How to Keep Your Cool While Bad Things Are Happening
Hi friends! Below, we present a great article by Kimberly Dark, author of Fat, Pretty, and Soon to Be Old. We’re all dealing with a lot of fear and uncertainty these days. Figuring out how to live with it will go a long way toward helping us relate kindly to one another—to our friends, comrades, and loved ones. It will also help keep us be present and engaged with the needs and possibilities arising in the current moment. Whether you’re sewing masks, organizing a rent strike, or on the front lines of healthcare, keeping yourself healthy and balanced is important. Hope you find this useful!
Big things are happening in the world right now. Fear takes us out of the present moment, which for most of us, is not actually dire. (Seriously, it isn’t; you’re reading an article on an electronic device.) Anticipation and uncertainty suck, but they are not the same as struggling to breathe, needing medical care and not finding it, physical hunger with no food, etc.
I’m reminding you of this distinction because it’s vital for how we take care of ourselves right now. The range of specific things that people fear is varied — health, financial and emotional concerns top the list. Regardless of the specifics, it’s important to stay cool enough to make good decisions when confronted with choices. The fact that we likely have choices is another good thing to recall.
All of the following suggestions are good in a major crisis, like a spreading epidemic. They also work in the everyday. And let’s face it, a big crisis doesn’t stop anyone from having petty interactions, hurt feelings and may even increase the likelihood of individuals behaving badly. No matter what’s happening, much of our life difficulties boil down to this: Someone behaved differently than you would like. Something didn’t go your way.
Welcome to being human.
In the midst of a really bad time, like an epidemic, it may be the small bad stuff that pushes us over the edge. So let’s start small and daily. Small and daily is where most of us live, most of the time. The mind (and sometimes the body) recognize daily difficulties as hugely unsettling.
Pause for a moment and take a deep breath into the belly, the ribs and then the chest. Release the air from the chest, the ribs and then the belly. Do that twice more — maybe with your hand on your chest — before you keep reading (and really, any time you think of it).
We can’t stop the undesirable external circumstances, but we can learn to calm ourselves and decrease the likelihood of being the one who says or does ignorant or terrible things in a crisis. We can get ready to respond well to external problems, rather than just reacting to them. We can avoid the mind revving into a loop that turns others into enemies in the long term, preoccupies us with painful emotional difficulties in the short term, and sometimes even causes us to feel physical pain. (We can practice at least, without expecting perfection.)
Even in the midst of a shared crisis, like epidemic and economic collapse, it can be tempting to feel superior if you’re safely isolated with plenty of supplies and a stable income, or to feel like everything has gone to shit if that’s not your situation. The fact is, pre-existing power and resource imbalances have always been influencing every one of us. Everyone is NOT currently having the same experience, though we’re in a global crisis. Some are more precarious and seen as more disposable, and that’s not okay. Acknowledge that, even if you don’t know what to do about it. That problem is not wholly fixable today, but the calm we cultivate today can help us learn into solutions.
Here are a series of steps to deal with whatever causes you mental preoccupation. It might seem obvious why you and everyone else are stressed out right now, but the fact is, you are never going to have friends and family members, colleagues and lovers who behave as you would wish all the time. Self-calming is a skill for the rest of your life.
(1) Decide quickly whether you’re in actual danger.And I mean, is the danger immediate. It’s easy for the mind to project out into the future and say that because you couldn’t get work this month, or your spouse is leaving, or you have a cough and there’s no COVID-19 testing available that you’ll surely be destitute or dead by this time next month. While that’s possible — other things are possible too. If you are in actual danger and you can do nothing about it, some of these steps might still work for you. Chances are, however, that you’re experiencing upheaval at the moment, not assault or injury. Continue to Step 2.
(2) Ask yourself: Am I part of the problem right now? Hey, you might be. If you look down and see that you’re wagging your finger at someone or feeling superior, or wanting to control or malign others, oops, your pain-fear-anxiety is leaking out into the world. If you knew how to stop the pain-fear-anxiety, you probably would, but you can at least not make a challenging moment any worse by talking all over it. Here are some possibilities for things to say in the present moment of conflict that are not likely to make things worse and may even affect a positive change of course.
- “Let me think about that and get back to you.”
- “I’m sorry.”
- “Please forgive me.”
- “Thank you.”
- “I love you.”
You may recognize the last four of those statements as part of Hawaiian ho’oponopono practice. (Thank you to my teacher, Harry Jim.) And yes, you have to find real sincerity within yourself when you say those things. You totally know the difference between a sincere and sarcastic, “I’m sorry,” between a sincere and exasperated, “I love you.”
Be gentle with yourself here. Even if you are not in immediate crisis, it still makes sense that you’re revved up because everyone is on high alert at the moment (unless they’re in denial). The fact is that most of the conflict we struggle with actually happened in the past or might happen in the future and is not having an immediate impact. Social distancing and self-quarantine, for instance, are strategies to avoid a big-deal crisis. If you currently have Covid-19, or you have to be out among people who might be ill, it’s time to focus on sensible action because you are IN crisis. See the difference?
Of course, your mind can tie you into a stress-ball and help you ruin your health, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid. Right. Now.
