Survive the Worst: Strategies for Coping with Major Stressors
Broadly, there are two categories of stress-inducing situations. There are true life-and-death emergencies, and there is everything else. We’ve spent our time so far talking about the “everything else” first because most of our stress comes from “everything else” and most importantly, because when it comes to “everything else,” the real stress comes from how we feel and what we think: our mindset.
But sometimes, there is no silver lining. Sometimes, the worst thing really does happen. Sometimes, we hit the bottom of the pit, and the best we can do is to muddle through, to survey the damage that surrounds us. Sometimes, in the worst moments, we’re not talking about mindset: We’re talking about survival. In the worst of stress, the right coping strategies can mean the difference between just coping and fully recovering. Today, we’ll review strategies to help you grieve and heal.
The Ocean of Sorrow
In our darkest moments, we may notice that we are most afraid of our own sadness—the depth and pain of our despair, our grief, our loss. One strategy we use to manage the stress of loss is to hide from our deeper, darker emotions.
In the Buddhist tradition, the more difficult emotions of sorrow and grief are best understood in the metaphor of the ocean. They can consume, overwhelm, and even drown us. And yet—with the right strategy—we become safe from drowning. Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, teaches that “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Our mindset is our surfboard in the ocean. The right mindset can help us to cope, survive, move forward, and learn to live again. With the right mindset, we learn to surf.
First, Acknowledge Your Vulnerability
Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, suggests that whenever we find stress, fear, and worry overtaking us, we should stop and acknowledge the core emotion. The core emotion is the deep feeling at the center of the trauma.
Often, what we are really feeling, deep inside everything else, is vulnerability. Dr. Brené Brown suggests a simple acknowledgement, that we face the monster by saying out loud, “I am feeling vulnerable.” The simple choice to acknowledge your vulnerability can help you make a conscious choice to get out of ruminating about a frightening unknown and come back to this moment. Maybe I can’t control everything—what can I control right now? Then you can start with the simple, honest evaluation of this moment: “I am feeling vulnerable.”
Then, Be Here Now
Mindfulness training can be part of how we face that vulnerability, part of how we make meaning, part of how we heal. Mindfulness training is an effective strategy for healing that can help us cultivate a sense of both self-forgiveness and forgiveness for others. It can be our best friend for building a positive relationship with stress.
The core goal of any mindfulness practice is to just be here: to be in this moment, right now. There is a common misperception that meditation is about learning to control your mind. It’s not. The practice of mindfulness is about being in the moment—where you are, experiencing what you are experiencing. It is not about trying to make yourself a calmer, happier person. It’s about being who you are and accepting what you are feeling RIGHT NOW. And that includes grief, sadness, and fear.
It’s not to control your thoughts, but rather to recognize your thoughts. It’s to learn that you are not your grief—you are the one observing your grief. Mindfulness helps you learn that your thoughts and emotions are your ocean, and you are the one who can sink, swim, or surf in that ocean. You are the one who observes.
Your task: Just sit for five minutes and breathe in and out. Don’t try to control your thoughts, feelings, or emotions. Just try to notice them. Watch them flit and flitter like butterflies or hummingbirds, coming in and moving away. Notice. Breathe. Observe the separate between you and what you think. Feel the separate between you and your emotions. Just Breathe. Just Be Here.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with more strategies for coping with the physiological manifestations of stress.
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