the other day, I was saying how cognitively I KNOW it always passes, I know that even months of a hard time don’t last forever, and therefore one day of feeling down doesn’t automatically equal a lifetime of it, but that it’s hard to remember in the moment. So one thing I said (half jokingly but also half totally serious) is that maybe I need a note on my phone that’s called “When I feel Crappy or Low”. Under that super creative title (…..) would be a few to-do items.

First is acknowledge what is contributing. Because as humans we can feel blah and we can feel down and we can feel upset for no reason, but as I am learning, there’s almost always one contributing factor. So first up is to figure out what the factors are. For me, there’s a list of “high-flyers” – events, people, thought patterns, or memories, that, more often than others, contribute. So first would be a checklist of those items (which would be more specific than this): Is it the weather? Is it a family member? Is it that grief? Is it that memory? Is it that anticipation of a change that’s coming?

I’ve found that almost always acknowledging it makes a difference. It instantly helps me feel back in control. It’s the flipped switch from Ohmygod I’m drowning, I’m out of control, everything is pressing on me, I’m infused with tidal waves of chaos to Oh. I’m in control. It’s just x, y, and z, and it’s not everything, and it’s not an internal malfunction, it’s an external rainshower that’s getting me a little wet but I’m fine, we’re fine, I’m fine.

Do you know that feeling I’m talking about? Kind of like in grad school when there was a huge paper to write or test to study for – it initially feels so big and so impossible to ever figure out. But as soon as a to-do list is made and it’s broken down, it’s manageable and you return to I can do this, this is doable.

The next thing to do, after acknowledging to myself what it is, is to focus on it more. This is so damn counter-intuitive. When something is upsetting, we want to ignore it, want to push it away, we don’t want to spend extra time and energy thinking about and talking about it. But – it works.

With the disclaimer that it often initially feels worse.

When you choose to focus in on it, whether it’s to write about it or talk about it or draw about it, or whatever it is for you, you might feel that tightness in your chest get tighter. The tears that you’ve held back might come. You might end up gasping for air, or you might feel the pain even stronger. Hold on. Because if you continue talking, continue writing, continue letting it out – you will then feel the release. You’ll feel your chest relax, you’ll notice the tears stop, you’ll notice you feel lighter, you’ll notice you feel better.

In the moment? So hard to do.

But maybe that’s what the reminder is for, that’s what the list is for.

Because it’s worked before. It’s been true before.

It applies now.

Toolkit

I  said this the other day:

I don’t know about you, but in the moment, tools are really hard to remember to use. Also sometimes hard to believe that they’re going to do anything. So I find that practicing strategies and tools during calm moments, and semi-stressful moments, make them much more automatic to use during the super hard times. I think I could probably write a whole post on tools, and I think I will.

And I did.

Here are the three main tools in my toolkit lately that always help:

1. Move
Sometimes this means moving locations. Walking out of my apartment to go sit by the reservoir. Going to a coffee shop. Usually a change of location and scenery makes a huge difference and abates some of the heaviness I had been feeling.

Sometime this means physical movement, like going for a walk, going to the gym, or going to yoga. During this type of movement, I usually feel “it” moving through me. As I move my body, however vigorously or gently suits that moment, I’m moving it out. Moving the heaviness around, dislodging it from where it had taken root. More often than not, the tears or panic stop once I move – and this is something I have to re-learn each time. This morning I kept trying to wait it out. I said to myself, I’ll leave the apartment once I feel calmer, I’ll go to the gym once I’m not teary. But after a while I decided to just go – and by the time I got downstairs and into my car I was already a bit calmer. Just move. Now.

2. Visualize
I used to hate the idea of visualization, and that’s because I thought visualization was only “imagine yourself on the beach listening to the waves.” And while that type of visualization certainly has its time and place for me, it doesn’t do it all, and I needed more than that. I have since learned way more about this idea, and visualization has quickly become a go-to.

I usually visualize “it” moving. “It” can be panic, anxiety, memories, fear, whatever it is for you, or for me. Lately “it” has been a general heaviness that holds itself in my chest, in my throat, or in my head. It feels like a dark murky thick smoggy cloud. I like to envision a white, sparkly light coming in as I breathe in, swirling around, and clearing out the murky darkness as I breathe out. To those of you reading this and rolling your eyes: This works.

