What a year.
The novel and unpredictable circumstances created by the pandemic and the uncertain outcome of righteous unrest calling for racial justice — both exacerbated by leadership's uneven and inadequate responses — have provoked deep anxiety in individuals and communities.
They also offer enormous potential.
Here are four tips for coping with anxiety and lowering stress in times of crisis so you can effectively engage in fights for our lives.
- Pause often. When we are stressed by unsafe conditions or dramatically shifting circumstances, we can be triggered to fight, flee, or freeze. In other words, we become more likely to strike out at others, try to escape our situation entirely, or feel so stuck that we cannot respond appropriately or move forward in any way. Our pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs reason, self-regulation, and compassion, goes offline to some degree. Bringing it back online depends on recognizing our heightened state.
If in moments of intensity — anger, flight, or rumination — if we can pause the momentum, we can step back from the edge and feel what is happening internally in body and mind. It is helpful to feel or name the bare facts of this experience, such as a quickened breath or tensed shoulders. This simple recognition begins the shift back toward a settled state. It's amazing, and it's backed by science!
- Stay in the body. When pausing, you also might slowly take three conscious breaths, or soften your gaze or close your eyes and feel your feet on the ground. Whatever method you choose to soothe, keep it body based. While keeping our attention in the body might not always feel great, especially when we feel triggered and anxious, if it's tolerable to stay with it, we may ultimately become more grounded. When we are more grounded, our capacity for all sorts of things — such as tolerating difficulty, cooperating with others, and creating joy — increases.
- Be vulnerable. In forcing ourselves to buck up and feel a certain way, or worse, stop feeling a certain way, we only add fuel to a fire. Instead of trying to shore up any difficult emotions or feign positivity, we might make a practice of turning toward our tender feelings and inquiring, "How are things?" After noting what's true, we can add the phrase, "Can I be with this?" At whatever pace feels right, circle back: "How are things now?"
These inquiries promote recognition of our inner state as well as acceptance and self-compassion, resulting in a sense of wholeness, wellness, strength.
- Connect to what matters. The background noise to our lives in this moment — the incessant, anxiety-provoking news and analysis — will deplete us if we are not careful. Rather than ignore it entirely and stick our heads in the sand — or vacillate between spells of over-consumption on the one hand and disconnection on the other — each of us needs a strategy for balance. Living a rich, engaged life of meaning requires that we know what is going on in the world around us, but we also need to avoid information overwhelm, or we will be no good to anyone.
Consciously disconnect from social media and news for spells (some hours every day, if not a full day on weekends) and make time to connect to what matters most to you. Is that your children, your community, your side gig? Close your eyes right now and imagine how it feels to be in the presence of the person you love most, or to act righteously with your community members, or to complete a creative project. The power of your passion to undo the stress that builds up in body and mind cannot be overestimated.
By pausing often, staying in the body, allowing vulnerability, and connecting to what matters, we more fully wake up and show up to life.
Now is always the time to capacitate ourselves to meet what is present.
Guest post by studio BE mindfulness teacher Sarah Jane Shangraw.
Sarah Jane Shangraw, M.S., E-RYT 500, YACEP, is a student of the buddhadharma who teaches mindfulness meditation and Insight Yoga in the Boston area and beyond. Using Buddhist, yogic, and western psychological approaches, she guides individuals and groups in alleviating stress and training in awareness for the greater good.
Find her at www.sarahjaneshangraw.com and @sarahjaneswell.
Feature photo by Zubada/Adobe Stock