Your hand opens and closes, and opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds’ wings.
If I pause long enough to feel the rhythm of the ocean, I can feel it pulsing through me. My heart beating with the flow.
Like the rise and fall of my breath, I can let myself open to the experience of others. With empathy I can recognize and acknowledge their emotions. Mirror neurons allow us to sense the feelings of someone else.
Because emotions motivate behavior, the feelings leads to an urge to act. If there is pain, I want to help. I want to alleviate the suffering.
That’s compassion. Recognizing the suffering and wanting to help.
But Rumi’s right. If I stay open, I’ll get stuck, feel paralyzed. I may feel like I”m drowning in other people’s pain. That does not help anyone.
I need to close again. I need to step back, reclaim my own energy for myself.
I have to learn over and over again how to do that. How to separate and make sure I’m filling my own bucket, wearing my own oxygen mask.
And I have to remember to do that over and over. Even if I only remember when I’m already a bit overwhelmed, that’s ok. But over and over and over, opening and closing.
I’m starting 2022 with some new ideas on how to do this. Because I have a steady stream of clients, I need to practice this opening and closing over and over. I have some new strategies I’m trying, and I’ll share those in another blog post.
For now, I’d love to know what you’re doing. What strategies or techniques do you use to open and close?
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I am of a mind to leave my anxious self sleeping in the summer heat, sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of my life, while I creep down the steps, my younger spirit ready to play, unburdened by the what if’s and why not’s, running out into the wide yard of hope, running in the joy of freedom, chasing the light across the lawn. Come join me. Let your older worries doze in the shade, they will still be there when you return, and stretch your spirit out to the full length of its innocence, the new creation you were meant to be, the child of a brighter day to come.
~ Bishop Steven Charleston, Choctow
I thought about it on my early morning drive to the beach. The beach is my place to reconnect with myself, where I can “stretch out my spirit…” I didn’t go for almost 4 months, early March til late June, and I missed it dreadfully.
This is my second venture back. I’m out of the house and on my way before seven, so I’m confident there will only be a few people scattered around the beach.
Mostly, I go to the beach so I can walk, ankle deep in water, letting the bigger waves wash up over my legs. It doesn’t matter if I get wet, the sun will dry me out quickly enough.
I hear the waves crash, feel the wind, the salty air, and the gritty sand,
while my heart beats to the rhythm of the waves rolling in and rolling out…
I love it all.
I’ve talked before about why I call my business “Fausta’s Place to Ponder.” It’s my reminder that we all need that space to be able to take a step back and reconnect with ourselves. It’s hard to remember that when we’re surrounded by trauma, our own or other people’s. It feels like we have to be there to help, to manage, to take care of everyone and everything.
The truth is if you can’t take a step back and reconnect with yourself, you can’t help anyone, not in the long run. We all need our own “Place to Ponder.”
My favorite place is the beach, that’s what calls to my spirit, but yours may not be the beach at all. My friend, Monika, makes space for herself with adult coloring, especially mandalas. She makes some incredibly beautiful ones.
Adult Coloring by Ms. Monika
What does your Place to Ponder look like?
Is it an actual place or an activity? Is it a person you can be around who helps you find that sense of who you are? How do you carve out that space for yourself?
I work with people who are nearly overwhelmed with the suffering around them, people who are trying to make the world a better place, but feel like they’re drowning in other people’s pain. I help them reconnect with themselves and find ways to get the support they need to keep doing the work they love. If that sounds like you, email me: Fausta@faustasplacetoponder.com and let’s see how I can help.
This post starts with a meme from Jennifer Yaeger, LPC- in case you can't see it, the meme says:
I want to acknowledge that living through this pandemic is a trauma.
As a trauma specialist, I think there are a few things that are helpful to know.
- Parts of our brain have shut down in order for us to survive.
- As a result, we are not able to fully process a lot of what is going on around us.
- Feeling somewhat numb and out of touch with our emotions is normal, especially if you have lived through trauma before.
- Some people are also more apt to feel hypervigilant or anxious, while others become more hypoactive or depressed. Neither means anything other than indicating your predisposition to dealing with extreme stress.
- In-depth processing of trauma happens years later, when we feel emotionally safe to deal with it.
- When in the midst of trauma, just getting by emotionally and functionally is okay. Lowering your expectations and being kind to yourself and others is vital.
This is true. Living through this pandemic is a trauma. But it’s not the end of the story. We know that when we’re in the middle of a trauma we don’t feel our feelings – it’s not safe to feel our feelings. We’re focused on surviving. When you’re in fight-flight or freeze mode, parts of the frontal cortex shut down, so it doesn’t get in the way of you taking action. The frontal cortex is the part of your brain that involves logic and reason and helps you make rational decisions. When you’re in a panic, and you say, “I can’t think straight,” that is literally true. Having part of the brain shut down keeps you from standing around being philosophical when you need to fight or run. If a tiger is running toward you, it’s not the best time to wonder if they’re on the endangered species list.
But this is not the kind of trauma where fighting or running is going to be helpful. Freezing, or playing dead, might sound more like what we’re doing, but the immobility of the freeze state is also not going to be helpful. Fortunately, we don’t have to stay stuck in that mode of reacting.
When we can down-regulate the nervous system, we can reduce our level of reactivity. There is nothing wrong with being in fight-flight or freeze, but there are ways to move out of that mode of responding and into more helpful states, when it’s safe to do that. Not necessarily “calm and relaxed” – that’s not going to be helpful all the time. But when we are able to manage emotional regulation, our level of arousal more closely matches the needs of the situation.
