Dealing with anxiety in times of uncertainty – Part 2: Grow your resilience

In my previous post I talked about the difference between pain and suffering, and how childhood core wounds can trigger unnecessary suffering in your adult life. In this post, I will demonstrate my flowchart to help grow your resilience and to find an alternative for suffering. But first I want to explain some more about the mind and your sense of self.     

Most humans have very active minds. Those minds are creating so much thought activity all the time, that it’s easy to assume that our thoughts are the truth and define who we are. Usually we are so immersed in our thoughts, that we don’t even notice it. Imagine two fish, swimming around in the sea. One fish asks the other: “Hey, how are you, and how’s the water today?” the other answers: “What water, what are you talking about?”

Thought activity is to humans what water is to fish: so completely self-evident that we are not aware of it, and fail to see it as something outside of ourselves. But contrary to a fish who won’t survive outside the water, humans are able to stay alive without thought activity. Now I guess that nobody is able to be without thoughts 100% of the time, we need the mind to navigate through life an a practical way. But as I’ve explained before, your mind is also accountable for distress about situations that happened in the past, situations yet to come, or even imagined situations that will never happen at all. Resulting in feelings of stress, anxiety and panic. So in order to prevent your mind from taking the wheel in those cases, I suggest that you become more familiar with a part of yourself that is nót your mind or your thoughts. 

Three senses of self

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy talks about the three senses of self you can experience:[1]

The conceptualized self
This the most familiar sense of self, where you fully identify with the content of your life, your identity. This is the story you tell yourself (and others) about your life. For instance: You have a gender, a nationality, a professional role and a role as spouse or parent. You could also describe yourself as kind, sensitive, spontaneous, a little insecure and prone to mood swings.  

The ongoing self-awareness
This is the self that becomes aware of the fact that it is describing itself with words and language. For instance: “Oh, now I am having the thought again that I’m insecure” or “I notice I start worrying again”.

The observing self
This is the hardest part of the self to grasp in words, because it has no content. It just simply is: “I am”. The observing self is the part of you that will be and has always been with you, the space where all your thoughts, feelings and memories come and go. The part of you that notices you are having a thought or an emotion. Imagine your thoughts and emotions are the clouds in the sky. Clouds, rain, thunder and lightning suddenly come up, but they will always disappear again. The sky is the stage where the clouds enter, do their thing and leave. The sky will always be there, no matter how good or bad the weather conditions are.

Get familiar with the observing self

The observing self has also been called the transcendent self. Spiritual teachers call it ‘presence’ or ‘pure consciousness’. Eckhart Tolle doesn’t even talk about a sense of self anymore. In his teaching, the observing self exists beyond duality.[2] I would also argue that there is not really such a thing as ‘the self’, although we do perceive it that way. The sense of self exists, and yet at the same time it does not exist.

To me, presence, pure consciousness or the observing self is totally impersonal, it cannot be reconciled with something like an identity. However, I experience this awareness of pure consciousness as the solid foundation of what I am. Maybe I can best describe it as a state of peace I can always connect to if I need to, no matter what is going on inside my body or in my surroundings. This state of peace feels safe, unbreakable and eternal.

You can become familiar with your observing self by spending more time in the ongoing self-awareness. When you start noticing that you are having thoughts or emotions, you will also more often start to notice gaps in between them. In these gaps the mind is not active, you are just present. Whenever new content arises in your mind – and it always will – you can then observe that this content is created by the mind. When you get more acquainted with the observing self, it will be much easier to see thoughts and emotions for what they are. You can then avoid becoming entangled in them and prevent them from taking over your behavior.

Having said that, this doesn’t mean that you cannot fully engage anymore in intense thoughts and emotions anymore, whenever they do serve you well. Your mind can still serve you to create things and enjoy life. And at the other side of the spectrum: vulnerable, grieving thoughts and emotions can serve you just as well, when you are in the process of healing. Suppressing them won’t help you. What it comes down to, is that you can still always engage with thoughts and emotions, but you just don’t have to identify with them anymore completely. 

Grow your resilience | use your voice

Grow your resilience

In this pandemic, it’s extra tempting now to obsessively devour news, helplessly witness another’s suffering and anticipate how we are making up for a major worldwide economic crisis. My advice would be to stay informed, but don’t allow the news to feed your anxiety. This doesn’t contribute to anything. If you want to contribute to the crisis in a meaningful mwy, follow up on local initiatives to help people, or start one yourself. But don’t forget to take care of your own mental health in the first place. In order to really help others, you need to take care of yourself first.

Following my own experiences, I have made a flowchart that takes you step by step through the process of any uncomfortable situation in order to grow your resilience.

Ask yourself: Do you experience pain, fear, anger, sadness, anxiety or any other situation that makes you suffer?

If you say No that’s easy then, off you go, and enjoy life.

If you say Yes, ask yourself the following question: Are you able to change your situation in a way that ends your suffering?

If you say Yes to that, then ask yourself the following: Are you willing to change the situation?

