Managing Yourself in Times of Crisis

Susan David was recently interviewed as part the Ted Connects© series of talks.  Susan spoke on the topic, How to be Your Best Self in Times of Crisis.  She maintained that “life’s beauty is inseparable from it’s fragility” and provided a number of ways to manage yourself in times of crisis.  She emphasised the importance of facing our difficult emotions, naming our feelings, being curious about what our emotions are telling us, developing our sense of agency and finding ways to help other people.  Susan stressed that underpinning her approach is the concept of “emotional agility” – the core of which involves “radical acceptance” of our emotions and self-compassion.

The fragility of life

Susan reminds us that the Coronavirus highlights the fragility of life. This fragility, however, is part of our everyday life experience. We love someone then lose them, we enjoy good health then experience illness, we savour time with our children only to watch them grow up and leave home.  The problem for us is that our social narrative, the stories we tell ourselves as a society, is so focused on the importance of always achieving, being fit and happy and appearing to be always in control.  There is an inherent denial of the reality of death and the fragility of life – we have to appear to be strong and deny our difficult emotions.

Facing our difficult emotions

Susan stressed the importance of overcoming our habituated way of responding to difficult emotions.  We typically deny them, turn away from them and, yet, end up stuck in them or “marinating in it” as Rick Hanson, in his Being Well Podcast, describes the resultant state of self-absorption.  Susan maintains the critical importance of facing our emotions and owning them, not letting them own us.  This involves naming our feelings not in a broad way such as “I’m feeling stressed” but in what she calls a “granular” way or fine-grained identification of exactly what we are feeling, e.g. disappointment, resentment, anger, fear or anxiety.  It is only by truly facing and naming our difficult feelings that we can tame them, stop them from owning us.  Susan points out that this self-regulation is a key facet of mindfulness.

Being curious about our difficult emotions

This is a form of self-observation and self-exploration. It’s being curious about what our difficult emotions are telling us about ourselves and what we value.  Strong emotions are indicators of what is important to us but, at the time, perceived as lacking in our personal situation.  Loneliness, for example, is experienced as disconnection from others and tells us how much we value relationships and connection.  Social distancing and social isolation, as a result of the Coronavirus, have compounded our feelings of loneliness.  So, it’s important to move towards ways of re-connecting, if not face-to face, by phone and online communication. 

Developing our sense of agency

Susan argues that in these times when everything seems out of control, it is important to develop “pockets of control” to enable us to develop our sense of agency – our capacity to control some aspect of our life and our immediate environment.  These arenas of control can be minute things like deciding what three things you want to do today, developing a menu plan for the week, setting up a daily routine (especially when you are working at home with children present) or changing the way you normally do things to adapt to changing circumstances.  It may be that you decide to master the skill of online communication – developing new capacities as well as gaining control.  Some people look to regain control and appreciation over their own yard or garden.  My wife and I have recently bought a coffee-making machine so that we can better control our expenditure on coffee, increase our control over how our cappuccinos or Piccolos are made and limit our time and social exposure by avoiding having to go out and queue up for a take-way coffee.

Sense of agency can extend to appreciating what we have and savouring it.  The Coronavirus attacks our respiratory system, quite literally taking our breath away.  We can begin to really value our breathing through various forms of meditation which can ground us in our body in these times of uncertainty and anxiety.  As we learn to control our breathing through meditation, we can develop ways to calm ourselves in times of crisis and stress.  Our calmness is reflected in our breathing, as is our agitation. 

Helping others in need

Besides showing compassion towards ourselves (in owning and accepting our emotions and what they tell us about ourselves), it is important to move beyond self-absorption to thinking of others and undertaking compassionate action towards them.  This may mean a simple phone call to an elderly relative who is in lock-down in a retirement village or contacting someone you have not spoken to for a while.  Everyday we hear about people showing random acts of kindness and generosity towards others.

For example, our weekend newspaper reported about the wife of a doctor on the frontline of the fight against the Coronavirus.  He has decided to live apart from the family for six months to protect them from contracting the virus.  Despite her resultant loneliness, his wife is creating homemade meals for him and his fellow health workers and enlisting the support of neighbours, friends and anyone else to do likewise so that these frontline workers don’t have to rely on unhealthy take-aways to sustain them during their very long hours of courageously caring for others.  Susan challenges each of us with the question, “How can we help in little and big ways?” – how can we demonstrate being part of a community and being “values-connected”?

Reflection

In times like the present with the Coronavirus impacting every facet of our lives, we begin to wonder how we will all cope.  Susan expresses great optimism that the crisis will enable people to be their “best self” and daily we see evidence of this.  Susan points to the history of people handling crises with courage, wisdom, compassion and mutual kindness (witness the recent wildfires in Australia).  As we grow in mindfulness and learn to face our difficult emotions through meditation and reflection, we can understand better what our emotions are telling us, regain our sense of agency and begin to show compassionate action towards others in need.  Mindfulness helps us to be calm, resilient and hopeful.  

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Image by ShonEjai 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.

Maintaining a Positive Mindset in Periods of Uncertainty and Anxiety

The more uncertain the future, the more anxious we can become.  Anxiety is exacerbated by the depression experienced through isolation (enforced or self-isolation), loss of a job or loss of connection with others.  We can adopt mindfulness meditation to reduce our self-defeating narratives and undertake mindfulness practices to improve our mental health and wellbeing.  We can supplement these meditations and practices with other activities that help to build and maintain a positive mindset and develop our personal resilience.

Activities to build and maintain a positive mindset

The essential element here is to engage in activities that you find enjoyable and inspiring – activities that tend to take you outside of yourself and away from self-absorption.  Clearly, the choice of activities is influenced by personal preference.  Here are some possible activities to choose from:

  • Listening to classical music: this type of music can be very calming.  Listening to Mozart’s music, for example, can be relaxing and improve your concentration and brain power [I write my blog posts to the sound of Mozart playing in the background].  Many shared music platforms exist now, and in Australia we have the amazing ABC Classical radio station that among other things broadcasts superb live classical concerts from all around the world.  Classical music can build the capacity for deep listening – a skill that enables you to be fully in the present moment and to build intimate and lasting relationships (a very rewarding fringe benefit and residual skill).
  • Listening to TED Talks© – these talks are on numerous subjects and number in the thousands.  They are informative, uplifting and inspiring.  Recently, because so many people are confined to their homes, TED has introduced what it calls TED Connects – free, daily conversational sessions which feature “experts whose ideas can help us reflect and work through this uncertain time with a sense of responsibility, compassion and wisdom”.   Susan David, Harvard University psychologist, presented the first of these virtual conversations on 23 March 2020 when she spoke about emotional agility, dealing with anxiety, talking to your children about their emotions, focusing during the current crisis and small acts of kindness, especially to those working on the front lines”.  If you are a person who prefers auditory and visual formats over the written word, then this superb series may help you to build courage, joy and resilience in this challenging time of the Coronavirus.
  • Virtual tours of museums, zoos and theme parks – If you are visual person who enjoys “looking around” and viewing the antics of animals or appreciating fine art, then a virtual tour may be for you to help uplift your spirits. Some websites provide a list of virtual tours that you can enjoy.  Other websites focus on one type of virtual tour such as online tours of art galleries or virtual tours of online zoos, some with presentations and talks to entertain your children stuck at home.  Zoos Victoria in Australia are dedicated to fighting extinction of wildlife and provide a series of webcams from three zoos featuring various animals – you can take your pick of your favourite, e.g. the popular “penguin cam”.
  • Small acts of kindness – everyday you can read in the newspaper or hear on the news examples of small acts of kindness, people going out of their way to help someone else in need (even when they themselves are feeling the effects of various forms of deprivation and uncertainty at this time).  Some websites are dedicated to sharing random acts of kindness to inspire and stimulate others to take compassionate action withing their arena of influence.  A good place to start thinking about your own random acts of kindness is the kindness blog which is full of great ways to show kindness to family and friends, seniors and others.
  • Reading literature sourced online – besides accessing your own library of books and the novels/biographies you have never got around to reading because of your busyness, you can access heaps of resources online in terms of e-books, audiobooks and eMagazines.  While many public libraries have closed their physical buildings to subscribers, they usually offer material that can be accessed online, including music and audios.  The National Library of Australia, for example, offers free online access to e-books and other digitised material to Australian residents.  Local councils typically provide free access to e-books, audiobooks and emagazines.
  • Writing songs or journals – these are mechanisms for expressing your feelings, being able to name your feelings to better deal with them.  They can also serve to stimulate emotion in others and help them face up to what they are actually feeling, but not expressing. 

