Holding Both the Loss and the Gratitude
Here, I am a well-being coach and consultant, but for me, it has been hard to navigate the stress and uncertainty of living through a pandemic. Since this all began, I have not been able to feel inspired or motivated to write in a way to support others. Some days, it feels like more than enough to sleep, exercise, eat well, and do some work.
But, as we are more settled in a place of stay-at-home status quo, I have been able to get some distance and reflect more on the experience. One image that I keep thinking of is seeing both of my hands held open and holding what is in both hands at the same time.
I have been thinking about how, on one hand, we are all experiencing so much loss. Some of the loss is small, like not getting to see or hug friends, missing working out at the gym, even missing chatting with a cashier or riding the bus. And, for me especially, eating in a restaurant. Very mundane things that are gone for now- and there is grief with this.
And, we are all experiencing much larger losses as well. Some have lost loved ones or jobs to the virus. Some have lost financial security. Others have lost big plans that they were very much looking forward to. For me, I have lost a bluegrass music festival that I attend yearly and look forward to all year long as well as a special vacation that was planned to celebrate a big birthday. I recognize these are very privileged losses, but loss does not come with judgement. Loss is loss is loss.
I am also thinking about how, on the other hand, there is so much to be grateful for. There are small daily things to value- a conversation with a loved one, a good cup of coffee, being able to take a walk. There are also other things to be grateful for, such as a roof over your head, your health, food in the fridge, and even electricity and running water.
It can feel hard to hold such disparate ideas at the same time, but this is how I think we can navigate this unprecedented time. We need to both hold and acknowledge all the losses and grief that we are experiencing, while also holding onto gratitude for our many blessings. It is through moving forward in this way that I think we will be able to survive and thrive during this amazingly stressful and uncertain time.
I hope you are well and healthy during this stressful time and that you are taking care of yourself as best you can. Please let yourself feel the losses but also appreciate your many blessings daily.
It’s ok to feel anxious. This is a scary time we’re living in right now. There is a sense of impending doom, and we don’t yet really understand what is going to happen or what we can control. I’ve been thinking about what I need to do to help myself and how we can all manage the anxiety that comes from living through a difficult and uncertain situation. Here are my top 11 ideas for managing anxiety.
When I work with clients who experience anxiety, one of the things we talk about is the importance of having acceptance of our feelings. Often, when we have painful or negative feelings, like anxiety, we can then beat ourselves up for having these feelings. A former client of mine labeled it “meta anxiety”, having anxiety about having anxiety. When we have a negative response to or judgement of our feeling, it only worsens how we feel. I encourage you to accept how you are feeling. Tell yourself it’s ok to be feeling anxious right now. It absolutely makes sense. Have care and compassion for yourself and for your distress.
In whatever ways feel safe and comfortable to you now, move your body. It’s one of the best ways to combat feelings of anxiety and stress. Go to the gym, if that feels ok to you. Take a walk. Do a workout on YouTube. Dance around your living room. Just move and groove and sweat. This will help you blow out feelings of stress, and it will also release endorphins to increase your feelings of contentment. Exercise also strengthens your immune system.
If you have a meditation practice, keep it going. Meditate daily if at all possible. This will help you calm and center yourself. It will also give your mind and body a break from worry. If you don’t currently meditate, this would be a great time to start. Apps such as Insight Timer, Calm, and Headspace are all good places to start, as are meditation videos on YouTube. Just start with 5 or 10 minutes a day if you are getting started and build up from there.
4) Monitor Caffeine and Alcohol
Caffeine is a stimulant and a drug. It mimics symptoms of anxiety by making us feel nervous and increasing our heart rates, blood pressure, and respiration. Caffeine stays active in our bodies quite a long time. Once we consume it, it impacts us for a minimum of 6 hours. So, I would recommend that you keep your caffeine consumption low currently and not drink any after early afternoon to ensure you sleep well.
When we are stressed or worried, many of us also turn to alcohol. If you drink, watch how much you are drinking and try not to consume too much. When we drink, we can have a rebound effect from it the next day- which can increase symptoms of anxiety or depression. So, while it may feel good to drink more in the short-term, it may be increasing your anxiety overall.
5) Limit your News Consumption
When 9/11 happened, my father was quite teary for days after the attacks. When I explored what he was doing, I realized he was almost continuously watching the news and re-traumatizing himself regularly by what he was hearing and seeing.
When we take in scary or stressful information, it impacts us. I strongly encourage you to really limit your news consumption. Only read it online once a day or watch the news only at night. Or read a newspaper. (Please consider buying a subscription to a newspaper, if you can. They provide such an imperative public service, especially during times like this.) Things will not change so much in a single day and updating yourself once each day should be sufficient. This will also help you keep your anxiety lower than it might be with more frequent information.
6) Connect with People you Care About
Humans are social creatures. We like to be around other people and feed off of this. Social distancing is very necessary right now, but it is difficult and can lead to feelings of loneliness or depression. Be in touch with friends and family. Stay in contact, and feel connected. You have many people in your life you care about and who care about you. This is an important time to call, text, email, Skype, etc. Schedule dates with family and friends, and if it’s possible, do it over video chat. This is the best way to connect with people if we can’t meet in person. This will help you feel better and less isolated.
7) Focus on what you can Control
There are still many unknowns with the coronavirus. Some things are within your control, and many others are not. Try to focus on the things you can control.
8) Take Good Care of your Body
Try to eat well and get enough rest. This is hugely important during a time of stress. And this keeps your immune system healthy.
9) Do Things that Bring you Pleasure
Make sure you are doing things that bring you pleasure. Read, listen to music, watch good shows and movies. Cook. Burn candles. Play games. Paint, draw, write. Be in nature. Whatever you enjoy- keep doing it.
10) Make and Stick to a Routine
This is not one snow day. This is a much longer period of uncertainty and possibly not working or having limited work. It is incredibly important that you have a daily routine and stick to it. Wake up at a decent time. Have time for all your meals. Schedule work or productive activities you can do. Schedule time to exercise, meditate, read, create, or do the pleasurable things you enjoy. And go to bed at a decent time. Make different schedules for weekdays and weekends if you’d like. And shower at least every day or two. All these activities will help you feel human and more normal during these very abnormal times. This is all part of controlling what you can control.
11) Be Grateful
Take time each night to reflect on the day and things for which you are grateful. They can be small or big things. When things feel scary overall, it’s even more important than usual to have gratitude. It’s powerful to reflect on what you appreciate each day and to let those positive feelings sink into your body and mind.
These are my top 10 ideas for helping you deal with anxiety. What else do you find helpful?
Recently, I heard the new song by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Be Afraid. (Check them out, if you haven’t heard them. They’re great. I especially love If We Were Vampires.) The lyric that jumped out at me was, “Be afraid, very afraid, but do it anyway.” Yes! This is what it means to be brave, to have courage.
It really resonated with me and some of my personal experiences.
When I left my full-time job, I had worked for 20 years for other people but had also been feeling pulled to take my career in a somewhat different direction. I wanted to support well-being in a more programmatic, more systematic, more proactive and preventative way. This didn’t fit with my job, and I wasn’t able to make the shift within boundaries that already existed. So I resigned, wanting to do things my way, and I started my business, Thrive Well-being.
My colleagues kept commenting on how brave I was, how they could never do this. Even my husband said this. The funny thing was, I really didn’t feel brave at all. I felt scared shitless- but I was going to do it anyway. I always pictured that someone who felt brave would, at least internally, feel strong and confident. This wasn’t how I felt at all!
After reflecting more, and doing some reading, I realized I WAS brave. Being really scared and still moving forward IS the definition of courage.
I love Brene Brown. If you’re not familiar with her works, please do yourself a huge favor and get one of her books or watch her TED talks. She’s written about the importance of being vulnerable-and the courage it takes to do so. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead is a book I love and return to again and again.
She opens her book with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt:
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who is at worse, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
I thought about this quote a lot while moving out of my job and planning for my new company. I felt I had to be the person in the arena, covered in sweat and blood from my efforts. I had to take risks and be vulnerable. Starting a business definitely requires vulnerability. There is a lot of risk and doubt. What if I fail? What if leaving my job is the biggest mistake of my life? What if no one thinks I can help them thrive and improve their well-being? What if I’m not good enough, not smart enough, not charismatic enough?
