What can you control?
In my book club, we are discussing The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams. This week we talked about fear and anger, specifically how they reveal the things we are attached to in our lives. We also talked about how each one of us has a default response when in crisis.
My default is fear. When confronted with a crisis or something outside of my control, I become afraid. It is often completely irrational, AND it is real. My fear makes me withdraw to whatever feels safe. I freeze.
It's helpful to be aware of your default crisis response. We can manage our feelings and get support when we need it. Being aware of how I respond has helped me to expect fear and implement tools to move beyond it.
Most of the time, the fear I feel isn't a direct threat. It is a source of anxiety for me. I've learned to turn to my journal when I feel the anxiety to unpack the feelings and, more importantly, the thinking that is causing the feelings.
A few weeks ago, I noticed a suspicious spot on my leg. I could feel the anxiety growing. What if it is melanoma again? I had surgery for melanoma seven years ago. My mind started galloping towards worse-case scenarios. I had to reign it back in. I made an appointment with my dermatologist, and by the time you are reading this newsletter, I will be waiting for biopsy results. I will also be processing my fear as it surfaces.
This month I've been focusing on the theme of resilience in this newsletter. I have a particular way of journaling when I am afraid, and I thought I would share it with you. It will work if you are angry as well. It will work to process any of your feelings!
It's four questions, and I've written about them in the past, but I'm guessing as we roll up to the one-year mark of our lives being impacted by the pandemic, you might be finding it challenging some days to find emotional equilibrium. I read a helpful article this week that described this one-year pandemic anniversary as the point at which the pain goes from acute to chronic.
Here's what I work through:
1. What happened? Write down what happened without any judgement or commentary on it at all. "I found a spot on my leg." We make up stories almost immediately, and just getting the facts down is all you need to do in this step. What could someone in your life observe? Just write what happened. You might be surprised at how just doing this alone dissipates some of the emotions you are holding.
2. What do you think about what happened? I'll stick with my example here. What did I think about what happened? Well, it took me about two minutes to get from "I found a spot" to "I'm going to die." It's true. I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but health anxiety is real for me. The hardest part of all of this is to accept that most of our suffering is rooted in what we think about what happened. Finding a spot on my leg isn't causing me problems. What I think that means is the culprit.
3. How do you feel about what happened? In my case, I feel anxiety in my stomach. I feel panic. I feel sad. I feel afraid. I feel paralyzed. I feel all those feelings and more. And all of them are accompanied by physical sensations. Mostly I feel like going to bed.
4. What do I need to do? The first thing I needed to do (and you might as well) is to challenge the story I am telling about the situation. The Work by Byron Katie is beneficial here. She also has four questions! After I confront the story I have created, I feel less anxious. I needed to call my dermatologist. I needed to journal about my feelings and trace them back to what I thought and rework the narrative.
I love this quote from The Book of Joy, "As the Dalai Lama had said at the start of our dialogues, we create most of our suffering, so we should be able to create more joy. The key, he had explained, was our perspective and thoughts, feelings, and actions that came as a result."
Whatever you are feeling right now can be traced back to what you are thinking about your situation. You don't need to berate yourself for how you feel. You can sit with those feelings and let them be a guide to understanding what you are thinking. You can feel the fear and move forward.
Becoming more resilient will be a by-product of ensuring what you are thinking is the truth in the situation - not the story you have created.