Getting through tough times

Getting through tough times2018-10-30T21:16:09+00:00

Three lessons my pet’s death taught me

Zelda graced our household for sixteen years, serving as protector, healer, companion, and role model. She was feline, all black, supremely sure of her worth, and maintained a Sicilian vendetta towards veterinarians (and anyone else who assaulted her dignity).

Last week, in the middle of a family crisis, Zelda let me know it was time to release her and let her proceed to the next adventure. I was, of course, out of town.

I had known we were heading this direction for a while—the signs were there and my intuition told me it wouldn’t be long. I just wanted to make sure it all went “right.” You see, I had a plan and I was betting against the cosmic timer that I could ensure her a pain free death while still completing my “get it right” list.

Zelda, true to her nature, listened to no one except herself. I loved that about her but her timing was lousy. I’ve learned, however, that tough times have their own schedule. You can argue with that schedule—as I have done–but it doesn’t do much good.

I’ve also come to understand that life’s difficulties have the ability to bring perspective into our lives. Jolted out of our comfort zones and turned upside down, we can see things we might have missed or ignored before. Zelda’s death made me look at some things that I have a tendency to overlook or ignore.

You can wait too long trying to make sure things go perfectly.

If you read my last blog, “Just Say Yes” you already know I have a bit of an issue with perfectionism. Zelda’s body had been failing for a couple of weeks but I was too preoccupied with trying to get things right to see the signs that her end was nearer than I wanted to believe. And while I was trying to muscle the Universe into making my plan work, Zelda took matters into her own paws and followed the wisdom of her body. When I don’t listen to my intuition and try to force things to fit with my plans or schedule, it rarely turns out the way I want.

Sometimes a decision can be right and still feel crappy.

I couldn’t get back in time to attend Zelda’s death—I was needed more, elsewhere. I know Zelda understood. I was with her “boy” –the one she helped through cancer—who was recovering from an accident. Being with him took clear precedence. Still, it felt crappy to not be there in person. Talking her through her last moments by phone (held lovingly to her ears by my boyfriend) was the best I could do. I’m perfectly ok with the decision I made. I know it was the right one. It just doesn’t feel good. This is a good thing for me to remember the next time I find myself avoiding an uncomfortable situation or not speaking my truth.

Life is impermanent but love is eternal.

It’s my belief that the Universe/God/Love is with us always, in so many guises, helping us to grow more fully into our Divine and spiritual natures. I’ve had several experiences with spirit after the death of a loved one and so I wasn’t surprised when Zelda sent a few messages through the Divine Guidance cards I had pulled, right after her death. The first one was a cat playing, her left paw in the same position that Zelda’s had been paralyzed in before her death. The second one was even more straightforward—a black cat under a moon. I’m pretty sure the cards meant, “I’m ok” and “I’m still around.” That’s what I’m choosing to believe and it’s what I’m hanging on to right now. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that veterinarian finds a hairball in the middle of her bed sometime soon.

Releasing the Cold Comfort of a Grudge

One of the traits I’ve worked hardest to release in my life is the tendency to harbor a grudge. Listening to my clients’ stories of wrongs done by childhood friends, mistreatment by bosses, and ancient family wounds that have never been healed, I learned that forgiveness doesn’t come easy to many people. Grudges, in fact, are often one of the first signals I receive from a client that there is psychological territory to be covered. Sticky and smelly, a grudge continues to mark the place of an earlier injury to ensure that it is not forgotten.

The cost of resentment

Lately, I’ve found myself looking at grudges in a different way for several reasons. Dr. Judith Orloff, author of “Positive Energy”, talks about all of the ways that we “pour out our stores of energy.” Her point is that our personal vitality has to be consciously managed or renewed and that anything that saps us of that is ultimately harmful. With less energy to squander now than I had earlier in my life, I find I am no longer willing take the time and energy a grudge seems to require for its maintenance.

“Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Malachy McCourt

I was once privileged to work with a torture survivor who, at the age of 21 was imprisoned and tortured for the crime of marrying a man who was the political enemy of the government in charge. Repeatedly raped by some of the prison guards, she lost the baby she was carrying. The day before her slated execution, she escaped, aided by a guard she knew from her village. To save her life, she fled her country, leaving behind everyone she knew and loved. In our work together, she found the courage to forgive the guards who had tortured her. A devout Muslim, she was willing to let go of the hatred that could have kept her imprisoned the rest of her life.

Why Forgive?

Forgiveness is not accepting what the offender did was “ok.” Rather, it means choosing to release that person’s power over you so that your life can go on. As long as you allow resentment of old wounds a place in your life, the offender stays in residence in your psyche. Do you really want him or her there?

Interestingly, research shows that there are not only psychological but physical benefits from forgiveness. Families from Northern Ireland who had lost loved ones to violence and then participated in a forgiveness training program showed significant reductions in stress related symptoms—including headaches and stomachaches as well as lowered blood pressure.

Forgiveness doesn’t just release you, it can create unanticipated and far reaching ripples. When African American family members of the members of Emanuel AME Church chose to forgive the white racist who had shot their loved ones in cold blood, they did not minimize their own pain. But that spectacular act of courage and empathy set into motion reflection and dialogue that has brought down more confederate flags. Or, as my so very eloquent friend Barbara says, “Racism in the face of that grace became intolerable.”

Tips for letting go of a grudge

  1. Examine the impact that the grudge is having on your life. Has it brought you closer to the people that you love or put distance between you? Is it making you stronger or weaker?
  2. Imagine yourself without the grudge. Do you feel lighter? That’s probably a good sign that the grudge is sapping energy from you.
  3. Figure out what exactly the grudge is about. Often at the root of it is a personal fear that we are unlovable or unworthy. Or, it may be a fear that if we let the memory go, we will be in danger of it happening again. It may be time to work through that belief with someone that you trust.
  4. Create a ritual or ceremony for letting go.  I use affirmations, visualizations, letters that I burn rather than send, and prayer. My favorite affirmation comes from Catharine Ponder. “I let you loose and let you go.”
  5. Laugh. Humor always helps get perspective. Comedian Buddy Hackett perhaps said it best. “I’ve had a few arguments with people, but I never carry a grudge. You know why? While you’re carrying a grudge, they’re out dancing.”

 

Five signs that you’ve crossed the line from caregiver to caretaker

Over 34 million people serve as unpaid caregivers for loved ones, helping them with the daily living and/or medical tasks they cannot navigate alone. One of the questions I frequently get from caregivers is how to cope better with the exhaustion and sense of helplessness that can come with managing the logistics of two lives—theirs and their loved one’s.

When I speak with them, I’m always interested in how they’ve defined that precious boundary between themselves and the one that they are caring for. Healthy relationships require some separation of space—mentally, physically, and emotionally–but the frequent crises or watchfulness that caregiving often involves can make finding that line a bit difficult. It’s all too easy for people who care to become caretakers instead of caregivers.

Consider these questions and decide if you’ve moved beyond your role of caregiver into the ultimately thankless one of caretaking.

Do you think your loved should appreciate for what you are doing for him?

Caretakers often believe that jumping in to help people will make those people love them more. After all, who doesn’t appreciate someone who has sacrificed for you? Many do, but hoping someone will value you more because of what you do for him or her can be a sign your sense of worth is too dependent on what others think—and that’s an bucket that can never stay full.

Do you find yourself getting angry or resentful at your loved one?

Frustration and irritation is common in many stressed out relationships but one early sign that you may be in a lopsided relationship can be recurring resentment. It’s is one of the surest signs I’ve found in my practices that 1) some radical self-care and/or 2) a renegotiation of the helper-helpee contract is in order.

Does your loved one get resentful when you ask her to reciprocate in some way or take on some responsibilities?

