The reality of fear, worry, death, and how to work towards acceptance and self-care
What does this second lockdown mean to you? A disappointment? A frustration? A sadness? A loss? The loss of reality as we have known it in the past? An inevitability? Is it familiar – easier second time around? Where are YOU with accepting where we are at in living in a pandemic? What are you noticing in your loved ones? Your colleagues, your pupils? Driving back from coaching and speaking work in London on Wednesday, I listened to the Moral Maze, discussing whether our attitudes and approach to death in the 21st century were compounding our sufferings. In the discussion, it was put forward that we try to sanitise and remove death. With all our modern medical skill and know-how of longevity, we tend to see death as a failure. Does this resistance to the reality of death cause more suffering – and compound our suffering in the grip of the pandemic?
For many of us, the second wave, despite it being no real surprise, has nevertheless been surprising in its impact. For me, it has re-awakened my feelings around my father’s sudden death two years ago, and the feelings about my mother’s vulnerability are right at the fore – both as her carer, and on a more raw level as her child. Having moved to Hereford in October, I am now a four hour drive from her residential care home. Now there’s the lockdown, I might as well be on the moon, because all visits and contact other than by phone or internet are prohibited. The chilling exception is an ‘end of life visit’. Somehow this winter lockdown feels more poignant, as some of our winter rituals will be perforce prevented. No decorating of her room, setting up her Christmas tree, eating chocolates and laughing together over the reminiscences of Christmas past. Death – and the reality of death- is a very hard thing to bear. It has taken two and a half years for my mother to bravely recover her equilibrium as a person who has battled with anxiety for decades. And death has the capacity to divide as well as unite. And I am not just talking abut the living and the dead. The pandemic and the threats it poses divide us not just physically at times, but also mentally and emotionally as in protecting ourselves, we remove our generosity and availability to others. Sadly, my brother removed himself from family life as he struggled in his grief at the loss of my father. He has been estranged from us all for most of the last two years, something which has compounded the pain – probably even more for him than for the rest of us. On the eve of the lockdown, he phoned my mother to ask about my father’s will. Of course the timing of such a conversation, the lack of context makes this even harder. It is so easy to go the full Jarndyce & Jarndyce on this sort of thing and return to the original traumas, dramas and disagreements. As my late father (a vicar of 40 years) would have said, funerals, death, can bring out the best and the worst in people. Within any family there are stories to tell. The dramas of who gets what, the trolley-dash greed for keep-sakes after the consumption of too many sausage rolls and sherries at the wake…Sagas of competitive mourning… All are forms of resisting the actuality of the primary suffering of loss. Grief can make us withdraw and retreat into ourselves. Trauma can so easily be reawakened and revisited by the threatened mind. The pandemic brings death closer, and with each lockdown our relationship with the stresses that are ushered in with each removal of freedom, each loss of contact can have the effect of increasing mastery – or equally compounding a sense of despair. The full range of our strategies for coping with life’s slings and arrows are out of reach. The reality that the world is different from the world we want slaps us in the face. In my coaching work, I’m listening to people who have grown massively over the challenges of the pandemic, despite traumatic and difficult situations triggered by it. For some of them, the second lockdown has penetrated deeper somehow. The deprivation of meaningful social contact and connection. For others it re-awakens feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Research also tells us that young people have been especially affected by the uncertainty and social deprivations with 18-24 year-olds bearing the brunt of the psychological impact. The feelings of loss at this stage are striking particularly hard. The fraughtness of an unknown and uncertain future, becoming even more unknown and uncertain. This is very likely connected with the many major milestones in this age group that mark the transition from home life and school life to university and / or the world of work. Equally, developmentally, it is the last tranche of adolescent development, where the last elements of brain development are coming into play- in particular the wiring of the pre-frontal cortex. The most sophisticated bit of our brain kit that integrates it all and provides capacity for strategic thought and nuanced relational decisions, problem solving , and creativity. I watched another excellent webinar from The Positive Group, sharing their researches into the psychological impact of recent stressors in the workplace with professionals. They referred to a whole range of statistics about our relationship with stress in this COVID era: nearly 8 in 10 regard the pandemic as a significant source of stress, and 2 in 3 people report an increase of stress over the course of the pandemic. For many, for most, life before COVID felt clearer, brighter, more vibrant and predictable. Life today, darker, mister, murkier.
