How to Keep Anchored During Difficult World Events

6 min read
Source: 今井 敦士 / Pixabay

Source: 今井 敦士 / Pixabay

If you are struggling deeply with recent world events, you are certainly not alone. I have been alive on this planet for over five decades and somehow these last recent years have felt like some of the most challenging — collectively and on a global scale — that I can remember in my lifetime. As a psychologist I am privy to the inner emotions of many, and with recent world events I know that many people are suffering greatly, trying to grapple with how to cope with fear, helplessness, anger, outrage, and deep loss, among other inner experiences. In the face of all that is around us, I find myself wondering:

  • How do we grapple with the enormity of emotions that so many of us are experiencing right now — and that so many have experienced in recent years given world events?
  • How do we find a way to keep our hearts open and not be overwhelmed or stuck in grief, outrage, sadness, anger or other emotions?
  • How do we not retreat, bury our heads in the sand, or disconnect entirely from what is happening around us, and yet still find a way to move forward and show up most effectively in our lives?

I don’t purport to have all the answers to these big questions, but I can share a few things that have been helpful for me both personally and in my work with patients.

How to keep anchored in the face of difficult world events and our own painful emotions

1. One of the things I try to remind myself of frequently is that a nervous system out of balance and in a state of protection (e.g., “fight, flight or freeze”) does not have access to the same inner resources as a nervous system that is more regulated.

When our bodies (via our autonomic nervous system) become thrown out of balance, it is common to experience anxiety, worry, stress, overwhelm, anger, and outrage, especially in the face of so much personal and collective stress and heartache that so many of us feel. This is not a problem in and of itself to feel this. It is an adaptive and evolutionary response of our bodies to try and fight, flee, or shut down in the service of “protection from threat.” Sometimes this is an inevitable or even necessary response, but when we get stuck there and can’t find our way back to regulation, this can become more problematic and pose challenges for us. When our nervous system is dysregulated, we don’t have as much access to our “social engagement system” and we tend to feel more isolated, experience tunnel vision, feel scattered, stuck, helpless or alone. In contrast, when our nervous system is regulated and in balance, it is easier to experience a sense of connection with others, compassion, care, curiosity, clarity, perspective, and the ability to think more expansively.

What can we do?

As meditation teacher Susan Morgan says often, once we become aware that our nervous system has been thrown off balance, we can “ground, breathe, calm, settle and soothe.” We can steady and stabilize our nervous system, like a ship at harbor dropping its anchor to keep it from being swept away by the storms.

Last night in the middle of the night, when I woke up with so much heartache and feeling overwhelmed, I found myself instinctually putting one hand on my heart and one hand on my abdomen. I started taking long slow breaths and extending my exhalation. I brought awareness to the sense of support underneath me. I reminded myself that taking time to soothe and steady myself would help me be more effective in my choices and give my body the energy it needs to act in ways consistent with my values.

Sometimes self-soothing might be more active, such as listening to music, taking a warm bath, reaching out to a friend, or going for a walk in nature.

Sometimes, especially for those who may suffer from anxiety or trauma, working with a skilled therapist can be very helpful in learning how to help regulate the nervous system.

2. Once we feel steadier within, we can make some space for our difficult emotions.

This is not always so easy and needs to be done with care, awareness, and some titration (touching into painful emotions only if/when we feel steady enough to handle them and making sure to go back to step one as often as needed). Suppressing or avoiding our unpleasant emotions can have negative physical and psychological effects on our well-being, but being flooded by our emotions is also not helpful. So there is a delicate balance to pay attention to here.

What can we do?

Some ways to make space for our difficult emotions include practicing mindfulness, journaling, reaching out to a friend, or seeking social support in a community setting of some kind. Acknowledging your feelings, meeting yourself where you are (not trying to feel different than you do), and giving your emotions some space to be felt and processed from a grounded nervous system can be helpful.

Additionally, we can invite more expansive emotions (e.g., care, self-compassion, self-kindness, a sense of caring from others) to sit side-by-side with our more difficult emotions, to make them easier to bear (something I write about in my forthcoming book).

3. Find some sense of personal agency, however small.

I am reminded of the quote by Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

What can we do?

While small acts might feel insignificant, doing something matters. And it may matter more than you realize. Some people find personal agency in donating to others in need, volunteering for something they care about, or joining a committee aimed at positive change.

One of the things that we can all do is to commit to spreading compassion in the world on a small scale, (e.g., whether to our family, friends, neighbors, community, or the strangers we meet in our day-to-day interactions). In the face of hatred, heartache and anger, compassion (the desire to, and intention to act to relieve the suffering of another) can help counter a feeling of helplessness and can bring some positive energy into the lives of others and in turn the world.

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