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Karen Stewart, MA, and David Stewart, PhD, are psychologists who work with individuals, couples, groups, and organizations in their Durham practice.

We Are Our Best Medicine

By Karen Stewart, MA

Karen Stewart, MA

I am thinking of you, dear reader, as I write this. Our country is in such turmoil. We are so divided, fearful, and angry. Wildfires in the west, hurricanes in the south, a pandemic, uncertain elections, schools on-line, job losses, business closings, and finally evictions and food shortages as the safety nets expire. Most of us feel overwhelmed at times.

What do we do to cope? Often our first ways of coping may feel good for a bit but are the least effective. We may seek comfort in food, alcohol, on-line shopping, various screens, or sleeping. Those options offer temporary soothing but do nothing to heal the distress. With overuse they can lead to weight gain, addiction, isolation, or economic problems. They are designed to distract us from the issues, I think, in the child-like hope that the problems will go away. They might work on minor stresses or every once in a while, but they are not what we need in these times.

In these times we need to go to our most powerful source and that, fortunately, is within us. We need to know that we can handle whatever comes our way, no matter how frightening. It may not be easy, the outcome may not be what we had hoped, but we have what we need to survive and endure. Can you take a minute to breathe in that thought, really feel it and know it in your body as well as your mind?

We can breathe in the stresses we feel, not run from them or hide from them. We can face them squarely and breathe, feeling our feelings: the fear, anger, hurt, confusion—whatever is present. We can locate those feelings in our body. Where do we feel that anger? What does it feel like? We can pay attention and breathe into the feeling. We can look at our thoughts, knowing they are just that—thoughts. They may be fearful or angry thoughts, but they are not reality. If we watch our thoughts, we see that they shift and change. We can write them down if they threaten to overwhelm us. We can just sit with the feelings and thoughts and bodily sensations. When we have regained our equilibrium, we can make a plan for actions we need to take.
We may all be feeling a bit unsure of ourselves and that is okay. We have the rest of our lives to practice this. There are lots of things we can do to strengthen our belief in our ability to cope. Here is a bit of a list, you can add more things that help.

  • We can talk to friends, family, therapists, or pastors who offer solace and suggestions for coping with issues. Talking to others is healing, it reduces our isolation, helps us feel connected and loved, broadens our perspectives on our problems and reminds us of our strengths.
  • We can exercise and eat healthy food and get enough sleep. Healthy habits build our resilience, they are foundational for our well-being. We are in a stress marathon and need to take good care of our bodies.
  • We can practice yoga, Taichi, or deep breathing, which soothes our nervous system and releases stress. We can sit up with our feet on the floor and take a slow deep breath, hold it for a few seconds and then sigh as we release it, making the exhale slightly longer than the inhale. Doing this for even a few minutes can be helpful, doing it for five minutes is better. When we focus on our breathing it occupies our busy, busy mind and soothes and quiets our nervous system.
  • Prayer or meditation can also be helpful in quieting our busy minds. Meditation can be as simple as focusing on our breath. Some people find guided meditation, led by another helpful. There are a myriad of guided meditations on you tube and applications on the internet.
  • We can turn to those beliefs that bring us comfort—something that helps us keep our perspective on our place in this grand universe. Belief in a force or presence outside of ourselves, a religious being or the power of love or connection helps center and ground us.
  • We can read inspirational literature, the Big Book for AA members, spiritual scriptures, poetry and philosophy for others. Sometimes just 10 minutes of reading can be very helpful in reminding us of who we are.
  • We can find joy! Being outside is extremely important. We all need at least two hours a week outside; some of us need two hours a day or more if we can get it. We can listen to music or make our own music! Someone said now is the time for fierce dancing! Turn up your favorite music and dance!  We can draw, paint, create in any number of ways. We can make our homes more inviting and cozy refuges for the coming winter.
  • We can journal, write letters to distant friends, or connect in other ways. We are so lucky to have so many ways to connect in this time where we are isolated.
  • We can do something for someone else to feel useful and connected.
  • We can add to this list whatever brings us joy and helps us feel connected.

Several years ago, I wrote a column based on the song, by Carrie Newcomer, You Can Do This Hard Thing. That song comes to mind now. We are stronger than we realize. We are each connected to a deep wellspring of love, courage and hope and we can support each other in doing this hard work of building the world we want to live in.

Dear reader, I hold you in my heart and imagine all of us being held in love in this beautiful, amazing, wonderful universe as we go through this deeply challenging time. May the pain be, as Valarie Kaur says, that of birthing a new world, filled with radical love, where all are equal, peace and justice prevail, and everyone has what they need.