Turning Fear into Resilience in the Time of the Coronavirus

Rick Hanson recently produced a Being Well Podcast focused on Fear in the Time of the Coronavirus.  He provided strategies to deal with fear (both rational and irrational) and to convert fear to resilience by drawing on our inner resources – determination, true grit, courage and creativity.  Rick is the author of Resilient: Find your inner Strength and provides numerous resources on his website to help us develop resilience, wisdom, happiness and mindful relationships.  

His emphasis is on building personal agency.  With the Coronavirus impacting every facet of our lives and reducing our sense of control over our home and work environment, we are experiencing a loss of our “sense of agency”.   We often try to redress this lack of a sense of agency by adopting ineffective ways to regain control over our environments, e.g. panic buying of water, toilet paper and sanitisers.  We can feel helpless and, in consequence, resort to ways of coping that result in misplaced and unproductive effort.

Anxiety can operate on a number of dimensions – e.g. unhelpful or useful anxiety.  At the extreme, we can be too anxious (disabled by our fear) which is unhelpful and harmful to our mental health, overall wellness and our relationships.  Useful anxiety, the mind’s warning system, can create a sense of urgency/intense focus and stimulate constructive action and a strong sense of agency which, in turn, cultivates resilience.  Alternatively, we can be consumed by our sense of helplessness and end up “marinating in it” – to the point where we experience depression and the associated inertia.

Turning fear into resilience

Rick suggest three processes you can adopt to move from helplessness to a sense of agency and personal resilience.  The basic steps involve:

  1. Being fully with your current experience – facing your difficult thoughts and emotions and the reality of the challenges both present and ahead.  This means naming your feelings (such as anxiety, pain, fear, frustration) and being with them, not denying them out of a need to appear totally in control.  It means not giving into your “shoulds” that come with your absolutes.  It is human and normal to be anxious and fearful when confronted with the reality of the Coronavirus.  The choice lies in deciding whether to maintain a sense of helplessness or to move towards a sense of agency and control.
  2. Release thoughts and emotions that are harmful – This includes letting go of obsessive thinking and the endless cycle of “what if” (catastrophising).  It means to treat our emotions as data informing us about a threat to our wellbeing.  We are more than our thoughts and emotions.  It means avoiding absorption with the latest media posts and news, when we cannot do anything about the reported information, or the situations involved.   The reporting is typically sensationalist, alarmist and distorted and is designed to induce fear and dependence.  Don’t sweat the news for your own personal welfare and mental health.
  3. Shift your attention to what would be beneficial for you and others you interact with or service – this means focusing on what you can do in the situation, given all the constraints that you are experiencing.  It means moving from inertness to being creative in the way you spend your time – finding things to focus on and do that are helpful to yourself, your family and those you interact with.  This could involve rethinking your workday, using online communication technology (such as Zoom) or reengineering your business (adopting take-away options, providing delivery services, or switching manufacturing to a much-needed resource in the current crisis, e.g. rum and gin distilleries producing bottles of sanitisers).  The oft-spoken saying – “necessity is the mother of invention” – is particularly true at this time.  The opportunity exists to use this time of social isolation, social distancing and business lockdown to develop new horizons and new skills.  Adopting activities that promote a positive mindset can be helpful here.

Tools to overcome unhelpful anxiety

Rick offered a range of suggestions that can enable you to overcome harmful anxiety and move to proactive action to do things that are beneficial for yourself and others.

  1. Use your breathing to calm your body – Rick suggests taking three breaths (exhalation longer than inhalation, giving a resting state of the body).  There are multiple ways you can use your breath to calm yourself and restore your equanimity, e.g. the somatic awareness approach recommended by Jill Satterfield or “breathing in time” suggested by Richard Wolf.
  2. Tune into your inner strength – revisit your determination, courage, and resilience to strengthen your inner reserves.  It can be helpful here to visualise success in your adaptive endeavours and/or reflect on past experiences where you have drawn on these personal strengths to overcome adversity or seemingly impossible challenges.
  3. Social support – appreciating the care and support that others show towards you, including your partner, family, friends and colleagues.   It also extends to caring for others and engaging others in the process of caring and providing social support to the less fortunate.
  4. Plan and act – appraise the situation and plan some action, however small, that will move you forward.  Rick reinforces the view that “action forces out anxiety”.  Positive action can change our mental state.
  5. When you feel okay, internalize the feeling – we tend to take it for granted that we will feel okay.  However, in times of stress and uncertainty, it is important to notice when you are feeling okay and internalise this feeling of coping well to strengthen it.  This positive self-feedback builds self-efficacy which means that you are building up your belief in your capacity to manage stressful situations.

Reflection

Fear can be disabling if we let it grow unabated.  It is natural to feel anxiety and fear when things are so uncertain, and everything associated with our normal life seems out of our control.  Fear, however, can be harmful unless we look at it fully in the face and understand what it is telling us about the situation we find ourselves in.  There are ways to calm our mind, emotions and our body if we choose.  There are also constructive things that we can do to manage our situation and our emotional response.  As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness, we can turn fear into resilience by being able to regulate our response and draw on our inner strength to meet the challenges with determination, courage and creativity.

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Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Providing A Choice of Anchors

David Treleaven recently published a book on Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness. The book enables mindfulness trainers to recognise a trauma-affected individual, provide appropriate modifications to their mindfulness processes and avoid aggravating the individual’s trauma experience.

