Podcast: Learning To Cope With the Uncontrollable
Jenn talks to Dr. Lisa Coyne about tools and tips to better accept what we can’t control. Lisa provides strategies to manage work and life stress and shares ways to cope with what life throws our way.
Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, is a senior clinical consultant at the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute (OCDI Jr.) at McLean Hospital. Dr. Coyne has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters on anxiety, OCD, and parenting, and is the author of “The Joy of Parenting: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Guide to Effective Parenting in the Early Years.”
Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.
The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.
So hey everybody and thank you so much for joining our session called Coping With The Uncontrollable. And after what 2020 has thrown all of our ways and whatever way, shape or form we’ve dealt with it, there is no time like the present to keep sharpening those mental health and coping tools.
Oh yeah, I should introduce myself. That would be really helpful. So hi everybody, I’m Jenn Kearney. I am a Digital Communications Manager for McLean Hospital.
And before we actually get down into the nitty gritty, I wanted to walk everyone through a super brief exercise to lower anxiety in the moment, because I know what we’re talking about is really anxiety inducing for a lot of folks.
So this is a really quick and easy way to recenter and reground yourself. And it’s called box breathing. If you want to join it, go for it. If you don’t, I don’t take it personally. So take a deep breath in, for four counts. Hold it for four counts. Exhale for four counts.
And before you breathe in again, keep your lungs empty for four counts, and you can lather, rinse, repeat for as long as you feel comfortable doing so. And this is something that actually helps with your nervous system to just ease your nerves and ease that anxiety.
And it’s something you can do anywhere at any time to counter that anxiety that we can feel building up, whether you’re at work, on public transportation, going on stage, for me, it’s starting a webinar and it’s really good for kids and adults to do.
But for real, onto coping with the uncontrollable. So let’s call a spade, a spade. 2020 was the absolute worst. And everybody endured their own challenges and devastations and we all had to cope. And a lot of us had to work on our coping skills. And I am also guilty of that.
So today, Lisa and I are going to talk all about coping, accepting the uncontrollable, and playing better offense and defense to whatever 2021 and beyond is going to throw our way. So if you’re unfamiliar with Lisa, I unabashedly love Lisa, Dr. Coyne is-
Lisa: Except I was late. I apologize, Jenn.
Jenn: That’s all right. It’s all good. So Dr. Coyne is a psychologist and senior clinical consultant for McLean’s Child and Adolescent OCD Institute, which we lovingly refer to as OCDI Jr. over here.
She is the author of several books, including a new recent favorite of mine called “Stop Avoiding Stuff.” And she is also adventurer extraordinaire and expert in so many things. So, Lisa, hey.
Jenn: Thank you so much for joining me.
Lisa: My pleasure.
Jenn: I just want to jump right into it. Can you talk about what coping looks like and how do we know if our coping is healthy or it started to tip into being unhealthy?
Lisa: Great questions. And so I think the first thing, Jenn, to do is to do just what you did, which was literally calling a spade, a spade, and slowing down and noticing that we are in a situation, especially if you’re a live events worker, where lots of things are beyond your control.
And we, as humans, we like to control things. We’re very comforted by certainty. We’re comforted by knowing what’s next, being able to predict the future effectively. That has, in a large part, been taken from us.
And so the first thing to do is to slow down, make a space and notice that. And also to notice, none of you are alone. None of us are alone. This is something that is happening to all of us. And yes, it affects each of us differently, but nonetheless, it’s the same fabric that we’re all part of. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing that’s a useful thing to cope is to notice how are you handling it when you’re feeling stress? How are you handling it when you’re feeling anxiety or sadness? Because if you’re like most of us, your most frequent response is going to be, oh, I just don’t have time for that.
I’m going to push that down. I’m going to muscle through it. It’s not that bad. I’m fine. I don’t need help. All of those things to kind of avoid it. Those are unhelpful. They are things we all do, and they might have their short-term purposes, but in the long-term, in a situation with chronic uncontrollable stress, like we’re all experiencing, they’re going to burn you out.
They’re going to burn you out fast. They’re also very effortful. ‘Cause the more you try not to feel and think things, the paradoxical effect can be that they take a greater hold on you. They have a greater hold on your attention. They capture your mind.
And you find your mind constantly going there, to your stress, to your anxiety and depression. How do I manage it? How do I manage it? How do I manage it? Meanwhile, if we choose to change our strategy just a little bit, and make a space for it, that frees up your mental bandwidth to build your life in ways that you do have control over.
So in a nutshell, it’s effortful to try and avoid feeling what you’re feeling. And it doesn’t really work very well. It helps keep those things close, so it’s not effective. So the next reasonable coping strategy, which is going to sound sort of counter-intuitive is to drop the rope on that stuff and actually slow down and let yourself notice it.