To start my business, I had to put myself out there again and again, do things I had never done before as a therapist and professor. I had to design and build a website. I had to network. I had to start presenting more to get my name out there. I had to ask people for their business. I had to attend conferences in worlds that were new to me. I had to identify as an entrepreneur and join their groups.
I listened to the drive inside of me and followed my vision. This energized me and allowed me to follow this new path. And I’ve been loving it. I’m having fun and feel excited to do what I’m now doing. Looking back, I see now how brave I was, even though I felt anything but courageous at the time. And I’m so grateful I took this risk, even when I felt somewhat terrified.
Toward the end of her book, Brene Brown says, “But as I look back on my own life and what Daring Greatly has meant to me, I can honestly say that nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as believing that I’m standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen.”
Yes! I did this, and it paid off for me in spades with invigorating work and increased happiness and well-being. I couldn’t agree more!!
It takes courage to do big things, like leaving your job and starting a business. But, it also takes courage for the small things that we do all the time. It takes courage to talk to a friend who hurt your feelings. It takes courage to raise your hand in class or volunteer to take on an additional responsibility at work. It takes courage to learn and to grow.
How can you be brave in your life? What small step can you take now, even if you are scared shitless?
A friend recently sent me a birthday card, and in it she said, “You are one of the special blessings in my life! I am so grateful for your friendship…” This meant so much to me and was such a gift. It made my heart warm as I felt loved and appreciated. The special feelings lingered and made my day.
A few weeks ago, a client I worked with many years ago sent me a holiday card. Just the fact that she remembered me and thought to send me a card was so touching. In it, she ended by saying, “Thank you again so much for your life changing help. I am forever grateful.” I felt so wonderful after getting that card, and I floated around on joy for a while. Both of these cards and messages meant so much to me. I remember them, reflect on them at times, especially when I’m not feeling special or competent, and reread them when I need a smile.
You might not think a sentence in a card could carry such weight, but you would be wrong. I recently wrote about the benefits of feeling gratitude in your life daily, but it’s just as important to express appreciation often for others as well. These small words of thanks or compliments to someone carry such weight and can bring such positive feelings.
We all want to be seen and acknowledged; however, we go through life and so rarely get appreciated for who we are or what we’re doing. How we parent, who we are as a friend or spouse, the work we do so rarely get complimented or recognized. It is really a gift and can make someone’s day to let them know you see them and they are pretty special in some way.
The Positive Psychology field has conducted extensive research on both experiencing and expressing gratitude. Their studies show that expressing appreciation for others is correlated with more happiness, better well-being, lower stress, and lower levels of depression. Additionally, when partners in a relationship express gratitude toward one another, the relationship becomes more satisfying and the partners feel more connected. When you acknowledge a friend or partner in a loving way, this increases your warm feelings toward them and increases their positive regard for you and your relationship.
So the next time your partner says or does something that you appreciate, tell them. When you’re with someone special to you, such as a good friend or child, let them know what they mean to you. Let your colleague know what you are impressed with in them. Pass on appreciation to others and you will spread joy. Additionally, you will feel good in having given someone a meaningful gift. Appreciation really is a gift that keeps on giving!
I had a great time talking with the residents in the Department of Radiology at UPenn yesterday! They were really engaged and energized by the ideas we were discussing. They especially liked the ideas that perfection is not possible and also that how we define competence, success, and failure contribute so strongly to Imposter Syndrome. Discussing Imposter Syndrome together will help them bring this topic more into the open and to support each other with the ways they are trying to combat it. It also helps them realize more fully that they are not alone in their experiences.
For several years now, I’ve closed out my day in a lovely way. I keep a Gratitude Journal. (You can also call it an Appreciation Log if that works better for you.) I keep a small notebook and pen next to my bed. I take a few moments- really just a minute or two- to think about my day. I reflect on what I am grateful from the day. I am very specific about what I appreciate and what I look for from the day. I don’t include general things, like “my family”.