That idea branches out into many paths. But for now I want to point out that one way to move out of fight-flight or freeze mode is through your breathing. Just noticing your breathing, focusing on it, can be enough to help your brain begin to engage more fully. When you focus on your breathing , it will slow down. You don’t even have to take long deep breaths, just breathing more slowly, exhaling longer than you inhale, is enough. That sends the message to the frontal cortex that you’re not in immediate danger, that you don’t have to run or fight, that it’s ok to start thinking again. And, you know, that can be helpful.
Focusing on the breath isn’t the right answer for everyone. In fact, some people are triggered by focusing on their breath and become more uncomfortable. Fortunately, that’s not the only way to reduce your level of reactivity. One other way is to focus on your foot. Yes, you read that right, focus on your foot. Your right foot or your left foot, it doesn’t matter. Pick one This is a strategy I learned in the Mindful Self-Compassion course I took and it’s totally legit. If you bring your attention to your foot, bringing the attention back every time you notice it’s wandered, it will help you down regulate your emotional state.
One of the things I do in coaching is help you find your own ways to move from this over-aroused, hyper-vigilant state to a level that gives you more flexibility. You may be overwhelmed with anxiety, unable to sleep or concentrate, and trying to numb yourself to escape this discomfort. Working with me, you can learn how to move from this state to a more effective level, when that’s appropriate. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be calm and relaxed all the time. But it will give you more choice in how you respond to the situation.
There’s a meme going around that asks “Who do I want to be in Covid-19?” It shows 3 states – Fear, the Learning Zone, and the Growth Zone. It describes behaviors associated with each of the zones. The Fear Zone includes grabbing toilet paper you don’t need and complaining a lot. In the Learning Zone, you might start to give up what you can’t control and identify your emotions. The Growth Zone includes keeping a happy emotional state and spreading hope, thinking of the others and seeing how to help them.
It seems pretty clear to me that the Growth Zone is the desired state. Who wouldn’t want to be that happy, helpful person? Although, full disclosure, when I see this meme, I have a fierce urge to complain. But that’s probably just me. The meme doesn’t acknowledge that the pandemic is a trauma. It seems to suggest that being in the Growth Zone is a personal choice, rather than a reflection of your levels of emotional regulation. And it implies that “keeping a happy emotional state” is a realistic goal.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against being happy! I prefer it myself. But all my experience, as a therapist, as a coach, and as a person, tells me that when you try to avoid the unpleasant feelings, you lose the good ones too. Following teachers like Pema Chodron and Brene Brown, I work with people to allow themselves to feel all their feelings. Feelings come and go, like waves in the ocean. If we can sit with the unpleasant feelings, we can fully appreciate the positive feelings. And we can learn to respond from a place of thoughtfulness rather than reactivity. Not all the time, but some of the time.
If that sounds like a lot to take on, that’s ok. Remember where the meme at the beginning of this article. Living through this pandemic is a trauma. “When in the midst of. a trauma, just getting by emotionally and functionally is okay. Lowering expectations and being kind to yourself and others is vital.” That’s where we start.
The challenge for many of us is that we don’t really know what it would look like to lower expectations and be kind to ourselves. I’ll be writing more about that, and I’m going to be offering a free 90 minute class on Mindful Self-Compassion every Saturday in May. Stay tuned for more information…
You probably know what stress feels like. Your breathing gets shallow. Your heart rate speeds up. You may feel hot. These are some of the signs that your body is ready to respond to danger. It’s the classic fight/flight/freeze response and it’s a basic biological fact.
We don’t often talk about the next part of this. When your body is poised to deal with danger, your frontal cortex – the part of your brain that thinks things through, that uses logic to weigh the pros and cons and make decisions – that part pretty much shuts down. And that makes sense. Of course it does – it doesn’t want to distract you from reacting to the danger.
When you say, “I was in such a panic, I couldn’t think straight,” that is literally true. When you’re sensing danger, it’s not the time to get philosophical, and your brain knows it.
Calming Your Brain
Fortunately, there’s a very simple way to change that. By focusing on your breathing, you can re-engage the frontal cortex so you can think clearly again. It doesn’t have to be deep breaths, although they can help, but just noticing your breath, as you breathe in and breathe out, can make a big difference. You can add a smile – or even just a half-smile. Both of those steps let your brain know that you’re safe, you’re not going to die right now, and it’s ok to start thinking again.
When the stress you’re experiencing comes in waves, when it is unrelenting, you may find yourself feeling constantly tense and on high alert. That can cause a new level of problems, from high blood pressure to burn-out. You need a lot more than a few breaths. You need time and space to look at your thoughts and feelings, to be able to share them, to challenge them, and to reconnect with your most resourceful self. In fact, you need a place to ponder.
Ponder – to spend time thinking carefully and seriously about a problem, a difficult question, or something that has happened; to contemplate
Defining Your Place to Ponder
When your work involves trauma, finding your very own place to ponder is essential. Maybe there’s an actual place where you feel relaxed. Maybe you need to be around a particular person, or people. Maybe you just need the time to breathe for a little while. What you need may not be exactly the same as anyone else, but it’s important to find that time and space. When your work involves trauma, it’s essential.
Using R.E.A.L., with me as your coach, we begin there. The Discovery process guides you to really look at who you are and where you stand right now. In Reconnect, we help you bring your life into alignment with your inner self. Next, we Explore the range of tools available to use to maintain your balance and alignment. We determine if you need to Add skills to your toolbox. Finally, we help you bring your new-found sense of who you are to Let your life shine.