This Subtle Mind-Body Shift Could Change the Way You Engage the World

Adversity has a way of making us loom and gloom. Here’s how to recalibrate.

My Dad told me when I was young that waves come in sets of seven, and if ever I found myself caught in the undertow and struggling to find air and in a panic to look for and swim towards the light. I’ve had occasion over the years to turn to that sage advice, not only when I was tumbling around in the wilds of the ocean, but also when I’ve been caught in an emotional tsunami.

Now, please don’t confuse “the light,” in the case of emotional distress, to be an advocation for blind optimism or perpetual positivity. Despite the “just be positive” mantra, touted by some and impulsively practiced by many, positive thinking has little sustainable positive effect on how we cope or heal when life pulls the rug out from beneath us. For instance, studies show that denying or hiding feelings leads to more stress on the body. Others show that trying not to think about something actually makes you think about it more. The pressure to appear okay, even strong in the face of adversity invalidates the wide spectrum of emotions that we all naturally experience. Sadly, as a society, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that inherent in the human condition is sometimes feeling distress — and that’s okay.

But dwelling in that distress isn’t.

Why we dwell in distress

As with getting caught in a murky undertow, emotional distress can be overwhelming and disorienting. Distress of any sort is systemic, meaning it prompts an embodied response. Because our body perceives distress as a threat, it kicks into survival mode, which causes our rational brain to go offline and prevents us from thinking as clearly as we otherwise would. This is why during difficult times we often become anxious, panicky, angry, overwhelmed, or super-sensitive, and why our experiences and reactions intensify, so that everything seems more severe or even doomsday.

This distress response is simply an innate self-preservation mechanism. But like all machines, sometimes ours goes awry. One of those wrenches in our system is rumination.

This distress response is an innate self-preservation mechanism. But like all machines, sometimes ours goes awry. One of those wrenches in our system is rumination.

Ruminating is the addictive repetition of a thought — usually a negative, fear-based one — without action or completion. We get trapped in our own heads, cycling through unpleasant or unreconciled experiences of the past or else what might (or might not) happen in the future. In the case of adversity, it becomes hard to see life as anything but an either/or: happy or sad; pain or joy — with the miserable of the two commandeering our perspective and sense of proportion.

When we’re felled by difficult times, we often judge ourselves (or others) when we (or they) fixate on pain. But it’s not always that we (or they) are weak and wallowing. It could just be a matter of being stuck in a primitive area of the brain.

Recalibrating Your Perspective From Misery to Meaning

“Swim towards the light,” said my Dad.

The key to not dwelling in distress, and regaining some of life’s joyful light, is a reset: first the body, by regaining a sense of clarity and presence; then the mind, which involves a shift in focus and intention, both of which will have a profound effect on the spirit’s ability to be resilient. The following steps will show you how.

Step 1: Get back in your rational mind

The same way you can’t talk reason to a charging bear, you can’t “happy talk” your way out of emotional pain. As I wrote in another article, you’ve gotta feel to heal. Key to doing this is something I call “benevolent honesty.” In short, benevolent honesty is a kind of mindful, clear-eyed, no-exaggeration way of approaching challenge or loss that gives us a way to be gentle with ourselves as we absorb painful realities.

At the heart of this is regulating how much “flow” (or stimulation) we allow into our internal system. Finding the right amount of stimulation shifts us out of the fear-based area of the brain and back into our rational, meaning-making mind. It also keeps us within our “window of tolerance,” a prerequisite for maintaining perspective.

Benevolent honesty provides a safe place to dwell while we’re working through pain, rather than us dwelling in it. A few additional real-time practices for staying clear-minded and regulated include:

  • Breathing exercises. I know this may sound cliché, with all that has been written about breath-work inducing calm, but it really is true. Here are a few exercises I’ve found especially helpful.
  • The “Divers Reflex.” This technique is especially good for when you’re feeling particularly anxious or panicky.
  • Sensory Stimulation. This is helpful when distress has got you feeling down or depressed. Hop on a bouncy ball or trampoline. Stand with your arms out and swing them laterally, across your chest, lightly slapping your upper arms. Chew crunchy food loudly and with exaggeration. Blow water through a straw. Anything that stimulates the senses can help to pull you out that “down”-hypoarousal state.

Step 2: Reset (or reconsider) your worldview

Now that you’re back in your meaning-making mind …

Psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman suggests that people generally share three assumptions about life: the world is basically good, and therefore safe; good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, therefore nothing is random, and everyone gets what they deserve; and I’m good, so good things will happen to me. She refers to this triad as our “assumptive worldview.”

When adversity strikes, our worldview often shatters, whether it’s these core beliefs or others we’ve formed. The response to this shattering is often an existential swinging of the pendulum; for instance, we (now) think the world is bad, dangerous, unfair, without coherence, and lacking meaning — and this makes us feel vulnerable and jaded.

Instead of an either/or mindset that only tells one part of our existential story, try embracing what I’ll call “radical realism,” that is seeing life as fundamentally “both/and.” For instance, there is goodness and safety in the world — but yes, also challenge and danger. Good things happen to good people — but sometimes bad things happen too. I’m a good person — but this doesn’t protect me from adversity.

Instead of an either/or mindset that only tells one part of our existential story, try embracing what I’ll call “radical realism,” that is seeing life as fundamentally “both/and.”

Resetting or reconsidering your worldview isn’t always easy and sometimes it takes time to really sink in, even if you’re committed to making it so. Here is an exercise to help get you living “both/and.”

  • Start by acknowledging a painful situation or difficult existential reality. Write that down, and put a comma “,” at the end. Then add “but”.
  • Now consider something specific that you can do about it. Write that down after the comma; then put a period “.” at the end. Then bold or underline it part.

For instance,

  • “There are some things in life that I can’t change or control, but I can always choose how to respond … I can always take command of myself in a given moment.”
  • “Nothing is permanent — everything shifts and changes, but this reality opens the door to possibility and opportunity.
  • “Right now, I am challenged, but I am not eternally damaged.
  • “Yes, ‘this’ bad thing happened to me, but it is not me, and I will not let it define me.”

Getting in the habit of putting “, but … ” after our negative thoughts goes a long way to helping stay mentally and emotionally calibrated in the face of adversity. And even when you can’t go the distance, because your body is becoming dysregulated again, just go back and repeat Step 1.

Even the steps are “both/and”.

Award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher specializing in moral injury. I talk about the stuff many won’t.

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