Reflection

These are very uncertain times and uniquely demanding physically, emotionally, mentally and financially.  Whatever we can do to build up our positive mindset will assist us to develop the resilience to meet these challenges.  Creativity flourishes in times of necessity as does kindness.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices and enjoyable/positive activities, we develop the capacity to find new ways to work and live in stringent conditions and resume our normal life with a strengthened resolve, increased gratitude and heightened adaptability once the Coronavirus is under control.

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Image by skeeze 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.

Mindfulness – A Pathway to Emotional Agility

Dr. Susan David in her 2017 TEDWomen’s Talk, spoke about the gift and power of emotional courage – the willingness to face our emotions in all their diversity and strength.  She stated that research demonstrates that denying or suppressing emotions leads to strengthening emotions and can make people aggressive. Other research shows that such denial or suppression induces unhealthy coping behaviours and contributes to serious mental and physical health problems. Sometimes we suppress emotions because we think that this is what we should do – we take our cues from social norms or established unwritten rules operating in the workplace.   

In her book, Emotional Agility, Susan argues that radical acceptance of our emotions, however difficult, is essential to be able to bounce back from setbacks and lead a productive, happy life.  Her main premise is that denial of emotions develops personal rigidity – the inability to be flexible and move with the ups and downs of life.  She maintains that, on the other hand, radical acceptance of emotions builds resilience and “emotional agility” – the capacity to deal with the complexity of an uncertain and ever-changing world. 

Susan warns us about the “tyranny of positive” – the social expectation that we do not express what is viewed as negative emotions – such as anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment or envy.  We are expected in many situations “to put on a brave face” and deny how we really feel.  She discusses the “destructive power of denial” not only in terms of being injurious to health and well-being but also in disabling us and preventing us from developing effective or creative responses to our situation. 

How to overcome rigidity and build emotional agility

In her presentation and book, Susan offers several suggestions that can assist us to develop emotional agility:

  • Stop labelling emotions as “good” or bad” – they are just feelings that we experience as a result of our perceptions and are a part of normal, daily living
  • Change your mindset to accept that “discomfort is the price of a meaningful life” – a way of living that is designed to make a difference for ourselves and others. This is a part of accepting “what is”.
  • Name your feelings but do so accurately and specifically – so instead of saying “I’m stressed” (a generic state), identify the real feeling in all it’s intensity and contours, e.g. “I’m bitterly disappointed because I missed out on that promotion” or “I am continually very resentful that Joe caused me so much work and embarrassment by his words and actions”.  We tend to fudge the emotion to take some of the heat and negativity out of it.  Accurate description and radical acceptance of our emotions lead to a genuine release and frees us to explore productive ways of thinking and acting.  This may entail a progressive realisation of the true nature of our feelings as we reflect or meditate, e.g. by undertaking the R.A.I.N. meditation
  • Recall Susan’s statement that “emotions are data, not directives” – we can establish control over our emotions through meditation and by developing self-regulation.  The starting point is naming and accepting them. 
  • Ask yourself, “What is my emotion telling me about my current situation” – e.g. “Is it informing me that my current job is destroying my motivation and/or deskilling me?

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the true nature of our feelings, name them accurately and accept them as part of trying to live a life aligned with our values and what is meaningful for us.  It sometimes takes time to unearth the real nature and intensity of our feelings because we so often disown them.  Persistence in our self-exploration and self-compassion opens the way for us to be more emotionally agile and more open to life’s experiences, including the potentially challenging aspects of moving outside our comfort zone.                      

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Image by Holger Langmaier 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.