This is what I ask myself: What nice moments or experiences happened today? Who did I communicate with? Did I have a nice conversation with a friend? Did I get a nice hug from someone I care about? What went well professionally? What did I eat or drink that I enjoyed? (You’d be amazed at how many things in my Gratitude Journal are yummy foods or coffee!) Was there something beautiful in the weather or in nature that I enjoyed, such as a beautiful tree, sunny day, lovely sunset?
I write at least 3 things that I appreciate from my day, and I often write more than that. And when I’ve had a particularly crappy day, I think it’s even more important to appreciate what has been positive. There are always things to be grateful for, even at the level of- I have running water. I have electricity. I have enough to eat. I have clothes. I’m healthy or not in pain. I can walk. I can see. I can smell.
I love this practice for two main reasons. First, it’s such a nice, positive way to end the day. It’s the last thing I think about before I turn out the light and snuggle with my husband. Second, it really has me searching for things to be grateful for throughout the day. It helps me practice gratitude more often, to search out these positive moments.
Many studies have documented a myriad of benefits of having a gratitude practice: Gratitude can improve our happiness and resilience, our ability to bounce back and grow from set-backs. Gratitude can have a positive impact on our overall health, how much we exercise, and it can really help our sleep. People who practice gratitude tend to be less envious of others. Additionally, studies that have looked at our brains have found that gratitude has a positive effect on your brain and also increases neurotransmitters related to well-being.
There are so many reasons to give this a try! Keep a gratitude journal for 2 weeks and see what you think. If you do, contact me and let me know what you think about it and what you experience.
-Keep a small notebook and pen next to your bed.
-Just before you go to bed, write down at least 3 specific things you experienced during the day that you are grateful for or appreciate. Write down more if you can.
-Take 20 seconds to really let the feelings of gratitude sink in to your body- they’ll also positively affect your brain.
-Turn out the lights and go to sleep in a positive headspace.
-Extra credit: pay attention to things during the day you appreciate and that you could write in your journal that night.
Sleep is extremely important for our well-being, both emotional and physical. Most adults generally need between 7-9 hours/night. What happens if you do not get enough sleep? As shown in many studies, lack of sleep can cause a variety of issues. For example, people who do not get enough sleep tend to gain weight and eat less healthy. It can also cause difficulties in both learning and memory.
Additionally, sleep is intimately related to our mental well-being. For instance, a recent study showed that people who don’t get enough sleep have higher levels of anxiety and/or depression. There seems to be something protective about getting enough sleep, as if it calms or diminishes our anxiety and improves our mood. Similarly, another recent study revealed that people who get 6 or fewer hours of sleep a night are as mentally impaired as if they were drunk; yet, these folks but think they are operating normally!
I can go on and on about the benefits of sleep. I work with people to improve their sleep quite often and have identified 4 important behaviors to help you have a better night’s sleep. This is definitely not an exhaustive list but includes behaviors that I think are extremely important.
Try all these suggestions, and you will have a more restful, peaceful sleep. If you have other things that have helped you sleep better, please leave them in the comments.
We are all Brothers and Sisters
I recently attended a very stirring event at the National Constitution Center: The Girl in the Picture: Remembering Vietnam that featured Kim Phùc Phan Thi. You probably don’t know her name, but you definitely have seen her. In an iconic and horrifying photo taken in Vietnam in 1973, she was the 9 year-old girl who was running naked and terrified after being burned by napalm.
Dr. Kim spoke about her experiences that occurred on that horrendous day, during the 14 months in the hospital and the16 surgeries that constituted her initial healing. She also spoke about where her life has taken her since that unforgettable horror. I was moved by the passion that she expressed over how her heart and soul had been healed through her faith.
In 1996, she had the opportunity to meet one of the US airmen responsible for her bombing. She discussed how he asked for forgiveness in his words and through the pain in his eyes, and she willingly gave it. They hugged and held each other. Each had suffered a distinct and severe pain, and they felt a strong connection, considering themselves brother and sister. They remain in contact to this day and are still close. Dr. Kim noted that she prays daily for the pilot of that plane.
I sat there stunned, amazed by Dr. Kim’s level of forgiveness and grateful for its lessons. I’m still processing the emotions and messages of this event. When I feel things strongly or emotionally, I get goose bumps, and I had them all over my body.
Related to well-being, I have been thinking about how this all connects with self-compassion. Kristin Neff, in her wonderful book Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, writes about the 3 components of self-compassion: 1) being kind to oneself, 2) mindfulness of what one is experiencing and feeling, and 3) common humanity. While I’ll write more about self-compassion over time, “common humanity” is the idea that we are all in this together, in this crazy thing called life. We all suffer. We all feel pain. We are all human. When we suffer, we can feel isolated in our pain, as if everyone else is better off than we are.
In reality, we are all brothers and sisters, siblings, regardless of where we are from, our religion, how much money we have, who we love, our physical abilities, etc…. I believe when Dr. Kim forgave the man who was partly responsible for her bombing, she was able to see this clearly.
It’s so easy to be angry and to be isolated in our own silos by rage, seeing others as wrong, different, less than. I sat there in the audience and wondered if I would ever be able to forgive the person who bombed me. I honestly don’t know if I could. I think about all of the small ways that I get angry, that I hold grudges, and that I feel wronged. All the ways that I “other” people who have different political beliefs than I do.
While I regularly do work hard to connect with others, to be genuine and kind, to be open to moments of love and humanity, I often fall short because I am human. Seeing Dr. Kim speak and hearing her message, inspired me to continue working to see another less as “the other” and more as “me”.
I had a great time last week speaking to the Neuroscience Graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania! I did a workshop on Imposter Syndrome and spoke about the 5 Competence Types and 8 ways to combat imposter syndrome. Imposter Syndrome affects 70% of us at least at some point in our lives, so we can all relate!
We humans have a pre-programmed tendency to focus on the negatives and to scan our environment for problems. These skills helped us survive in the more dangerous past, but in the present, they can contribute to higher levels of anxious and depressive symptoms.
While this may be our fallback approach to life, it can be reprogrammed. Working to attend to the positives in our life, and especially to micro-moments of feeling love, can really help us have a more positive sense of self.
As we go through life, we have numerous opportunities each day to connect and feel loved. Love in the general sense, not necessarily romantic love, can be enormously helpful for our sense of well-being. When we share a moment with a neighbor. When a friend expresses her concern for us. When we laugh at something on the subway and catch a fellow passenger’s eye also laughing with us. When we think of how we love our partner. All these moments help us feel more positive and connected in the world and in our life.
A recent study shows one reason why this can be so helpful for our well-being (Oravecz et al., Personality and Individual Differences, 2020). In this study, 200+ people were surveyed (at 6 random times a day) to get a sense of when and how they felt love and how this impacted their psychological wellness. The researchers found that people who experienced higher awareness of moments of love and connection in everyday life had significantly higher levels of psychological well-being. These individuals also felt more of a sense of purpose and were more optimistic.
Additionally, these researchers found that as the subjects paid more attention to moments of love in their lives, they increased their awareness of love in their daily lives. Paying attention to something positive snowballs in a wonderful way. As we pay more attention to this thing, we notice it more and experience it more. Which leads to us paying attention to it more….
So, feel the love in your life. Look for those small moments when you connect with someone, when you share a moment, when you feel loved by or cared for about someone. Let these feelings into your heart and really let yourself experience them. As you feel the love more, you will have a greater sense of well-being and be more open to these special moments that happen regularly in our lives.
-Track moments when you feel loved throughout the day. Either keep a small notebook with you to jot these times down, or track it on your phone.
-Keep a Love Journal. Each night, right before you go to sleep, write in a small notebook you keep next to your bed. Record at least three moments from the day when you felt loved. Take at least 20 seconds to feel this love and let it really sink in. This is a lovely way to end the day, and it has you attend to these incidents during the day.
-Be open to people in your world as you go through your day. If you often wear ear buds, at least at times, leave them out and hear the sounds of life around you. If you tend to be on your phone, turn it off sometimes or leave it at home. Pay for items with an actual cashier instead of using the self-check line. Choose to engage in life. Be more aware of people and the opportunities you have to feel love and connection.