SO how can we give ourselves and each other softer landings around Lockdown, the sequel, around the losses, disappointments, frustrations of life? How is it that some people can come to a point of acceptance, resolve, resolution and capability as we dig in again in the darker months. How can we recapture our mojo when bleakness strikes and negative scripts revolve in our minds…?
The practice: take the hit -feel the fear -see the worry. Feel the loss to release the loss. WE can’t change what we can’t see – so use visualisation to see what’s there…. Let it be…in order to let it go…so that you can be at choice about what you want to let in, in place of loss, worry, fear…. Visualisation. Try to remember a time in your life when there was a past conflict – ideally some time ago. What was it? It might have been the feeling of not being accepted by peers at school, it might have been a bereavement, a divorce, an ending. It might have been a disagreement with a sibling. Or living with the turmoil and difficulty of having been a disappointment eg to parents. It may have been being in a job you really didn’t like… Take a step to the left…re-enter the ‘before’ stage – when you were enmeshed in the conflict…. Remember how the conflict revolved in your mind. Try to go back to the experience as vividly as you can…What your thinking was. What the lived experience was like. What the impact was. Where did you feel it in your body? How did it affect your sleep, your functioning at work, your ability to concentrate? How did it affect how you showed up in other relationships? How did it affect your enjoyment of life? Your energy levels? Now take a step to the right – and re-occupy the territory where you are released from the drag of all that turmoil… As you step into the ‘after’ space…Now think about how you felt once you had reached a point of resolution and acceptance. What happened? What changed? What was the difference to your energy? Your outlook on life? What is it to be liberated from that inner sense of conflict, worry, anxiety, resistance? What are you learning when you think about the shift in your energies here? Check in with yourself… What are the patterns in your relation to stresses and conflicts in your life right now…? What is your thinking? What are your moods or feelings tending to be? What are you holding in your body and feeling in your body? What’s in your behaviour and the way you show up around work, rest, relationships? What is there…? What do you need to come to terms with? What are the fears? What are your worries? What about those worries is useful and productive? What of them do you NEED to hold on to? What of those worries do you need to let go of? What would life be like, if you could release the energy spent in worry and resistance? 70% of what we worry about never comes into being. It causes unnecessary suffering. What are you learning? What can you let go of?
Practical things to try – to release yourself from fear and obsessive worry…
- Spotlight technique – deliberately pause and observe your mind in the moment when the worries are going round and round in your head. Notice the pace. Notice the themes. What are the scripts that come back and forth. Are you caught in a ‘yes-but’ loop of worry…vs productively debating and seeking points of action? Worry will always trump reassurance. Choices and action help bind anxiety and worry. How can you step outside and observe with curiosity and seek to learn the ways in which your survival instinct is being on your side – but is not actually being your friend in this…is bullying you into being constantly on the alert rather than allowing you to choose, act, rest, and restore.
- What is the quality of the self talk? We can’t change the lock-down but we can change how we think about it. How does your script need to change eg from ‘I can’t stand it any more’ to ‘This is hard. I can dig deep. It’s going to be OK.’
- Know that at times of threat we tend to make 3 basic mis-appraisals. We tend to under estimate our capacity to cope, over estimate the impact of the threat, and over estimate the changes of that bad event….What are your estimations?
