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Karen Stewart retired in October 2021 after more than 40 years of practicing psychol-ogy. She cares deeply about this planet and all of the people on it, especially the margin-alized, social excluded and disenfranchised. She believes we are all one and we sink or swim together. She still has something to say.


She can be contacted at:

karen@
stewartpsychologists.com

Challenging Times Like These

By Karen Stewart, MA

Karen Stewart, MA

What do we do in times like these? What do we do when we feel overwhelmed by the news of yet another mass shooting in a school? A grocery store? War in Ukraine? Fires in the West? When those stories add to whatever stresses we are experiencing in our own lives due to health, economic, or relationship issues? I humbly offer some suggestions that I have found helpful over the years. If these suggestions do not help or you need something more, then I urge you to reach out to friends, clergy, or therapists for more support. The most important step in healing is to reach out for the help you need.

Start Where We Are

We must always start where we are. I love the advice of Sylvia Boorstein, to tell ourselves “Sweetheart, you are in pain.” No denial or attempts to ignore or minimize what we feel. We just accept the reality of what is going on with us and offer ourselves space and enormous compassion and treat ourselves with great tenderness. We offer ourselves all the comfort we would give to a small child who came to us in pain. We might imagine ourselves as a small child being held by another or the Divine, whatever image is comforting and soothing. We might imagine the words they would say, reminding us that no matter what we feel we are loved and cherished. We rest until the feelings begin to subside.

Mindful Breathing

Slow, mindful breathing is always a good idea. Under stress, our breath can become restricted and shallow, or rapid and shallow, both of which increase our stress. Simply being aware of how we are breathing is a good first step.  Watching our breath and gently trying to slow and deepen our breath triggers a relaxation response. As we are gradually able to breathe more slowly and gently, perhaps letting our exhale be longer than our inhale, we might find that our shoulders come down a few inches and our muscles begin to soften and relax. We can do this breathing exercise whenever we think about it throughout the day. Focusing on our breathing calls us to the present moment and for that moment we can release all our cares and worries and just send healing energy and love to ourselves. Taking time to take care of ourselves in this way can make our days go much better. We are always able to be more effective from a place of calm than a place of fear or anxiety.

Gratitude

We can take a few moments to offer gratitude for all that we take for granted. If we are pain free, we can recognize what a gift that is. We can be grateful for whatever senses we have—sight, hearing, touch, smell—appreciating the gifts they bring us every moment of the day.  We can be grateful for being able to move— walk, run, bike, swim. Do we have housing? Food? Clothing? Education? Friends? Community? Work? Meaningful activities? On any given day most of us have many things for which to be grateful.

Hope

And we can have hope, what Joan Halifax, Buddhist teacher calls “wise hope.” “Wise hope” is not the hope based on actions of others—the wish that, this time in the face of a mass shooting of school children, the politicians will enact laws that might help or that mental health programs will be funded, etc. That kind of hope can lead to despair when once again nothing is done. “Wise hope” is based on our deep knowing that as long as we draw breath, we can do small or large things to make a difference. We can act to make the world a better place. We can look at what we are upset about and come up with actions that will feel good to us, will be faithful to our values.

Courage

And finally, we can acknowledge our own courage to continue, accepting what is and doing our best. Our best is not perfection. Our best is being faithful to our beliefs. Sometimes we will fall short, sometimes we may fail altogether, but we pick ourselves up and continuing on. And we know that we are not alone—others are doing the same thing and we are all part of the whole.

I often have this image after a tragedy, it first occurred after 9/11. Those who died from that ultimate expression of hatred created a tear in the fabric of the universe, but their deaths ignited a great, unbounded, infinite love experienced all over the world. Anytime tragedies occur I have this same image—a rent in the fabric of the universe followed by an explosion of love that somehow heals the tear. So too, the deaths of the nineteen children and two teachers have ignited an outpouring of tremendous love and care to envelope and hold the people of Uvalde and all of us as we grieve. Let’s not forget, let’s not give up hope, let’s make sure love guides our actions.