It’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling. And you can say that to yourself. There’s nothing wrong with feeling strong emotion, with feeling stress, and in order to really effectively cope with it, first of all, you have to know what it is and when it’s there.
So we might think of this as increasing our willingness to just be curious about what is it that I’m feeling right now? And just like, Jenn just did an exercise with you with box breathing. How do you know when to do box breathing? Slow down.
You can try just slowing down right now, and just taking a second to ask yourself, how are you doing? What do you need right in this moment? So the last thing I’ll say about that is that, I mentioned that humans like control.
And the other problem with humans is that we’re often trying to control the things that are not controllable. Our emotional responses. Those are often triggered by stuff going on in our environment.
One third coping strategy that is very useful is focusing on what is in your control. Can’t control your thoughts and feelings. They are going to show up, and unpleasant ones, as well as joyful, expansive ones are part of life. They’re part of all of our lives. And so thinking about things that are in your control are helpful.
One thing that can be useful is thinking about stuff that brings you a sense of meaning and purpose, even if it’s small stuff. And if you can’t do that, simple, pleasant things, like self-care.
And building those into your day when it seems hard to turn your attention away from the hard things, it can be helpful to practice and develop and cultivate a practice of noticing things that give you meaning, that you can be grateful for, and that bring you pleasure.
And we call that behavioral activation. It’s one of the active ingredients in evidence-based treatments for depression is making sure you practice something pleasant or involved in self-care, something that brings you joy or pleasure every day.
Jenn: So I know a lot of folks, myself included, have either been working remotely, or they’re out of work, or they’re in some sort of hybrid mix. I don’t know what my job’s going to look like when it’s okay to be physically back in the workplace and it’s going to be different, and not knowing what that’s like makes me anxious.
And I know I’m not alone when I express that concern. How do I get more comfortable with those unknowns, especially if I’m working in a public-facing environment?
Lisa: Absolutely, I think that that’s really important. And I think one of the best pieces of advice that some of my mentors ever gave me was see if you can make friends with ambiguity and uncertainty.
And in doing that, you kind of give yourself just a little bit more bandwidth to deal with stuff, because we can’t predict the future. And there’s not too much we can do about that.
Lots of times what people might do is when you are trying to figure something out that’s uncontrollable or unpredictable, you may get stuck in worry, or you may get stuck ruminating about what are the right things to do?
How am I going to handle this? What if this happens? And there’s this sense of needing to solve. Needing to solve it, needing to figure it out, needing to be able to predict it, needing to have a plan. And again, we humans, we do not do well with uncertainty and ambiguity, but rumination and worry, those two things are actually counterproductive, too.
They’re mental acts that we engage in to help figure things out. But what they do is they keep our attention trapped, again, in those things, and they prevent us from really processing the emotions and things that we’re feeling in the moment. And when they show up, they don’t feel, most likely, for most of you, they don’t feel like things you’re doing.
They feel like things that are happening to you. And it can also feel like impossible to stop them. And so one of the things that’s really useful is actually to use a technique like Jenn’s box breathing that she taught. And another one of my favorites is simply we call it noticing or present moment awareness.
And that is notice just the act of simply noticing, oh my gosh, my mind is running away with me with these worries, and bringing your awareness back to your five senses in this moment, right here, right now. And just taking a second to slow down. And it’s this practice that you can cultivate over time.
And at first it’s hard, but just noticing, where’s my head right now? Do I feel like I’m ruminating? Do I feel like I’m worrying? Do I feel like I’m trying to solve? You can stop and ask yourself, is this something under my control?
And if it’s not, you can drop the rope on that by bringing yourself back to the present moment, or just noticing your breath in the same way that Jenn taught you. There’s some great resources out there for that. And I’ll show you one right now.
It’s one of my favorites, and I routinely recommend this book. It’s by Sue Orsillo and Liz Roemer, and it’s called “The Mindful Way Through Anxiety,” and it’s an evidence-based book about how to deal with chronic worry. So whether you have an anxiety disorder, as many of us do, or whether it’s just you’re dealing with increased anxiety and stress due to the pandemic, that’s going to be a useful resource for you.
Jenn: So do you have any suggestions for how to support others who are coping poorly with either uncontrollable stress, loss in their lives or a mix of the two?
Lisa: Yes, I do, as a matter of fact, and the very first thing I’m going to say to you guys who asked that is thank you for thinking about others. That’s really kind, and make sure you put on your own oxygen mask first.
You cannot be good for other people if you are drowning in stress. And so number one, make sure you’re grounded in yourself and you’re grounded and kind of being flexible with letting yourself feel what you’re feeling and checking your own bandwidth to see what you have to spare to support others.
And then the next thing is, I think the most important thing, really, if you’re trying to support someone else is not to problem solve for them or give them things or tools, but it’s simply to be a listening ear, to empathize, and I would say I would start with that.
And then just letting them know you’re in their orbit, you’re there. They can reach out to you. You might not even know what to say, but you’re happy to listen. And to kind of acknowledge how hard all of this is.
Those are the most important things, is just letting people feel you’re in their orbit. You’re willing to listen and that you have space to hear and make a space for the stuff that they’re going to be sharing with you.
And keep in mind that for some of us, if you’ve had a recent loss with COVID or for some other reason, people go through stages of grief, and timing matters.
So just let your friend or your family member or your colleague, whoever it is, kind of take the lead in what they need. Don’t push it. But just make yourself present and felt, that’s all. Trust that they’ll reach out when they need.
Jenn: So I know a lot of folks who are, they pride themselves on being resilient. They pride themselves as being busy all the time. I do it myself. Busy-ness is a badge of honor. I take a lot of pride in my work and that I can work through a lot of really tough stuff.
So how can I, if I’m seeing this in my friends, and my significant other and my family members, how do I check in with people who take a lot of pride in their work and put their head down and keep working, without actually hurting their pride in the process?
Lisa: So you mean if they’re working too much, Jenn?
Jenn: So, I mean, if they’re like not taking the time to appropriately grieve something, or if they’re not acknowledging the stress of the situation that they’re in.
Lisa: Yeah, and again, I think that’s a tricky one ‘cause people come at this at their own pace and their own time, but I think it’s helpful to kind of express, like, if you are seeing someone who, you’re worried, is really out of balance and they’re really coping, and you’re concerned about burnout.
You’re concerned that they don’t have sort of, they’re missing connection with other areas of their life. Just simply express that really directly and kindly, and honestly.
Like, I miss you, I noticed that we don’t get so much time to spend, how’s work going? Like are you doing this because it’s important, or is it sort of a coping strategy at this point? And how’s that working for you?
‘Cause we all get stuck in that. I’m guilty of that myself, where I work harder, and it’s sort of the thing I can control in my world. And so I have to, myself, even be mindful to really notice, again, am I doing this because I’m running from something else?
Or am I doing this because I have the bandwidth, I have good balance in other areas of my life and doing other things that feed me. I’m staying socially connected to the people who hold me up. I’m offering support to people, too.
And so again, this is exactly why when folks run from what they’re feeling, you don’t have access to any of that information.
So slowing down and checking in with yourself is the very first step to noticing am I in balance or am I running from something? And so that’s another thing to underscore when we talk about acceptance and willingness to experience emotions.
Jenn: So how can I be present for other people and support them when at the same time I’m grieving my own losses?
Lisa: You know, in listening to that question, I’m kind of hearing an answer in it. And that is, it is okay to put things down when you are breathing. And remember, emotions are information.
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, if you’re feeling sad, if you’re feeling like you need space and time, I think, listen to those feelings and be honest and direct with your friends. Like, I know you’re grieving, me too.
This is really hard for both of us and acknowledge your vulnerability. You can say something like, I’m struggling because I really want to be there for you and I know I’m struggling myself, but I just want you to know that. And sometimes that’s enough.
Just to let people know you care, that you haven’t just dropped off the face of the planet, but that there’s a reason. That gives them a chance to kind of lean towards you and go, wow, I really appreciate that and I understand, and I would be in the same boat. I know you’re struggling and maybe I can’t help you either, but maybe we can walk through this together.
And so again, we’ve talked in previous webinars about what we call a values and vulnerabilities conversation. And that’s a conversation that’s very authentic and direct about how you’re feeling.
It involves expressing some vulnerability, and also expressing the thing that’s important, that’s most important to you. So an example in this case might be I really care about you. It’s important to me to support you as your friend, and also, I’m feeling overwhelmed myself.
And I’m really scared. I can’t do a very good job of it for you right now. That’s the value and the vulnerability together. And just think about that when you have hard things to say, or when you’re feeling kind of overstretched in your own life.
Jenn: I like to think of it as like I’ve gone food shopping a few times with my partner where we’d go, we don’t need a cart. And we both meet each other at the checkout line and our arms are full of stuff and neither person wants to actually hand it off to someone else. So eventually one of us concedes and says, let’s get a cart.
By being able to actually like to unload that stuff together with another person has so much value, because at the end of it, we both just kind of like shake our shoulders out, and we’re like, wow, we actually feel a lot better. Why don’t we got a cart the first time around?
Lisa: Because this is the thing, right? We tend to think that like help means helping someone feel less something, but what if help is actually just connecting with someone else and being seen, and really seeing that person. That’s such a gift.
I’m so grateful for the people in my life that I feel like I can do that with and share that with. And it can be so rare. So cultivating those kinds of connections, I think, that’s how we’re going to get through this.
Jenn: And I do have to say, too, because there’s time zone differences, there’s inability to get together in person. If you can’t make that connection with somebody, make it with yourself, start keeping a journal, figure out a way that actually works well for you to unload.
Whether it’s going for a walk without your phone, it’s filling up a journal with all of your insecurities and doubts and throwing it in the trash after. I have written letters to friends that I’ve been annoyed with and mailed it to no one.
But ways to better unload the burden that you yourself are feeling by yourself is also a really valuable thing, I think.
Lisa: Yeah, and you’re reminding me, Jenn, I did a webinar a few weeks ago in a different area. And I talked about taking a mountain trek to Everest Base Camp. It’s an incredible experience because, talk about like uncontrolled, like really being unable to cope, like there’s 50% of the oxygen where we were that there was where we are now.
So every step, literally every step, felt like you’re lifting 200 pounds at the top. We didn’t go to the top. We went to Base Camp at Everest, which is still pretty darn high. And there were points... I trekked with a number of women who were all about my age, and my daughter.
And there were points at which each one of us hit a wall where we were like I literally cannot go another step. And there was the inevitable bursting into tears, or just stopping and being like, I just have no idea how I’m going to do this.
And, of course, there’s no cars, there’s no roads. There’s just trails. You’re 60 miles out in the wilderness in the Himalayas. So it’s really just you, and you got to get yourself there, with your team. And I just remember, I hit my wall at a point, and it was really cold and I was really tired. And people were either far ahead of me or far behind me.
I was somewhere in the middle and there was no one around and I didn’t have anyone to ask for help. And I thought, what the heck am I going to do? And I just, I just sat there, and I just let it all show up. And I just had this thought when I did that. And I just paused, I just had this thought, this body has carried you this far.
See if you can carry her gently up the mountain. And so you can cultivate a kind and compassionate relationship with yourself, and how you speak to yourself, and how you care for yourself, and how you make space for your own emotions of stress, of anxiety, of overwhelm. And we often forget that.
But it was that thought that helped me get up that little bit. I just was like, we’re going to go gentle. We’re going to go slow. We’re going to go as slow as we need. We’re going to go one step at a time. We’re going to break it down, and we’re going to go gently.
So think about, how can you be gentle with yourselves during this pandemic? How can you show up for yourself? Whether it’s setting limits in your care for others. Whether it’s giving yourself permission to be kind to yourself.
Whether it’s permission to let yourself off the hook for something. Permission to stop beating yourself up for something. Permission for not having solved the whole situation yet, ‘cause none of us have.
So those are ways, just like Jenn said, you can cultivate a compassionate, kind relationship to yourself, and by the way, there’s really good neurobiological data on self-compassion approaches. It helps you feel nurtured. It helps you regain your strength. It helps you feel like you can recover from some of these stresses. So just thinking about that.
Jenn: So many folks have so much joy in doing their job and doing it well, and for a ton of our audience live, it’s seeing happy guests at events and shows. Do you have any suggestions on how to find new sources of joy, while our normal events that bring us joy are on hold?
Lisa: You know, it’s funny that you guys should ask that ‘cause I was thinking a lot about this talk and I don’t think we have talked about this, Jenn, but I’m actually a musician, as are my family.
And when we are not in a pandemic, some of us in the family are actually semi-professional and we’ll go out and play. We play gigs. We host house concerts at our home where we invite performers, live events performers to come and play. And so I’m in this very large community of musicians in my life, outside of my life as a psychologist and a researcher I have actually.
I really dig the music, but what they have been doing is there are ways you can get together on Zoom and play music together. There are ways you can listen to podcasts and webinars. There are ways to gather online. There are ways to meet outside in an open air place and do things like that.
So get creative in those ways to kind of connect with people. And also just remember, this is going to pass. I’m not going to say we’re going to get back to normal ‘cause who knows what normal’s going to look like after this, but there will be live events again.
There will be, and they may look different, but we’re learning as we go, and people are starting to get more flexible and figure out how do we do this in creative ways?
And so I think that that’s going to be really, really important and seeing if there are alternate ways you can connect, like online, outside, small groups, et cetera, socially distant, masked up, all of those things, in careful ways, but doing it anyway, even if it’s small.
Jenn: So I know one thing that has disproportionately affected the live events industry, in particular, is unemployment. It’s been really high for a really long time because of the pandemic. And a lot of folks are feeling uneasy about when and how they’re going to reenter the workforce and how you addressed it.
It’s going to look different. We don’t know what that’s like. Do you have any advice for how to give yourself, as well as your peers, pep talks and encouragement to be confident when you’re facing a wavering and uncertain job circumstance?
Lisa: Yeah, and I want to say, I think this is really important to say, that it is really difficult economy for live events workers, for that gig industry.
And many, many of my friends are struggling and suffering and there’s the things that we can do to cope with the uncontrollable, but there’s also the acknowledgement that this is a really difficult economy. And that’s a real thing. And so I think I want to make sure we put things in buckets of what’s responsible and what we’re responsible for, and what we are not responsible for.
And one of the things I think is that, like we’ve done other podcasts about parents during the pandemic, where parents are feeling like they have to solve all of the many things that show up about school, keeping kids online, handling all of this stuff that should never have been all placed on parents.
And this should not be placed all on live events workers to deal with. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is we will find a way. People, humans, adapt and we evolve. And when hard things hit us, we can drop and roll, and we can shift and we can learn and grow different ways of coping.
So I think, again, the first thing is to make a space for this is a really hard situation, noticing what’s beyond your control, and then thinking creatively, and thinking with friends creatively and thinking with peers who are in the same industry about like, what can we do? How can we support each other, and what do we need to change? And what can we build that’s different?
And starting to think about how can we get creative and come up with creative solutions? ‘Cause I think that this is going to call for an adaptation in how we live. Not just a coping, but an actual, we got to be ready and willing, and we got to be paying attention to things as they change so that we can step up.
Jenn: If I’m out of work, how do I get past the thought that I feel like I’m not providing for my family? Do you have any advice on how to reframe my mindset to acknowledge the situation that I’m encountering, but not get stuck in that anxiousness in the present moment?
Lisa: Yeah, and I think that is a really, I think that’s the critical voice talking, because it’s beating you up for something that’s way beyond your control. And I think it’s really important to acknowledge that everybody’s doing the best that they can at the moment. And that is all that we can do.
And so giving yourself permission and space to acknowledge like the pain of actually I can’t fix this. I would, if I could, and I’m doing the best that I can right now. And you might feel like you’re letting yourself off the hook but really what it is, is it’s an accurate accounting of the situation.
This is beyond your control. And it really is not anything more that you might be able to do at all. Those are tough, ‘cause humans would much prefer to have control. Yeah.
Jenn: I would be remiss if I did not ask about members of the LGBTQ+ community. Many of those friends and family members of ours find that their workplaces also serve as their social circles and their support networks. And we know everybody’s home life is different so some folks feel like they can be their true 100% self in these safer places for them.
So many of them feel displaced and disconnected from one another and even from themselves. So how do we check in on our friend’s mental health if they are in the LGBTQ+ community and how can we support them even if we can’t physically be near them?
Lisa: I love that question and I think it’s so important. And the very first thing is to acknowledge that if you are not a member of that community, you have privilege.
And your life is easier because you don’t have to cope with microaggressions, discrimination, the constant changing of laws that could harm you, or your loved ones or that your relationships with them or your legal rights.
So the very first thing to do for those of us who are not in their community is to show up to that. And the second thing to do is to reach out and make a space. And let people know it’s safe to talk to you. You’re supportive and you’re here.
And give yourself permission if you’re like new at this. You’re learning. It’s okay to do it imperfectly, but again, have a values and vulnerabilities conversation about that. I care about you. I’m worried I’m not going to have the right words.
I’m going to do the work to figure it out. But I really want you to know that I’m here ‘cause you matter to me and I want you to feel supported. And so thinking about it like that is very important and just sending some love to all of our family, friends, colleagues, peers, clients who are in the LGBTQ community. We love you and we are here for you.
Jenn: I did want to talk about one thing that I myself am fortunate to have not experienced this challenge, but childcare, oh my God. Juggling all of it during this time has been so hard.
Do you have any suggestions on how to support yourself, but also support your kids or even older adults in your home who are dealing with this overwhelming time by doing things like throwing tantrums, not going to school, expressing rage?
Lisa: Yes. That’s a whole a series of podcast webinars, but yes. And we’ve been talking about this and writing about this and, Jenn, you can put up that little paper that we did for coping with pandemic stress for the group, but the most important thing, remember, is first to check in with yourself to see how you are doing.
You are not going to be able to be good for your kids if you are struggling. And lots of times, parents, all of us, and I’m a parent, too. My kids are older, but we put our kids first. And we don’t notice, we kind of push down if we’re suffering or struggling or it’s hard.
And what can happen is you might start noticing you’re starting to feel overwhelmed. You’re feeling super burdened. That you are irritable. You’re lashing out. You’re frustrated, you’re snappy, you’re tired. You can’t sleep. All of those are signs that you are struggling.
And so taking little brief moments during the day to yourself, give yourself permission, even if it’s for a few minutes. This is my downtime. Nobody bother me. I just need this little window of time to myself.
Make sure you’re working in little breaks for yourself. Keep tabs on when you need them. ‘Cause it’s really easy to fall into all of the many things that you have to do. Pick your battles. Some stuff doesn’t need to get done. The house doesn’t need to be tidy. It really doesn’t.
You don’t need to make that fancy dinner. Something quick is easy. It can be pasta, whatever. Things don’t need to be sparkling clean. Where can you put things down? Where can you pick your battles? If you only have limited bandwidth, what’s going to be more important?
That bedtime routine, where you’re telling your little one that you love them and you show up for them, or putting the toys away. So do that little exercise in your head and think about what is most important. What can I jettison?
And if there’s a little discomfort around not doing things perfectly as a parent, that’s okay. Make a space for that. Because one of the predictors of parental burnout is needing to do things perfectly. Give yourself some room to work.
Take care of the big picture items. Let the little ones go. Make some time for self-care, however that works for you, whether it’s a cup of coffee, whether it’s an extra few minutes of sleep, whether it’s a little Netflix, whether it’s a walk, whether it’s yoga, box breathing. Make time.
Jenn: I know one thing that we’ve been seeing in the news a lot more is racial disparity. It’s something that is not new, but it’s something that’s getting more attention and BIPOC folks are dealing with so much more stress and anxiety right now than non-BIPOC folks. How do we support members of these communities?
Lisa: I’ve been really mindful of that the past few days and reading about and listening to the Derek Chauvin trial, which I cannot imagine how painful that must be. I mean, it’s painful for me as someone who is white and not a person of color.
It makes me really deeply angry and it makes me really sad. And it makes me just want to make sure I am supporting my family, friends, colleagues of color, my clients of color. So the first thing is to really notice what’s going on in the world and notice this larger context that we’re all a part of and how it may be affecting us. And doing the work to really, if you are not a person of color, to learn about your privilege and to learn what that means.
To learn why it’s important to say Black Lives Matter, and to act as such, and then making a space for, if you’re learning how to have these conversations, and how to reach out, to get it wrong, for there to be hurt feelings, for there to be resentment, for there to be anxiety or anger.
Make a space for it. That’s the work. Because if we can’t begin to talk about these things and hold space for these challenging conversations, we’re not going to build a really equitable fairer place for all of us. And I think that’s really important.
And more and more I’m grateful, and I think we have so much more work to do, but I’m grateful that the mental health field has really started to take this on and really started to do more work in this area, and really shine a light.
It’s very late in the game, but they’re moving towards it now. And that makes me really happy. And I want to be part of that. And I would encourage everybody to be a part of that movement to keep going, and to really be open to these kinds of conversations and make sure you’re supportive and you’re aware of what’s going on.
When people might be feeling unsafe, when people might be feeling microaggressions that happen constantly and the level of stress that that causes in populations of color, in communities of color.
Jenn: You know I’m going to be taking a complete 180 when it comes to questions, but we’ve received this one enough times that I need to ask it next. What if you can’t take time for yourself?
So many of us feel the need to constantly work. Some of us have said things like I want to read fiction books, but I feel like it’s not benefiting me enough to spend time on it. And I just can’t let myself relax.
Lisa: I am so glad that you asked that question and I really I hope you guys listen to this one because I want you to notice, we’re going to do a little work with this right here, right now. There’s us. And then there’s our mind that talks to us about what we can and can’t do, should and shouldn’t do.
It’s our friend, it’s our threat detector, and it tries to keep us safe. And it does that, in part, by evaluating, by planning ahead, by predicting, by problem-solving. That’s its job. And it sounds like, when I hear those kinds of statements, and by the way, they show up for me, too, I’m a workaholic. I am working on that myself.
Notice it, step back from it, and notice it as a thought that you’re having, and notice that as that thought, I don’t have time, I can’t let myself. Notice them as thoughts and notice what feelings that come up with them.
And also notice that when you step back from that, you can choose to do it anyway. You can choose. Notice your mind is just trying to help you. And it’s not always helpful and it’s not always accurate.
See if you can find, it takes a minute to read a page. I love fiction, too. See if you can find 15 minutes to read 15 pages. So if you can find 10 minutes to read 10. Let yourself slow down and experiment. ‘Cause one of the things that minds do are they convince us that they’re the only thing that we should listen to, and they’re always right.
Well, not always so, right? So see if you can cultivate an attitude towards your mind, like, yeah, I hear you talking to me, and also I’m going to try this and see what happens. Do it for a week. Read for 15 minutes a day.
You can find 15 minutes. If it is right at bedtime or it’s in the morning or when you’re in the bathroom. Jenn knows we wrote a whole book to put in the bathroom so that you can read a chapter.
Jenn: It’s tiny. It’s tiny. It fits anywhere.
Lisa: It really does. So notice your mind talking to you and try it anyway. Give yourself permission, because psychological flexibility, which is the ability to behave effectively and consistently with your best self, with the person you most want to be, involves noticing that you’re having feelings and thoughts and not letting them have power over you.
Not by avoiding them, but by actively making a space for them and going, yeah, I don’t feel like I have the time to do this. So I’m going to open a page. And I’m going to see how that goes. And so what that involves, it’s funny that I opened up to the page that says practice willingness, because this is what we’re talking about.
The question is, are you willing to notice that you have a lot of reasons why not to do this thing that you think might be really good. Are you willing to have all those thoughts and feelings and choose to do in anyway, in the service of something that you really deeply care about? Practice that. See how it goes. Try it.
Jenn: I love when you say things like psychological flexibility. That just had me blow right into the next question. It flows so nicely that I’m like, did we rehearse this? We did not rehearse this.
Lisa: We did not. I wasn’t even on time.
Jenn: So someone wrote in saying, “Having made good steps toward managing anxiety and establishing a more healthy mindset around work and rest,” which by the way, good for you. That’s amazing.
Lisa: Me, too. Yeah, good for you.
Jenn: “How should I deal with fears that I won’t be able to maintain this healthier mindset as things normalize and there are more social opportunities. What do I do if I fall back into my old habits and emotional ruts?” I swear I didn’t write this question, but I could have.
Lisa: That was a plant, wasn’t it Jenn?
Jenn: Oh my God, I wish. I feel like one of my friends might have written that.
Lisa: So as you cultivate this relationship, now that we’ve been talking about you and your mind, and now that we’re going to cultivate this relationship with your mind, one of the things that it does to keep you safe and to help you take care of yourself is it runs into the future.
And it comes up with possible obstacles that could possibly occur someday, somehow. And it brings your attention, it makes them very compelling so that you feel like you need to keep solving them, or start solving them before they happen.
Step back and notice that process. We’re not in the future. We’re here now. And the only thing, you cannot control, you have no idea what’s going to happen in the future. None of us do. But what you do have control over, always, is the next right thing that you’re going to choose to do in this moment.
And if you keep yourself present, in the present moment, and go, in this moment, I am having the thought that I am concerned that someday down the road, I will stop doing this, that’s going to bring you into inertia ‘cause you’re going to be thinking about and solving the future. Meanwhile, you’re going to be stuck here, now.
So bring your attention back to the present and go, what’s the next right thing I could do right now that’s consistent with this healthy balance. Do that thing. Stay mindful. And that is such a great place to choose and make your decisions about your next step.
Jenn: When it comes to our impending return to normalcy, as I cross my fingers and hope for the best, how can we cope with seeing vaccinated folks in our social circles start moving toward that normalcy while knowing full well that a lot of us may still be a ways away from that?
Lisa: I, honestly I think that, that’s another place for a really good values and vulnerabilities conversation, ‘cause I noticed that, like, I had my both vaccinations and I feel for my friends who have not, and it shows up in conversation.
I think that it’s important to, if you are vaccinated, be really mindful. Other people are not, and they’re feeling really scared and vulnerable. And if you are a person yourself who has not been fully vaccinated, or maybe you haven’t had any, ask for what you need from your friends.
Say, dude, listen, just how do you think I feel? Help them, hold them to account. Help them see it from your perspective. Help them walk in your shoes. Be like, yeah, you know, I’m still here, so, sorry. Let them know. And give yourself permission to do that, to advocate for yourself.
Jenn: And a helpful tip from a personal experience. I actually had COVID last May and it hit me pretty hard. And folks, I laid in bed for almost three weeks with going through social media and seeing folks who are still out doing their thing, living their life.
The mute button is amazing. It does not let people know that you aren’t paying attention to them. And it helps you give your own space for that emotional and mental recovery. And just gives you that freeing feeling. And if you want to put it back on, put it back on. If you don’t, don’t. They’re never going to know.
Lisa: Amen, couldn’t agree more with that.
Jenn: So I swear this isn’t another plant, but “How do I find patience? And are there any steps I can learn to keep that ability?” My partner might’ve written this question on behalf of me.
Lisa: I don’t know, but when you find it, let me know. No, I’m just kidding. Alright. So patience is another willingness question, because patience is really... It’s not really a feeling, it’s a choice. And I want you to experiment with this.
This is an interesting thing. Like we all probably hate waiting for things. And we all kind of have this, like I don’t want to be in this moment kind of feeling when it’s happening.
And so when you find yourself in a moment like that, maybe you’re driving and you’re in traffic, or maybe you’re just waiting for something, you’re on a phone waiting for someone to talk to you, on hold, something.
See if you can choose to be willing, to feel the discomfort of impatience. Stop the struggle. Let it go with trying to be in some other present moment than this one.
There’s a funny meme, a cartoon. I wish I could find it and send it to Jenn so she could put it up and it’s like, I totally want to be in the present moment I just don’t want the present moment to be this present moment.
I want it to be like at the beach with a pina colada and sunshine. So Tara Brach, who’s a Buddhist psychologist, has this really beautiful saying, and she says, “Suffering begins the moment that we begin to wish the present moment is different than it is.”
‘Cause there’s two layers of pain. There’s the wow, I’m waiting and this is inconvenient. And then there’s the added layer of I can’t tolerate this, this sucks, this is unacceptable. That’s the suffering part. That’s the part that’s up to us, that’s within our control. That we can put down. You can’t change, we got to wait, we’re all in a holding pattern, with COVID, we all are.
We don’t know what the future’s going to hold for us. So we can either use all of our energy to kind of fight that. Be kind of like a bird flying up against a window over and over and over and over. When the window’s not going to move. It’s not going to change.
Or we can say, you know what, I’m going to sit here and notice the window and I’m not going to like it, but I’m going to conserve my energy so that then I can turn it to other things that are more important that feed me, that care for me, that give me expansiveness and vitality in my life, like connection with others.
Jenn: I love this next question. “Is there a point when self-care becomes avoidance? And if yes, do you have suggestions on how we can recognize this?”
Lisa: Such a great question. And again, I think the answer is embedded in the question. And that is notice, how is this working? Am I not doing the things that I need to do that feel yuckier, and is this an avoidance tactic?
So the thing to do is to notice how it’s working. Like I love Netflix. I am fully preparing to binge watch The Handmaid’s Tale again, so that I’m ready for the new season that starts, but if I’m doing that and I’m not doing the writing that I need to do.
If I’m not being with my family and connecting with them in a way that I want to be present with them. If I’m not doing whatever, walking the dog doing the dog training, ‘cause they’re all miserable and I should be training them. Maybe I’m using it as avoidance.
So checking in with yourself with, is this giving me my vitality or is this relieving me from something that I feel pressured by? And would it be more workable to actually go do that thing for a little bit and then make a different balance.
Ask those questions. You have the answer. So pay attention, slow down, notice how you’re feeling about it and how it’s working.
Jenn: And also acknowledge the discomfort that comes up when you’re thinking about what you’re avoiding, and like where that sits within you.
For me, I know when I’ve got huge writing assignments, I’m like, well, I might as well watch Friends for the 36th time in a row ‘cause I’m going to notice something about the background this time, instead of writing an article about what people need to know about trauma.
So for me, it’s just because I know it’s such a big task that I’m like, oh, it’s just a band-aid. I got to rip it off. I got to do it. So for me, gently coaxing myself into reading a page of a fiction book, putting a book in the bathroom to read it. It’s those little things that’ll help me get back to it, but also taking care of myself in the process.
Lisa: Amen. I love that.
Jenn: We have time for two more questions?
Lisa: Sure. Why not?
Lisa: If they’re quick. Try and be quick. I usually am the one that makes the long answers.
Jenn: Do you have suggestions for those of us who don’t have a strong social circle outside of work? Some folks personally struggle to connect with the people that they work with when they’re not in the work setting.
Lisa: Yeah, and I wonder what gets in the way. So if you can connect with people at work outside of work, if that’s your social circle, I think that that’s what I would suggest.
And then the other thing, I think it’s hard for adults, young adults or older adults, any of us, to connect outside of our workplace. ‘Cause it’s just, how do you do that?
And so what I would say is see if you can get involved in a hobby group or something where you’re in places doing things that you care about, even if it’s online, and see if you meet some fellow travelers.
Look for support groups online, too, like there’s plenty of support groups. Take a class. Take a class where you can start learning something with a group of fellow travelers. Get involved in your church if you’re religious. Get involved in volunteering.
Do some things for someone else. Do some advocacy. There are so many issues that we could get involved in advocacy. So think about things that could matter to you. See if you could get involved in them and see if that leads you to find some cool fellow travelers that you might really dig and want to connect with.
Jenn: So last question that we have time for is “Can you speak to the isolation and the danger of being stuck in your own head? And can you touch upon how to move away from being stuck in a problem-solving cycle?”
Lisa: Did the person that asked that know me? Wow, so you’re not alone, whoever asked that question. I think a lot of us struggle with that one. And again, I think the answer’s embedded in the question.
If you’re asking that question, you’re noticing some stuckness, and the moment you notice some stuckness, a space opens up for you to choose to do something different. What I would suggest is think about what are things that give you vitality in your life? What are things that give you a sense of purpose, meaning, and connection?
And even if your mind throws up a bunch of obstacles and roadblocks to that, notice that, and choose to take a step in that direction anyway, even small steps. That will help you practice stepping out of that mindset when you find yourself spiral back in, which will happen continually, that’s a very human thing, and a very human problem that we all struggle with.
But the way out is to notice when you’re stuck, and make a different choice, even a small, tiny little choice to move you in a different direction towards vitality in your life. And now we got to go.
Jenn: I think that is the perfect way to end this session. So Lisa, I just want to say thank you for hanging out with me for another hour of answering folks’ questions about anxiety, coping, dealing with all the crap that 2020 and 2021 so far have given us.
And I want to say thank you to everybody who joined today. I hope you found this session valuable, and a special thanks to the folks who reached out to us from the Mass Live Events Coalition for helping us partner up for this event.
I hope that you and your folks are all doing well and have found the session to be really helpful, but this actually concludes the session. So until next time, be nice to yourselves. Please be nice to each other and wash your hands. Thank you again, and thanks, Lisa. Have a great day.
Lisa: You too. Bye.
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Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.
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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.
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