One young client shared his insight that by being “the perfect boyfriend” at the beginning of a relationship and jumping in to solve all of his love’s problems, he created a dynamic that wasn’t healthy. When he asked for some reciprocity, it seemed to her as if he had changed. And he had—he wanted a more equal relationship than the one he originally negotiated through his actions.

Do you respect your loved one?

The wisdom that helped me release an old pattern of caretaking was something a friend said. Her perspective is that when you care-take people, you send them the message that you don’t respect their ability to take care of themselves. I realized by assuming that I saw their lives more clearly than they did, I was subtly telling them I thought they were not good enough.

Are you jumping in the way of the bullet from the Universe?

When caretakers pre-solve loved ones’ problems or protect them from the consequences of their actions, my experience is that two things happen. One–the loved one doesn’t get the lesson that dealing with the issue would have taught them and continues the behavior that created the situation. The second thing that happens is that the caretaker suffers by having to handle the situation, causing stress in his or her life. The metaphor I use with my clients is to ask them to imagine that the Universe is sending a bullet – in the form of a lesson that will ultimately (if a bit painfully) help their loved one grow. When they care-take, they save their loved one from the pain, but they also take the bullet! And furthermore it didn’t save anyone from having to get the lesson another way (including, I might add, the caretaker).

Bottom line–look to the words “caretaking” and “caregiving”

Are you gifting the person you love with care? That means you are offering a present of your time or assistance without expectation of return. Or, are you taking charge or taking care of them? Sometimes the answer is hard to see. If you aren’t sure, ask a friend who you know will be honest with you. If the answer is “caretaking,” it’s time to re-negotiate the relationship!

 

Caregiving requires the intention of love; caretaking requires the intention of fear.

Gary Zukav

 

In a crisis–leverage your strengths!

Finding the center of strength within ourselves is in the long run the best contribution we can make to our fellow men.

Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself

A few years ago, I began the process of interviewing senior business leaders who had experienced cancer for a book I am now writing. Generously, leaders from business, government, non-profits, and the judiciary met with me to talk about their dances with cancer and the wisdom they had learned on that journey. As I began to look back over my notes, one of the themes that emerged was the deftness with which they made use of their natural strengths as leaders. The capabilities they brought to their cancer fight were, in a large part, the competencies that had made them successful leaders—focus, discipline, delegation, communication, and other important leadership skills. It was if, in the moments following their diagnosis, they instinctively knew the assets within them that they could rely on in this crisis.

 What are strengths? Marcus Buckingham, in “Go Put your Strengths to Work,” suggests that strengths have three components: talents you are born with, skills you have learned, and knowledge acquired through education, training or experience. In order to leverage your strengths in a crisis, you first have to figure out what they are. Once identified, you can begin to see how those strengths might help you in this current crisis. Here are some ways to start the process:

Check your “life-skills” pantry. Our strengths don’t disappear in a crisis. The talent, skills, and abilities that have helped you be successful in your life up until now can be a platform to help you stay sane and functional during a crisis. As you take stock of your strengths, think about times in which you’ve had to get through a difficult task in your life.

  • Get someone who knows you well to think through your strengths with you. Determine how those strengths can be used in this crisis to accomplish what needs to be done and maintain your own energy and spirit.
  • How did you cope? What did you do? What worked and what didn’t? Even though this crisis may be a more intense or scary situation than those, some of the same actions can work.
  • Take a StrengthsFinder, or similar, online test. (www.strengthsfinder.com) It is Buckingham’s contention that you can identify a strength by recognizing those things that you 1) do successfully, 2) instinctively, 3) enjoy doing, and 4) you feel fulfilled by having done it. Using this, or similar personality inventories, can be one way to identify yours. Decide if what emerges can be utilized now.

Claim your strengths. Write them down or say them out loud. Share your strengths with others, or make it into an affirmation or mantra. With all the demands you are facing, it’s easy to forget that you are a person with skills and abilities. One of my coaching clients was brilliant at attacking an issue with all of his intelligence, skills and personal will. When he was going through cancer, his mantra was “hit it hard.”