Being able to change is very different from being willing to change. When would you be able as well as willing? For instance, you hate your job. Although you earn good money with it, it is dull, repetitive, meaningless and you don’t fit in the corporate environment. Of course, you are free to quit your job at any time, and start doing something that maybe pays a lot less, but is way more fulfilling and meaningful. You can totally do that, if, for instance you have low rent, and it is possible to cut down your monthly costs. Maybe the only things you have to change is not going on holidays, eating out in restaurants and buying new clothes every week anymore. Maybe you are willing to sacrifice these things in order to start a new career.

 So if you say Yes, if you are willing to change this situation, make the change, and enjoy life.

But it is also quite common for humans to end up in situations where they are able to change their situation, but not always willing to do so because this will cost them too much at the moment. Reasons could be that you have just moved into a new house with a huge mortgage, your take care of your chronically ill parents, your third child is on the way and you are still paying off your student loans. Starting a new career and living of half your salary would make life a lot more complicated and stressful right now, so it might be better to start saving money, and wait a couple of years before executing this new plan. You know that you are able to change your life situation, but you are consciously choosing not to do so (yet).

So if you say No, meaning you are not willing to change your life situation, ask yourself the following: Are you willing to accept what is?

If you can answer this question with yes, you are accepting your situation in the present moment. This detail of the present moment is quite important, because is explicitly says something about your acceptance of the situation here and now, and not necessarily forever. Situations and emotions are dynamic and always changing. It is very possible that you will make the wanted career switch in five years or so, when circumstances are better for you. In the meantime, you agree to be in peace with where you are right now, without fighting against it. There’s a considerate chance that by accepting your current situation and realizing this situation is only temporary, you will suffer less from your situation.

The same question applies if you are not able to change your life situation, like now during the Corona crisis. Then you can also ask yourself: Are you willing to accept what is? Meaning: Are you willing to accept the pain that comes with your new, unwanted life situation? If you can answer this with Yes, you decide not to resist your current situation, and you consequently will experience less suffering.

What can you do if you are not willing to accept what is? Are you then, at least, willing to accept that you cannot accept what is?

It can be empowering to become aware that you can accept the fact that you cannot accept your current situation. You namely still have a choice here. If you answer this question with yes, you accept that you are not ready (yet) to accept something. In this present moment, you are nevertheless accepting what is: The part of you that is not ready (yet) for acceptance. You are not resisting this part of yourself anymore. Accepting that you cannot accept what is, is an inspiring deed of self-compassion that will free you of at least some tension or inner conflict. It will lead to less suffering, to some extent.

Now, what if the answer to this question is still no? What if you are not willing to accept that you cannot accept what is? What if your pain is too much to bear, what if you are not able to experience your sensations and emotions fully? What if even grieving is considered as too painful?

If you find yourself in a phase where acceptance of your situation in the present moment is not an option, then my advice would be to allow yourself time. Processing live changing events always takes time, and nobody can tell you exactly how long it will take. Just remember that your emotional state is never static or definite. Sooner or later, you will enter a phase where you can start to grieve for what you have lost. Whenever you notice that this is happening, go back to the top of the flowchart and ask yourself again: Can I accept what is? Maybe this time you can…

The opportunity of adversity

Living in times of a pandemic is challenging, sorrowful and complicated. Worldwide suffering is increasing exponentially. It will affect every one of us in different ways: economically, physically, emotionally and mentally.

You will now probably encounter more setbacks and challenges in life than before. Maybe you are not even sure that your government will act in favor of your people. In several parts of the world, political leaders now display failure of leadership and become increasingly transparent as egocentric, ignorant and self-satisfying. Maybe you even cannot rely on the authorities anymore.

But regardless of all dread, remember that that every crisis or conflict can give rise to exceptional opportunities. During COVID-19 we are confronted with lockdown or – to some extent – social isolation. On a personal level, I see social distancing as a worldwide invitation to shift our attention inwards; to increase consciousness.

Many wise thinkers taught us to never waste a good crisis: Nietzsche said that one’s path to heaven always leads through one’s own hell. Kierkegaard said that when you discover your mortality, your consciousness is triggered and signals the activation of true existence. And Dabrowski said that crises are periods of increased insight into oneself, creativity and personality development[3]

You can use this time in quarantine to do inner work: confront individual pains, anxieties, childhood wounds, and grow your resilience. Now, more than ever, is the best opportunity to become aware of the present moment and your observer self: the solid, inviolable foundation of who you are. This opportunity will gradually disappear whenever you are back in your comfort zone; hardship and pain are easily forgotten when things are back to normal.

The corona crisis is probably here to stay with us for a while, so let’s take advantage of the discomforting situation we are in. If you have the chance, every day, close your eyes for a couple of minutes. Focus on your breathing and allow yourself to feel everything you feel, all the good and the bad. Use the flowchart to enjoy or accept your life situation.

Become the observer of your thoughts, notice that they are coming and going. Whenever you start to notice the gaps between your thoughts, allow yourself to experience that state of pure consciousness. And when you’re able connect to that part of you, you can ask yourself: “At this very moment, am I doing OK? If I’m not entangled in my thoughts about the past and the future, am I in pain right now?”

 

[1] S.C. Hayes, S. Smith (2005) Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications

[2] E. Tolle (2001) The Power of Now: A Guide To Spiritual Enlightenment. London: Hodder & Stoughton

[3] S. Mendaglio, Ph.D., Editor (2008) Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration Great Potential Press, Scotsdale

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  • Laura Stavinoha
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