(3) Notice if the mind is in a fear-loop. You might be trying to plan for something you can’t plan for because it may or may not happen and you are not in control of all the variables. This is the current dilemma with a global pandemic. The good news is that life holds many challenges and we’re built to survive most of them. That is, your ability to give laser focus to a problem is great — and then you have to calm down to make good choices. Here are some ways to do that:
- Focus your attention on a pleasurable bodily sensation. For some folks, it’s enough to just re-focus on the body. I say go for pleasure. You’re actually trying to over-ride an unpleasant thought in this instance, not just garden-variety over-thinking. You can always find a pleasurable sensation. As your body is capable, you might notice a pleasant temperature in the room, or use your eyes to look at some pretty scenery or a pleasing photograph. You might notice your skin touching your skin — and hey, you could even use your hand to caress your own arms, touch your own hair. And while I know it can be harder when the mind is in a spin, you could even give yourself an orgasm. I mean, not with the family around or while you’re at work. But if you’re fussing instead of sleeping in the night? Rub one out. So many endorphins.
- Re-focus the mind on tasks that are easy and satisfying to complete. (Spoiler: this will largely be a list of things that bring pleasure.) Getting back to work also reminds us of the normalcy of the everyday. Be careful here. Re-focus yourself because it will feel good to get a few things done, not because you’re an idiot to still be obsessing about where to buy toilet paper or your stupid ex who wasn’t worth your time anyway. See the difference?
- Elevate your gaze and soften it. Yeah, try it right now. Look up at a point somewhere higher than your line of vision–like, maybe the place where the wall and ceiling meet, across the room from you, if you’re indoors. Now, instead of staring at one point, let your awareness expand. Use your peripheral vision. In yoga, we call this a soft drishti. I have taught many people this technique at yoga, mindfulness and writing retreats (just as Caitriona Reed from Mazanita Village taught it to me). It’s harder for the mind to hurt you when you do this. Isn’t the brain amazing? The trick is to remember to do it. And do it again. And again.
- Take a walk or put on a song you like and dance around. Not only is this pleasant, it’s also accomplishing the same brain trick as in the previous suggestion. Your eyesight is moving around — in and out of focused vision — and it helps the mind come into expanded awareness.
- Help someone else. Pick up some groceries for someone if it’s easy for you. Listen without judgement to someone else’s troubles and maybe suggest some of these tools. Make your helping easy, pleasurable, if possible. When you’re feeling low isn’t the time to make big sacrifices. You’re helping to uplift both of you and also, you can remind yourself of your own good habits and best choices in the process.
- Feel the feeling and move on. If only, right? No, really, you can actually practice this. When emotion comes up, especially sadness or uncertainty, lean into it to let it out. Do your best to quiet the mind and just feel the feeling. It’s scary sometimes because it feels like maybe sadness won’t stop. The trick here is not to let the mind keep throwing fuel on the fire. If you just focus on crying, it usually takes far less time than you think it will. And then there’s that tiny moment after the emotional release where you have a critical decision to make. Let the mind stay on the bad stuff or move toward pleasure. Take the pleasure, damnit! See 1–5.
Okay, here’s what not to do–at least not very often.
- Don’t push your pain away by telling yourself you shouldn’t feel it, you’re a dumbass, or you’ve been sad long enough. You are your main person for the rest of your life. Give yourself comfort.
- Don’t numb out repeatedly with drugs, alcohol, food, screen-recreation or sex. If you can find a little comfort in any of these things without turning into an addict, I’m for it, actually. But whoa, be careful about the place where choosing pleasure takes a turn into numbness. That can cause more bad behavior that needs to be cleaned up later (especially if you use or let down other people).
- Don’t focus on pain in the body. If you have chronic pain at all, it’s likely to flare up if you don’t feel heard, understood, supported, connected or generally like a worthwhile human being. Yes, something may hurt, but now is not the time to identify your life with those sensations.
- Don’t pay your irritation forward. This seems obvious, but it’s so embedded in our culture. Think about the common story–from TV shows galore–of the man who comes home from a bad day at work and takes it out on his wife who takes it out on the kids, who are then mean to the family pet. See what’s happening there? It’s not just that irritation is multiplied. We use pain to reinforce hierarchy, to establish who’s entitled to treat others poorly. And wow, talk about creating negative ripples long into the future.
If we can cultivate an overall mindset that allows for pain and irritation, disappointment and grief to be normal parts of a good life, it’ll be far easier to handle big challenges with focus and clarity.
We can even cultivate an ability to wait in a state of not-knowing-what-to-do. That state alone sends people into a spiral on a good day. Right now, it’s the biggest thing we have to practice: be sensible and wait without knowing how everything will unfold.
Learning to handle your own challenging feelings is not just for you, after all. When we each increase our own individual focus and comfort, our collective experience comes into greater focus and solutions emerge. We can find solutions that that are not even yet possible.
Kimberly Dark is a writer, sociologist and raconteur working to reveal the hidden architecture of everyday life, one clever story, poem and essay at a time. She is the author of Fat, Pretty, and Soon to Be Old. Learn more at www.kimberlydark.com.
This article first appeared on Medium. Kimberly has a bunch of great essays on that site, so be sure to browse them all.