Be honest about your weaknesses. No one is good at everything. There will be skills and abilities you will need that you currently don’t have. Knowing what they are gives you a chance to plan.

  • What doesn’t come naturally or easily to you? Talking to authority figures? Remembering appointments? Thinking on your feet?
  • Ask your friend to help you identify where you will need additional help or resources to get through the challenges ahead.

Take a periodic inventory. Check in with yourself, the situation, and your trusted advisors. Are you overusing your strengths or are there some areas that have emerged where you need some help. Often we find that the strengths we needed at the beginning of a crisis are no longer necessary as it wanes.

Knowing and leveraging your strengths while working thoughtfully with the areas where you need help allows you regain another measure of control in a situation that might feel like a free fall. You are talented and brilliant—don’t let a crisis convince you otherwise

By |June 3rd, 2015|Categories: Getting through tough times|Tags: |1 Comment

A Feather in My Path

Unless you leave room for serendipity, how can the divine enter?

Joseph Campbell


I believe that Spirit is all around us, not just in the brick and mortar buildings of our established religions. Consequently, I have looked for and found messages in the sudden appearance of animals, birds, numbers, friends, songs, and many other forms of Divine media. One symbol of encouragement that has meant the most to me is feathers. There is a Native American belief that finding a feather directly in front of you means that you are on your path—your actions are in alignment with your Divine spirit. More times than I can count, during those three years that my husband and son were so ill, I would look down and find a feather on my path. Although the rational, skeptical side of me (admittedly, rather a small part) could argue a number of reasons for the placement of the feather, there were times that no reasonable explanation could suffice to explain why, at that moment when I was in the most need, a large white feather, in the middle of a hot Dallas parking lot or in the midst of a busy shopping mall, would appear in front of me. Sometimes I picked the feathers up, other times I just gave thanks for the reminder that I was not alone, that God,the Universe, the Divine was with me on this journey, I was doing something right, and that I was loved.

Watching for Signs

Marci Shimoff, author of Happy for No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out and The Chicken Soup for the Soul series, talks about the amazing number of people who have sent her stories about the signs they had received (often bluebirds and cardinals), many times in response to prayer or other need. She suggests that signs are one of the ways that we can listen to the wisdom within us that is connected to the Divine.

  • Be open to the possibility that the Divine, however you imagine it, is sending you messages of encouragement and love.
  • Pay attention to things that occur around you repeatedly, when they occur and the conditions under which they show up in your life.

If there is a pattern, decide what it means to you and if it feels encouraging, integrate it into your life by noticing it, journaling about it, or just giving thanks when it occurs. We all need positive reinforcement, especially in crisis. Open up to the possibility that the encouragement and reinforcement your soul needs as you traverse the crisis can come in unusual and unlikely ways.

 What have been some signs of encouragement that you believe were sent to you when you needed them the most?

 

Caregivers and Harleys: The Art of Letting Go

I had lunch yesterday with a woman I had met while her husband was going through an extremely rough recovery from cancer. They were a young married couple when he was diagnosed and she had been there, right by his side, throughout the rigorous protocol that ultimately saved his life.

We spent lunch comparing notes about what we had both gone through and learned during the medical crises that devastated our families’ lives. We talked most about letting go—moving from patient advocate, decision-maker, head of household, and holder of hope to a time when our caregiving was no longer needed. Her husband had recovered, though with some ongoing medical issues. My son was thankfully healthy and cancer free, but my husband had not survived.

Karen (not her name) and I talked about how surprisingly difficult it had been to shift from caregiver superwoman to just mom or wife. Though we admitted that we had never wanted to assume that heroine role, we both found it tough to give up the outfit. With that cape, those cool boots, and a clearly marked “S” on our chests we had discovered new strengths, resilience, and “grit” that had never been completely claimed in the past. And then there was the admiration we got, every time we jumped out of the phone booth in the service of our guys. It was hard, gut wrenching, scary work—pushing back when a treatment didn’t seem in their best interests, or sometimes just curling up next to them, trying to bring some comfort. Having people recognize both the difficulty and bravery we had to call on to do so had felt pretty good.