The other visualization I’ve done stems from something I read in an amazing neuroscience book [this is an affiliate link]. This chapter of the book discussed chronic pain and how visualization can help decrease the pain. And, I’ve used those ideas before, when I get a headache – I imagine the pain center in my brain, and I imagine a barrier around it, so that any pain signals my head tries to send are blocked and don’t reach the pain center. This works. I have practiced it so much that it now decreases the pain of a headache fairly quickly.

Anyway, I decided I could probably use the same principle around my heart, for those times that I’m feeling too much of my own feelings and all of everyone else’s feelings. So I imagine a barrier around my heart – not shutting myself off from the world, but protecting my heart when it needs a break.

3. Grounding
I could give you a zillion grounding tools (i.e. tools that help you stay present, focused on the moment), and there are another zillion out there on the internet. The ones that work for me best lately:

Mantras. I like mantras a lot, and I don’t like affirmations a lot. Mantras seem to be more relevant to me in the moment, whereas affirmations just…don’t work for me. [Side note: does anyone else feel like there’s a difference between the two?] For me, a mantra is a grounding statement, often what someone else would tell me in that moment, or what I would tell someone else, and ultimately, what I am aiming to trust and believe in that moment.

Sometimes my mantras are on post-it notes (there’s about 8 of them in my moleskin notebook right now) or in my pocket (the day of my wedding I texted my dear friend a picture of the post-it note in my purse that read, I am worthy) or just in my head. One that works in a moment of hypersensitivity: “Those are not my feelings. I don’t have to feel them.” Another one that works in a moment of panic: “I am breathing through this moment. I am breathing through this feeling.” They have become comforting statements that bring me focus and relief.

I also find narrating what I’m doing to be very calming. If I find myself starting to get spinny in my brain while I’m driving, I focus on what’s going on: I am in the car. I am driving home.

The one specific visualization that I do love, seems to fit better into this “grounding” category for me. It was an exercise I once learned in a therapy session, and the idea was to find a calming, safe place that could be thought about in such great detail that it would eventually be neurologically strengthened in my brain as calming, the minute that I pictured it. The place that has been consistently safe and calming for me is a specific location at my summer job. So after formally talking about the place in great detail (5 senses), it has been so strengthened in my brain that in a moment of overwhelm or panic or heaviness, I fairly automatically start thinking, I am on the back porch. I am rocking in the chair. I see the sunlight, streaming through the trees. I see the green grass, I see the blue skies. I hear the crickets, I hear the birds.

Calm.

For all of these mantras and narrations, I find pairing it with my breath crucial. I don’t really know how to explain this in writing, but basically, I breathe in for one piece of it, and breathe out for the other part, so it has some sort of rhythm to it. For example: Inhale for the entire length of I am breathing through this moment and then exhale for the length of I am breathing through this feeling. Does that make sense?


And there you have it. My current set of tools. As I’ve said, I really find that in a hard moment, it’s equally hard to remember to use these tools. Generally because I initially think, That’s not going to work. That’s not going to make this feeling better. But they always do. Not always right away, and not always fully, but they always help. And the more I practice them during less intense moments, the more automatic they become during hard moments.

I would really, really, love to know: do any of these tools work for you? What are your go-to tools and strategies these days? Please share with us – anonymous is always an option.

Acceptance, people, tools

I was talking with someone today about how sometimes our brains tell us things that in hindsight we laugh about. We think, Wow, I can’t believe I ever entertained that thought!  For example: at the beginning of every school year I have a brief moment where I think, Crap. What if I just forget how to be an SLP? What if the kids walk into my office and I have no idea how to help them? This person had a similar experience, where today she thought, What if I walk into my class tonight and just can’t teach, what if I just forget how? We laughed about both of those thoughts, but in the moments they grab at us and we see them as hard truths, rather than just thoughts.

That got me thinking about similar moments- have you ever had a really awful moment or day, or maybe during a panic attack, or a crying spell, and you just think, What if this never ends? What if I cannot move through this? What if this does break me? [I just know in my heart that nearly every person has had this moment at least once – am I right?]

I rely on three things in those moments:

  1. Acceptance. I have found that the number one thing I can do to make those moments worse is to panic and fight them.

4cc6b53fd6383777f8a6ab9fa375eac6

The more I entertain thoughts of, I can’t do this, I’m freaking out/panicking/hysterical/upset, this will break me, I am broken, I can’t move through this, it will never end, the harder it is.

