March 27, 2020
A year ago, I started this blog, opening up about the challenges our family was facing and sharing some of the insights I gained while coping with the unknown and “swimming upstream.” Now, here we all are, facing a collective Unknown and a seemingly infinite amount of uncertainty.
It hardly seemed worth it to me to write anything at this time– so many others have done so much to help all of us manage our feelings, stay safe, keep active, and be informed– who am I to think I could add anything of value to these conversations?
And then I remembered something: I’ve been a worrier my whole life. My worry is impressive in both size and scale, in its longevity and its endurance. It has been my constant companion for the better part of five decades (regardless of whether or not I’m awake or asleep). Next to my tattered baby blanket, it is my oldest friend. A global pandemic arises, and POOF! Without batting an eyelash, my worry absorbs this news while sipping its tea and casting an even bigger shadow over the rest of my life.
So, for those of you who aren’t as intimately acquainted as I am with this World of Worry, let me first begin by welcoming you to the club. It’s helpful to remember that we’re not alone– worry does tend to like its hosts to feel singularly singled out.
Next, I’d like to call your attention to your breathing. Fortunately, with everything else going on, we don’t actually have to pay attention to our breathing to make sure we’re doing it. However, with a little focus we can make a big difference in how we are feeling. Just three deep breaths is all I’m asking- and try to make the exhale a little longer than the inhale– and then see if you’re feeling a little more centered and calm.
Next, let me introduce “the three M’s”– mantras, movement, and (time) management– not listed in any particular order. Mantras are found in many meditations and can be as simple as “in” and “out” paired with the inhales and exhales of the three breaths mentioned above. They can be rooted in more formal prayers or positive affirmations (“may I be safe, may I be well, may I be happy”). Movement literally “moves” you out of the worry state and guides you back into the present moment (besides all the other positive effects it has on our physical bodies). Following the terrific example of our beloved dogs and “shaking it off” can be an immediate mood booster. Time management can also provide a respite from worry – allow yourself 5 or 10 minutes a day to write, say aloud, or think about all your worries, and then when the time’s up the worrying is done for that day.
For many of us, there is a “fourth M”- medication. Combined with working with a therapist, medication can provide the bridge we need to get from here to there, from a paralyzing place of worry to a functional place where the effects of all the tools listed above can be felt.
Most of you reading this blog know at least a little bit about the techniques and coping strategies I mentioned above. And most of us know worrying doesn’t actually solve anything, or make anything better or easier. What it prevents are things like the opportunity to be fully present to what is actually going on right now (distraction- but not in a good or healthy or entertaining way) and the ability to be open to new possibilities- or hope.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the description of grief as love with no place to go?* I think of worry as love going in the wrong direction. It’s taken me years and years of internal work, and experiencing what I’ve described in my earlier posts, to find some success at managing my worry. And what I’ve only recently discovered is that self-compassion is the flip-side of worry. I couldn’t see that connection for a long while, since I confused self-compassion with selfishness. Worry, to me, was thinking of others at my own expense. Even when I began to understand that hurting myself this way– fanning the flames of my anxiety– wasn’t actually helping anyone else, I still didn’t grasp that the best way to help others was to help myself first. Yes, yes, I’m sure we’ve all heard the airline analogy about “putting your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.” I believed that, and I promised I would do that in the event of an actual emergency. But in day-to-day living, I just couldn’t let go of the idea that doing so was a selfish act. It’s amazing how long you can last being oxygen-deprived at the altitude of everyday life. Eventually, however, the air runs out.
When that moment finally came for me, I didn’t lose physical consciousness, but rather my self-consciousness- my shame at being human and having needs. The act of helping others is utterly dependent upon helping ourselves first. It starts with simpler acts of self-care, like fuzzy socks, warm baths, and mugs of tea. Stopping there, though, puts a limit on how much you value yourself, and it also truly limits your ability to show compassion to others. We have to sit still long enough to really hear what our bodies and our hearts need, and we have to be brave enough to seek out those things and minister care to ourselves. If we don’t, we are lessening what we can bring to the world around us.
So, when you feel the worry rising up inside, please take a moment to ask yourself what you need and find some way to give it to yourself. Redirect that love that’s pointing in the wrong direction- aim it at yourself. Take in every last little bit. And only then will you be able to turn it around and give it away. Now more than ever, our world needs it.
*“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” – Jamie Anderson
If you’re interested in digging a little deeper into self-compassion, check out https://self-compassion.org, a website highlighting the work of Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion.