After the events of Dr. Blasey-Ford and Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony last week there has been a clash of opinions, political interests and worldviews that led friends and family members debating each other on what is right for us as individuals, and as a country. I am willing to guess that many people out there are as exhausted as I am from all the discord, and also from the simple act of educating others about sexual assault and why people do not come forward right away. There has been a lot of discussion about that, and that is NOT what I am here to do today.
Today, I simply want to bring peace to your day. I would like to share what I have learned about the brain and body’s responses to toxicity to help you feel better.
I also want you to know that you have a right to any pain you are going through right now. You may have higher anxiety than usual. You may feel distracted, or have a ‘pit in your stomach.’ If you are a survivor of sexual assault you are even more likely to feel triggered from your own assault right now, and times that people didn’t believe what happened to you or dismissed it as unimportant. All of these emotions are natural reactions to this toxicity. This does not make you ‘weak’, and is not shameful. You are a living, breathing human being and will have emotional experiences.
Even though we know why we have intense emotional reactions and we honor them, it does not mean we wish to remain in a triggered state for very long. You have a right to your emotions, and you also have a right to heal your emotional states.
Here is the good news: We have stumbled upon effective coping strategies that can improve your emotional peace in as little as one minute.
There are literally hundreds of ways to emotionally soothe the mind-body system for relief. Some take very little time, and other strategies take a longer amount of time. A personalized mix of many different strategies that you can use regularly (and according to the amount of time you have or can make) is the best approach.
To help you understand this approach, think of a toolbox. What if your toolbox only had a hammer? There would be many jobs around the house you would feel inadequate to do. It’s not your fault- it’s simply because you are trying to use a ‘hammer’ for every situation. By building up a repertoire of many different coping skills that work well for you, you are essentially building a versatile toolbox that can meet your emotional needs in different situations.
Below, I will share many coping skills that take as little as one minute up to strategies that are an on-going practice over the span of weeks or months. Please know this is not an exhaustive list. The purpose of this list is to give you tools right now, in the hopes that you will build on your toolbox over time with trial and error of more strategies you come to find in your journey to emotional peace. And remember, these strategies help us the most when we use them consistently (we cannot expect miracles the first time we try something).
Strategies to try:
If you have one minute:
The ‘Drop 3 Technique’: People in general (and trauma survivors even more-so) tend to hold emotional tension in the jaw, shoulders, and stomach. To use the drop three technique, focus on one area at a time and ‘drop’ (ie, loosen muscles) in that area. First bring attention to your jaw, and let go of any tension you are holding there. Next move your attention to your neck and shoulders. Note how tight it feels and again, make the conscious effort to let go of that tension. Focus attention to your abdominal area, and again make the decision to loosen and release tension there. After you have released tensions in all three areas, take note of the calming sensation this brings to your entire mind-body system.
Say a prayer or affirmation: A prayer or an affirmation can immediately connect you with your spiritual self and help you navigate toxicity in a more peaceful away. It can move emotional attention away from the toxicity and towards your spiritual beliefs and your higher self. The most effective prayers and affirmations are unique and personal to you, but to start here is the Serenity Prayer (my personal favorite, written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) to help you begin this practice:
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.
If you have five minutes:
Use a Mindfulness Exercise: Mindfulness is a practice used to quiet mental chatter and come back fully to the present moment. If you have five minutes, engage in a mindfulness exercise that helps you to peacefully and beautifully focus your attention to the present moment and find peace in a quiet, still mind. I often help my clients use a tangerine or piece of dark chocolate to begin their mindfulness practice. Mindfully note the look, texture, smell and taste. As thoughts come and go, take note of them but gently release them and refocus attention on the tangerine. This practice effectively brings you to a place of quiet stillness that is the perfect remedy for a toxic environment.
Journal Your Thoughts: When you write (or speak) your thoughts, you engage in emotional processing. If you have five minutes consider journaling your thoughts in any way that is inspiring or convenient for you: on paper, in your smartphone, on your laptop, or even recording your voice. You can journal through poetry or you can simply recount your thoughts and emotional reactions exactly as they are. Notice how your emotions positively respond to the simple act of giving voice to them.
If you have 10 minutes:
Laugh: We can all agree that laughing can soothe the soul and help everyone feel better. It doesn’t fix everything, but it certainly helps when you are exposed to toxicity. Call up a friend that helps you look on the lighter side and laugh. Give yourself permission to take a mini mental health break and watch funny videos from your favorite comedians to give your soul much-needed comic relief.
Meditate: Research indicates that you do not need to sit down to meditate for a whole hour to get emotional relief. Short meditations (either guided or zen meditations) are effective in transforming emotional energy. A guided meditation is particularly helpful for stress reduction, and zen meditations focused on reducing mental chatter are helpful to train your mind to come back to a place of peace and stillness. Be flexible and follow your instinct on which type of meditation to use.
If you have 20 minutes:
Exercise: There is an old adage, “move a muscle, change a thought.” In twenty minutes you can take a walk, go for a short jog, ride your bike or do a yoga routine. Exercise connects you back with your body and brings peaceful awareness of your time and place. Also, there is compelling anecdotal evidence that suggests bipedal physical activity promotes bilateral emotional processing in your brain (ie, it engages more of your brain in emotional processing) which leads to an increased sense of peace.
If you have one hour:
Unplug in Nature: Immersing yourself in nature is a feast for the eyes and engages all your senses in a remarkable way. Many people feel that immersing themselves in nature heightens their sense of spiritual connectedness, and they feel happier. This is so helpful, that in Japan they have coined the term “forest bathing” and the practice has become a major part of preventive care and healing in Japanese medicine.
On-going strategies to build over weeks:
An On-going Meditation Practice: As we reviewed above, meditation is helpful in short spurts for stress relief and to reduce mental chatter that increases stress. However, meditation is even more helpful when it is used as a regular, consistent practice over a long period of time. Meditation is to the brain, what exercise is for the body. With a consistent meditation practice we are better able to reduce mental chatter and feelings of overwhelm. The act of meditation, over time, teaches us how to do this and improves upon the skill with continued practice.
Improve Your Self-Talk: All of us have an incredible amount of mental chatter. Some of us have helpful, inspiring chatter that helps them feel confident and happy. Unfortunately, many of us experience negative mental chatter that lead us to feel drained, sad, or even angry. Negative self-talk with anger directed towards the self or others can be triggered from a toxic environment. To improve your emotional wellness from toxicity, it is important to become familiar with your own self-talk and respond to it in healthy ways. This might be to improve your positive regard to yourself or improve how you are viewing others, and re-focusing on living an inspired life.