These days political and policy change is coming at us fast. These changes have big implications and affect each of us and the larger world we are part of. How do we maintain our voice and our presence in turbulent times?
For many this is a time of uncertainty, bringing feelings of fear and anxiety that can make it hard to stay engaged.
Coping in turbulent times involves remembering self-care and self-compassion – treating ourselves as kindly as we would treat a friend. This is not about retreating from the world, but about strengthening our ability to engage with it. I’m sharing some approaches here that I can find time for, even when I’m really busy. They support my own resilience so that I can keep doing the work I find meaningful, important and necessary.
This can be writing for 10 minutes or so about whatever comes to mind. It can be responding to prompts, or choosing a specific theme to explore. You can write poetry, stories or essays. This can be writing just for you, without concern for the conventions of spelling, grammar and structure. It can be writing that you edit for publication. In the act of writing, I discover what I think, feel and believe. I can create a coherent story from a chaos of impressions and emotions.I can shift my perspective and let go of ideas or feelings that aren’t serving me.
Creating visual images.
Just as you don’t have to be an author to benefit from writing, you don’t have to be a trained artist to find great value in drawing, doodling, collaging, painting or photographing. You can sit down with your materials and just see what emerges. Or, as in writing you can use specific prompts or themes to get you started. Creating imagery and then writing about it can lead to deeper exploration and understanding than either form of self-expression alone.
Noticing signs of beauty and kindness.
This reminds me that even in difficult times there is much good in the world. Focusing attention on those things that bring gratitude, joy, generosity and a sense of agency and personal power are helpful.
Finding ways to deeply relax.
You might have a favored practice, like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga. I tend to vary what I do. I guess that makes me a relaxation dilettante, but it’s what works for me! Knitting is high on my list of ways to calm and center, so long as I’m making something that’s at the right level of challenge, not so easy that I get bored, or so difficult that I get frustrated. Remembering to pause throughout the day to take at least three deep, slow breaths helps too.
Respecting messages from your body.
When I’m tired, I rest, if at all possible. If I’m dealing with an injury or illness, I offer myself the attention needed to heal. I give myself good food – things I enjoy, things that are nourishing. I make time for physical activity. Sometimes that’s part of my daily day’s routines, like walking the dog. Other times it’s set-aside time for exercise bicycling or a gym workout. When I don’t have much time, I remind myself that a little time spent exercising is better than none, and that moderate activity is fine. I like to be more vigorous, and when I have time for that, it’s good too.
Giving and receiving support.
A lot of us, myself included, tend to be stronger on the giving than the receiving of help and support. It’s true that sharing our gifts with the world blesses others and also blesses us. Yet, when giving and doing becomes a one way street, I’ve found that the eventual destination is burnout. When I seek out and accept the help and support I need, I feel calmer, stronger, better able to think and more able to cope.
Laughing every day, enjoying the company of loved ones, celebrating important events, feeling energized by my work, my personal pursuits, and enjoying these things is restorative and uplifting.
Reacting vs Responding.
Fear and anxiety can make us reactive. Reacting makes sense in an immediate emergency when our security, safety or survival are at stake. It’s a useful, short-term strategy and is related to the sense of dread we experience when frightened by a specific threat. Anxiety, a longer-term sense of distress, can be the result of apprehension about possible future threats. It’s difficult to find thoughtful resposes when were scared or anxious. Yet identifying a course of action in difficult times, and staying with it calls for clear thinking and thoughtful responses.
I’m not saying “don’t be afraid or worried.” There is often reason to have those feelings. Instead of letting them overwhelm and push me into reactivity, I use them to get motivated into effective action. There are a number of things I’ve found to be helpful in creating conditions that reduce my reactivity and increase my capacity for thoughtful response.
1. Gathering information.
I now subscribe to and read more sources of news and commentary. I need this because I need more sources than what’s going on in my own mind to understand and integrate what is happening, and to work out what I think.
2. Limiting and scheduling exposure to news and social media.
My ritual used to be to read the news and social media first thing in the morning, along with breakfast and coffee. That’s becoming too stressful a way to start the day. Instead, I am waiting until a little later on, when I feel awake, energized and less vulnerable.
It’s also helpful to choose who to follow and what to read on social media. It can be helpful to read thoughtful comments from people who’s views match mine and from those whose dissent from mine. I try to avoid reading reactive rants from anywhere along the political spectrum as a way of keeping my anxiety level down.
3. Choosing actions.
I cannot financially support every cause, join every march or contact my legislators on every issue. I can trust that others have my back. There are millions of us across the country and around the world. While I cannot address everything, collectively we can cover all the necessary bases. I choose those that I have time and energy for, that I am naturally drawn to, that use my gifts and talents, and that I enjoy doing. Our wonderful diversity of interests, gifts and talents means someone else is drawn to do different things than I am, so I free myself of the overwhelm that otherwise might take over.
Acknowledging fears and anxieties.
Trying to push aside or avoid unpleasant feelings like fears and anxiety doesn’t work for the long haul. Neither does getting caught in them so that they cause paralysis or despair. What does help? For me, it’s useful to identify those that are realistic and then do my best to come up with strategies and plans to address them. Some realistic fears are immediate concerns. Others are possible but more unlikely. Some are just free-floating anxieties that I can’t do much about.
For the immediate threats, I do what I can to minimize the danger involved. With those that are possible but less likely, I take what steps I can to protect myself and my family from what I see to be the most threatening. For those that seem to be unrealistic or exaggerated, I recognize them and then put them aside.That’s something I may have to do repeatedly as they don’t just disappear. Strategies like writing about them or doing some deep, slow breathing while saying “Let go” can help me stop the thoughts that are reinforcing the feelings. Reading and listening to what others have to say about this has been helpful to me too.
In for the Long Haul
Our task during turbulent times is to take care of ourselves so we can commit to effective action for the long haul. This starts with taking care of ourselves, not to shut out the world, but to strengthen ourselves to fully engage in it, in all of it’s strife and all of it’s glory.
Some Readings and Resources
Art and Writing Prompts
Sarah Tillman – Start and End Happy (video)
Lucia Capacchione – The Creative Journal (book)
Louise DeSalvo – Writing As A Way of Healing (book)
Keys to Change Facebook Group – request to join
Self Care and Self-Compassion
Mirah Curzer How to Stay Outraged Without Losing Your Mind (article)
Suzi Banks Baum – on honoring your instinct for self care (blog post).
Reactivity and Thoughtful Response
Susan Piver – Five Ways Not to Bite the Trump Hook (blog post)
Nancy Seibel – Action or Reaction? (blog post)
[Originally published January 31, 2017. Revised and re-published June 12, 2017]