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.