A tiny space of calm is found within the storm when acceptance is embraced. I am having a really hard time right now. Oh. Okay. Yes. This is what’s happening. This is where I am. Okay. I’m fully here.

2. People. Not all people. And not most people. But the people who Get It, or who Get Me, and will love me through it, who will remind me, This will not break you, who will be present with me wherever I am. Those very few people are the lily pads leading me across the lake.

3. Tools. I don’t know about you, but in the moment, tools are really hard to remember to use. Also sometimes hard to believe that they’re going to do anything. So I find that practicing strategies and tools during calm moments, and semi-stressful moments, make them much more automatic to use during the super hard times. I think I could probably write a whole post on tools, and I think I will.

There are so many, good, concrete, realistic strategies out there. Some, we teach our kids each day at school or at home. Some, we learn ourselves. I think we all know that tools are more than just “take a deep breath” which my ukele-playing, beyond-insightful kiddo will tell you “doesn’t work” and “makes it worse!!!!” And you know what? Sometimes she’s right. So often the go-to advice is, “take a deep breath.” But really, a deep breath doesn’t always help. In the moment, it doesn’t initially matter how deep the breath is, it matters where it comes from. An attempt at a deep breath that involves a shallow breath where the shoulders raising up high is going to physically feel awful. But a breath from your stomach, where you put your hand on your stomach and try to breathe into it – that breath is going to feel good. And it will gradually deepen on its own.

 

So – while I ponder a post about my own tools that I’ve gathered and discovered over the years, I welcome any and all thoughts: What works for you during a hard time? Are there certain thoughts that grip you in terror but later you laugh about? Have you ever tried to accept where you’re at, however hard that may be?

Not the thoughts themselves

(Sometimes I feel like a broken record, because I kind of say the same thing over and over again, just in different words and different ways. But maybe that’s kind of the point, because what we internalize and truly know in one moment, we doubt and don’t believe in another moment. So maybe the point is to keep saying it, over and over again, because each moment we capitalize on our truth is a moment that the truth solidifies more and more in our cores.)

I have been noticing lately (again) how the automatic thoughts that were such a part of my life for so long continue to linger. I have been empowered lately (again) that I have the choice to act on them or not.

One of the best, most freeing truths I ever came to internalize, was:

What matters is my reactions to the thoughts, not the thoughts themselves. 

Today, I felt embarrassed about the way I handled a conversation. I perceived myself as sounding incompetent, immature, and annoying. (And maybe I did sound that way, or maybe I didn’t, all the ruminating in the world won’t send me inside the other person’s head to know how she perceived me. It would be up to her to tell me – not my job to guess.) And it fascinated me how quickly after I heard the thoughts in my brain:

I am going to the gym right when I get home.
I am going for a run even though it’s hot.
I’m not going to eat dinner.

I no longer panic about those thoughts, though I don’t love them. But I’ve come to realize that my brain is wired this way. Maybe it’s genetic, maybe it’s neurological, maybe it’s synapses that were created in middle school and high school and college and still exist to this day. But also? Maybe it doesn’t matter why the thoughts come. Maybe (definitely) what matters is how I choose to react. And there’s nothing more empowering than that – knowing I have a choice.

I’m home right now. I’m sitting on my couch. I had a snack because working outside all day left me shaky and dehydrated. The air conditioning is on. I’m writing. I will eat dinner tonight. I don’t have the energy for the gym, so I won’t go tonight. I might go for a walk later if I want to gently, slowly stretch out my body. I will not harm myself. I will be gentle and kind.

Years ago? I didn’t have that separation between thoughts and actions. A thought was acted on, because there was no other option. But that’s no longer the case. And the presence of thoughts doesn’t erase years of progress, years of moving forward. It doesn’t mean failure and it doesn’t mean regression or relapse. The presence of thoughts means nothing except just that….that there are thoughts in my brain. (And? If I do or did act on the thoughts? That also doesn’t erase years of progress, moving forward, or mean failure. It means that all of us, myself included, are human. And perfection doesn’t exist. And that’s just life. And okay. And real.)

And so now I know.

I can notice the thoughts. Listen to them. Acknowledge them.

And gently send them away.

%d bloggers like this: