If you’re feeling overwhelmed in these times - you’re not alone. From sadness, and anxiety, to overwhelm and grief, we’re all feeling a rollercoaster of emotion. And one thing is for sure - our feelings, whatever they may be, are closer to the surface than ever before. Following on from our fantastic webinar, 2to3days' wellbeing expert, psychotherapist Susan Tomlinson shares her thoughts about navigating this new normal.
In our normal busy lives, we can distract ourselves from how we’re feeling. As we run from the breakfast table to preparing school lunches, to getting our kids out the door, and ourselves to work and home again, we can move through our daily lives rarely connecting to how we feel and barely acknowledging we have an emotional life at all. But just because we might not connect to our feelings, doesn’t mean they’re not there. In fact some would argue that while we’re busy distracting ourselves, our feelings are quietly running the show - but that is a whole other story.
Like it or not, life in lockdown has ensured it’s much more difficult to push away or distract ourselves from how we feel. Our emotional life is upfront and personal right now. There is nowhere to hide, and that, in itself, can be painful.
But instead of finding new ways to run away from our feelings - what if we were to acknowledge them and allow them to inform and help us navigate this challenging time?
How we feel is vital information that we very often miss but it’s information that can help us tune into our what we might need to live a life that is more real and true to ourselves.
In lockdown, engaging with our feelings could help us travel through the “new normal” of this challenging situation as it unfolds, and allow us to connect to our in built sense of calm.
Connecting to Calm
The search for calm reminds me of a quote that I keep stumbling across at the moment, from the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh:
“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centred, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”
As Tara Brach, psychologist and mindfulness teacher, said recently - and I love this phrase: “Our calm is contagious.”
Translate that into family life, and if we can find the calm within ourselves, it is not only going to help us but everyone around us too. If you’re a parent you’ll be modelling to your children that although things can be chaotic, if we can navigate our emotions and allow them to guide us to a sense of calm, they can too.
Looking after our own emotional wellbeing first is vital because if we’re depleted emotionally, there’s no way we can continue giving to our children, our partners, or anyone else.
It reminds me of the airline safety talk they give before take off, where the advice is "see to your own oxygen mask before your children’s" - because if you don’t look after yourself and make sure you can breathe, you’re not going to be able to help anyone else breathe either.
So, in order to find our own sense of inner calm, we need to begin building a relationship with our feelings and our internal lives, so that we can both help ourselves and then others.
Name it to Tame It
One way to begin this process is to start by naming our feelings. There is a phrase in psychology: “name it to tame it”. This was coined by the neuroscientist and UCLA professor, Dr Dan Siegel, who uses this approach in his work helping parents support their kids articulating and dealing with their emotions.
We can use a similar practice for ourselves too and that is by naming the feeling out loud. So for example: “I feel scared”, or “I feel sad”, to then just pause and notice how you feel saying it. Then gently question yourself again. Is it sadness? Or is it something else? Maybe melancholy? Maybe grief? This very act of curiosity and acknowledgement of how you’re feeling, is one of the first steps to calming our nervous system.
But once we’ve named our feelings, sitting with them can feel extremely uncomfortable, which is why we spend so much time trying to avoid them. To help us move through our difficult feelings to find a sense of peace, I like a framework called RAIN by Tara Brach:
RECOGNISE Using the “Name it to Tame it” technique above, recognising what your feeling and pause. Slow Down and breathe as you are naming that feeling. Notice there’s a difference between saying “I feel” something, as opposed to “I am” something. There’s a sense of space in saying “I feel”, rather than “I am.” A sense of recognising there are other parts of you alongside that feeling, but in this moment, you are ok to just name it.
ALLOW your feelings. Just noticing that feeling, without trying to run away from it, fix it, give yourself a hard time for having it, or ask yourself why you’re feeling it. Allowing a feeling means to simply accept that it is there.
INVESTIGATE your feelings. This is not about investigating through your thoughts, but more reflecting on how it feels to have that feeling. You could ask yourself: Where does that feeling sit in my body? Is it in my chest? What does it really feel like? Is it a tight feeling? and so on.
NURTURE Bring a sense of kindness to yourself. What does this feeling need? Does it need reassurance? What might that sound like? You could try asking yourself the question - what would be something kind that I could do or say to myself right now? It might be as simple as saying: “I feel sadness and that is understandable. It’s okay to feel that way right now.”
This process is a practice and like any other practice, it takes time, *but if you like the idea of exploring more about this framework, I highly recommend reading Tara’s most recent book: Radical Compassion.
Just do the next right thing
Another way we can begin to move through our difficult feelings, rather than ignoring them, is to “just do the next right thing”. In the movie, Frozen II, when Anna is uncertain about what to do next after losing her sister Elsa. She sings: “You are lost, but you must go on and do the next right thing. Take a step. And take a step again.”
While in lock down, there’s no better time for cultivating a sense of “ just taking the next right step.”
There’s something really comforting about slowing everything down and dropping into what’s happening in the moment and perhaps the very next moment. Even if that means waking up in the morning and not wanting to get out of bed - the next right thing might just be to put your feet on the floor and sit up, and that is enough, until the next moment, which might be to get breakfast.
Write it down
Writing our feelings down is cathartic. Think of it as a “tipping everything out” process, rather than diary keeping. Writing purely for yourself to engage with whatever feelings are there is soothing- and you don’t have to read it back afterwards. The point is once it’s on the paper, you can let the feelings go.
Watch your news intake
Notice the amount of news and social media you’re consuming and how it makes you feel. Many people I know find too much of it can make them feel more emotionally overwhelmed and so watch just enough to keep informed and no more.
Kindness is key
If there was one tip I’d say to keep us going through the challenging feelings arising in lockdown, I would say it would be kindness. Just give yourself a break. This lockdown is the most extraordinarily difficult situation, so whatever you’re feeling, however difficult it is - just remember that everybody, like you, is muddling through so being kind to yourself is key.
At random moments throughout the day, just take that next right step to be kind to yourself in small ways. Whether that is picking up the phone to a friend, stepping outside to breathe, taking a soak in a long bath, or cooking your favourite food, a little bit of kindness to yourself goes a long way in these times.
So on that note, I’ve added one of my favourite poems about accepting ourselves and connecting to kindness by Jalaluddin Rumi, a Persian poet, writing in the 13th Century.
The Guest House, by Jalaluddin Rumi Translated by Coleman Barks
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
from Rumi: Selected Poems, translated by Coleman Barks with John Moynce, A. J. Arberry, Reynold Nicholson (Penguin Books, 2004)
*It’s important to acknowledge that if you are feeling very overwhelmed and finding it difficult to cope, please do reach out and get help. There are plenty of places to find support - even in lockdown. Most therapists are working on line, and there’s still plenty of places to call for support. There are also free therapy organisations that have moved their therapists to work online or on the phone. You’ll find some information on all of this below.
WHERE TO FIND SUPPORT
For registered therapists and counsellors:
For immediate support and free (or donation only) drop in counselling
The Samaritans -Phone: 116 123
The London Caravan Drop in Counselling Service - Phone: 0207 183 1802