David argues that two factors are foundational to trauma-sensitive mindfulness, (1) choice and (2) anchors.  He observes that people who are trauma-affected have experienced an unwanted negative event that endangered them, a total loss of control over the situation and a lack of agency (capacity to influence the outcomes).  Providing choice, especially in relation to anchors, is critical for the welfare of the trauma-affected individual – it avoids reactivating the sense of helplessness associated with the traumatic event and reduces the likelihood of triggering a painful “body memory”.

Providing a choice of anchors – internal sensations

An anchor enables an individual to become grounded in the present moment despite being buffeted by distractions, negative self-stories or endless thoughts.  The choice of an anchor is a very personal aspect of mindfulness – it relates to an individual’s preferences, physical capacity and emotional state.  An anchor enables a person to experience ease and emotional stability.

Jessica Morey, an experienced teacher of trauma-sensitive meditation, begins a meditation training session by offering participants a choice of three internally-focused anchors – a bodily sensation, attention to sound within their immediate environment (e.g. the “room tone”) or a breath sensation (air moving through the nostrils, abdomen rising and falling or movement of the chest).

Participants are given the opportunity to try out these different anchors over a five-minute period and to make a choice of an anchor for practice over a further period.  Providing this choice of anchors avoids locking individuals into a mindfulness process that can act as a trigger for reexperiencing trauma, e.g. sustained focus on breathing.

Alternative anchors – external sensing

David notes that the five senses offer further choices of anchors – in addition to the internally focused anchors suggested by Jessica.  The senses enable a participant in meditation training to focus on some aspect of their external environment:

  • Hearing – tuning in to the external sounds such as birds singing, the wind blowing or traffic flowing past.  The downside of this approach is that it may trigger our innate tendency to interpret sounds and this may lead to focusing on a particular sound – trying to identify it and its potential source. So, this may serve as a distraction pulling us away from experiencing (the “being” mode) to explaining (the “thinking” mode).  The aim here is to pay attention to the experience of hearing, not to focus on a single sound. Sam Himelstein has found that listening to music can be a very effective anchor for a person who is in a highly traumatised state – choosing music that aligns with the individual’s musical preferences can serve as a powerful anchor.
  • Touch – a trauma-affected person could have an object, e.g. a crystal or a stone, that provides comfort and reassurance and enables them to become grounded in the present moment through the sensation of touch.
  • Seeing – taking in the natural surroundings, e.g. by observing closely the foliage of a tree – its colours, shape and texture or observing the patterns in the clouds.

Other options include sensations of smell or taste.  However, in my view, these tend to be less neutral in character and can re-traumatise a trauma-affected person.

David Treleaven offers a wide range of resources to help meditation trainers build their awareness, skills and options in the area of trauma-sensitive mindfulness (TSM).  These include an online training course, interview podcasts, a TSM Starter Kit (incorporating an introductory video and a comprehensive “TSM Solutions Checklist”) and a live meetup of the TSM Community (registered members of a community of TSM-aware practitioners).

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, research and reflection, we can become more flexible about how we offer mindfulness training.  A trauma-sensitive approach to mindfulness requires an awareness of the manifestations of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), identification of different sources of anchors and the willingness and capacity to offer participants the choice of an anchor and an approach to mindfulness.  This means that we need to move beyond our own fixation with “meditation logistics” and be flexible enough to offer trauma-informed mindfulness practices.

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Image – Trees on the foreshore, Wynnum, Brisbane

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Reflections on an Action Learning Intervention

In my previous post I described an action learning intervention undertaken by Dr. Rod Waddington to overcome a toxic workplace within the education sector in South Africa.   What I would like to do now is share some reflections on this discussion.

Action learning intervention – overcoming narcissism

If we look at narcissistic managers, we can readily see that the underpinning values of such a manager are in direct opposition to those of action learning – the former involves destruction of agency, abuse, divisiveness, exclusiveness, resistance to ideas from managers and staff and an autocratic style of management.  Action learning, in contrast, involves increased agency,  mutual respect, collaboration, inclusiveness, openness to ideas from managers and staff and a participative style of management.

While the narcissistic manager creates divisiveness through blaming, favouritism and exclusiveness, action learning overcomes this “divide and conquer” approach through the power of collaboration built through mutual respect and inclusiveness.

The contrast in values described above reinforces the need to undertake an organisation intervention designed to embed a new set of values.  In the action learning intervention discussed previously, the participant managers undertook a “values advocacy campaign” – designed to replace the existing demeaning value set with values that enrich the working environment and nurture engagement, creativity and commitment.

Agency and responsibility

In an earlier discussion, I emphasised how agency supports mental health by giving people a sense of control over their work environment and how their work is done.  In a toxic environment, agency is destroyed through micromanagement and the pursuit of control over managers and their staff. Action learning, on the other hand, builds agency 

However, when you enable agency, managers have to take up the responsibility that goes with it and this requires conscious effort to build managerial confidence.  Action learning is one way to do this.  Evaluations of action learning programs consistently demonstrate that managers grow in confidence about their authority and their capacity to exercise their responsibility and to be accountable.

In the action learning intervention discussed previously managers moved from a state of helplessness to being more assertive and proactive – thus demonstrating their increased sense of responsibility and empowerment.

In these reflections, I have focused on the need to address the differences in values between action learning and narcissistic managers who create a toxic environment.  In the next post, I will explore how mindful meditation could be integrated into the action learning intervention to grow mindfulness and enhance the outcomes from the organisational intervention.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Ippicture on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.