- Scheduling some time, space, to really focus and express what’s on our minds can be a productive release and help declutter the mind. Allocate 20 minutes to really GO FOR IT with worry. You’ll actually find it quite hard to sustain. Go on – try to take a proper look at your inner Medusa. I heard Dr Lawrence Cohen speak recently about supporting others in working through anxiety. And he said something that struck me as profoundly true. ‘The object of emotion is completion’ – quite often within ourselves, and with others, we don’t allow the difficult emotion to have full expression – because we leap in to reassure and ‘fix it up’ ‘make it better’. But we need to allow the emotion to be expressed – richly expressed – in order to move through it.
- Expressive writing. Privately, with no editing. Set a time and just blurt what’s in there on paper as vividly and authentically – even exaggerating if you like….We tend to be avoidant of the thoughts and feelings we don’t like. It can be very cathartic. Research over decades now, has revealed how helpful expressive writing in in decluttering the mind and creating the pathway for trauma, loss, sadness, anxiety to move through us. Merely labelling our feeling states it’s beneficial. It helps us organise and then share our image of events. A great pre-cursor to talking to someone else about it when our mind is really jumbled and overloaded. The expressive writing helps provide a perspective. We start to see patterns, construct meaning, be able to check, challenge, and then change what’s going on inside. Substantial research into writing about trauma shows that expressive writing as a technique for working through worry helps us sleep better, improves our working memory and releases energy and focus. We can connect better because we’re less preoccupied.
- Use somatic interventions to slow the mind down. Deep belly breathing. Muscle relaxation – eg deliberately softening the muscles around our eyes and jaws. Or deliberately tensing and releasing the muscles systematically in a body scan. Giving yourself a physical cappuccino….when you’ve just felt a little overwhelmed by an interaction. Go to a private space and shake each extremity for 20 seconds…Left arm, right arm, left leg, right leg…amp it up with a really punchy sound track…eg the cricket theme tune or Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life…Take 20 seconds to really savour something. It could be sips of a good coffee, the blueness of the sky, the Autumn leaves.
- Understand that we are experiencing life as it is. It was always unpredictable, changeable, out of our control and prone to throwing a curve ball in our direction…No matter how much positive psychology you learn, how much woo-woo wellness you do, you will never be immune from pain and suffering – unless you are a psychopath, or you are dead. The primary suffering is the suffering itself. But this is compounded and extended by the resistance to the suffering. The scripts about unfairness etc…the self-criticism. All are a form of resisting the world as it is and wanting it to be different.
- Acknowledge it and recognise the disconnects between what we want (eg academic perfection / success) and what is (eg underperforming) Where are you rigid in your thinking. What are you trying to fit into a mould? (eg being in top set maths because your Dad read Maths at Cambridge). Be honest about what’s hard. Be honest about what’s stuck and where we fight reality. Accept ourselves. Self criticism is a form of resistance. It is resisting the actuality of your failings and does not work to move on and take productive action. What we resist, persists. Meeting life where it is and moving on from there is most effective. Just this Wednesday, in one of the bravest coaching sessions it’s been my privilege to see unfold…Tears shed in a coaching session recognising that a lack of engagement / demotivation is NOT about rebellion against the straight jacket of having to jump through academic hoops, but in face, a fear that you’re not living up to the promise you showed in primary school…the beginnings of a breakthrough in making a shift of mindset and release from repeated procrastination and avoidance.
- Actively engage self-compassion as a priority in these dark and difficult times. It’s not selfish. You have to top yourself up in order to be the resource others need – our partners, children, colleagues, pupils…We have to extend the compassion to ourselves that we would extend to our friends to ease ourselves out of the stress mindset into a more integrated creative, resourceful and whole state.
- The Chinese symbol for crisis is in two parts ‘Danger’ – wei and ‘Change point’ – ji. We think we know the danger…let’s take a proper, braver and more patient look at what it REALLY is for us / what it might be for the young people in our lives who we love and support. Then we can mage the change we need.
As always – get in touch if this has resonated with you. If you’re interested in any coaching around this theme, let me know. If you’re interested in training for your team…get in touch.As always – with love, gratitude and optimism…Emma.