Immediate steps for managing the daily influx of bad news.
When it feels like the world is spinning out of control, the one place we can look to find a modicum of control is within. We can do all we can to promote peace and accord around us, but there are limits to what is in our power. Creating a sense of inner peace is an outcome we have immediate control over—in all moments. Changing our internal state may not immediately change the circumstances that surround us; however, we are more likely to be effective agents of change when we act from a state of calm and of sound mind. So, with all that is happening in the world around us, how can we remain informed without devolving into a downward spiral of hopelessness and despair? The following small steps can go a long way in calming the nervous system and releasing stress during incredibly challenging times.
1. Ground yourself. Stop and breathe. Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. —Viktor Frankl, psychologist and Holocaust survivor.
Obvious as though this one may seem, when we are seized by psychological distress, something as seemingly simple as stopping to take a deep breath can do wonders. Notice when you are in the grips of anxiety or hopelessness. Bring yourself back into the room—into the present. You can do this by focusing on your breath, or you can also use the five senses. For example, notice the sounds around you or the colors you see, or feel the parts of your body that come into contact with the chair or with the ground on which you are standing. This can be done anywhere, at any time. 2. Shake it out. Do you ever find yourself suddenly overcome by an almost uncontrollable urge to scream—for example, when watching the news? In moments when you are seized with anxiety or any intense, negative emotion, moving the body is a way to immediately change your physiological state and thus, your mental state. Get outside and go for a run, or if that is not possible, one of the simplest and most immediate techniques to relieve stress in the body is the shaking exercise. It is just as it sounds. From wherever you are sitting or standing, begin shaking each part of the body, as if you are shaking out all of the residual tension in your body. Physical activity is a proven method for lifting depression and anxiety. Where the body goes, the mind will follow. 3. Become the “mountain.” A wonderfully metaphoric and empowering visualization, particularly during unstable times, is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mountain meditation. Find a comfortable space to sit. Be aware of all the sensations in the body. Breathe. Close your eyes and then bring to mind the image of a tall, massive mountain. Embody the remarkable stability and unshakable strength of a mountain. Reflect on the chaos, the turbulent storms that this mountain has endured over centuries while it remains standing strong and tall. A complete step-by-step guide for doing this meditation can be found here. The utter lack of control we have over certain external forces in our lives is not a pleasant thing to acknowledge. Hence the ubiquitousness of conspiracy theories, climate change denial, and other psychological defenses embraced by so many in a desperate attempt to cope with the harsh realities of the world. Although such mechanisms may provide a false sense of certainty and give the illusion that the world makes sense, in the long run, they only keep us stuck. Cultivating a sense of equanimity during these challenging times is certainly not easy. Yet, it is essential to maintaining our psychological well-being and, ultimately, the well-being of society overall.
References Schuch, F.B. et al. (2020). Associations of moderate to vigorous physical activity and sedentary behavior with depressive and anxiety symptoms in self-isolating people during the COVID-19 pandemic: A cross-sectional survey in Brazil. Psychiatry Research, Volume 292.
This article was originally published on Psychology Today.