Sometimes it’s hard—when the crisis is over or downshifts in intensity—to let go. You’ve done everything in your power to ensure your loved one survives. The joy when they do can be tinged, surprisingly, with an almost superstitious fear that letting go of your caregiver role might lead to a return of the crisis. Taking your hands off the wheel and allowing your loved one to start driving their own lives again? You’re caught between “Finally!” and “What if they crash?”

In contrast to our concerns about the right time to let go, our guys had had no problems giving us the caregiver pink slip. They had come through their crises and were ready to move on. Karen’s husband was relishing a life that he hadn’t been sure would continue—trying out new things and challenging himself physically—often to Karen’s discomfort.

My son bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle—a pretty clear signal to his mom that, at 23, he saw himself as an adult—legally and financially responsible for his own decisions. And although I did threaten to buy him a T-shirt that read: “I bought this Harley because childhood cancer wasn’t life threatening enough,” I got the message.

If you are trying to decide whether the time has come to release your grip on the reins of your role as caregiver, these questions might help:

  • Is your loved one physically and mentally ready to take on more? What are the consequences if they do and fail? How serious are those consequences? How might you mitigate those consequences?

  • Are there some intermediate measures that you can take to ease yourself out of that care-giving role? What conversations do you need to have with your loved one to make that happen?

  • And, if they believe they are ready to regain their independence, are you? If not, why not?

In many cases, there are no easy answers. Talk to friends, caring health professionals, or other people who will provide a neutral perspective. More importantly, share your concerns with your loved one. Be honest about your fears and what kinds of compromise might help you make the transition from caregiver back to spouse, parent, sibling, family member or friend.

And yes, you get to keep the outfit. It will always be there in the closet if you ever need it again.

Mind Monkeys, Sleepless Nights, Hyperventilation, Oh My!

If you don’t think your anxiety, depression, sadness and stress impact your physical health, think again. All of these emotions trigger chemical reactions in your body, which can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system. Learn how to cope, sweet friend. There will always be dark days.

–Kris Carr

Crises—personal, medical, financial, or spiritual—can be breeding grounds for anxious and scary thoughts. We are flooded with new information and potentially devastating scenarios, challenged to operate way out of our comfort zone, and generally put into a rough spot. No surprise, then, that our systems can react with anxiety. After all, our old brain is primed to respond to any potential threats—real or imagined.

For the normally calm among us, anxiety feels like strange, new territory. Awakening at night, full of swirling thoughts, being unable to eat or stop eating, nervousness, or a rapidly beating heart–it can almost seem like you’ve become someone very different from your usual self. For those of us for whom anxiety is something that we have lived with for awhile, a crisis can take those symptoms to a whole new level that can feel almost impossible to manage.

What are some of the classic symptoms of anxiety?

The Mayo Clinic lists the following:

  • Feeling nervous
  • Feeling powerless
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry

What can you do?

In order to slow down or stop the spiral into anxiety when those fears and negative thoughts threaten to take over your life, try some of these ideas:

  • Slow diaphragmatic breathing: Put your hand on your stomach and take a long, s-l-o-w, deep breath, letting it fill your abdomen. Hold the breath for a few seconds and then release it through your mouth. This signals your amygdala, the part of your old brain that is currently running the “fight-flight-freeze” show in your body1, that things are no longer as scary as before when it kicked into action. Repeat this for a few minutes until your heart beat slows down and the butterflies in your stomach get calmer. Extra points if you can relax your jaws and let your shoulders drop away from your ears where they are likely hanging out.
  • Distraction: One of my favorite ways of decreasing my anxious thoughts during a crisis is to jump into an interesting book, article, movie, or TV show. The subject matter has to be compelling enough to pry my attention away from whatever topic I am currently obsessed with but when it is, this strategy works beautifully.
  • Exercise: Yoga, running, racquetball, spin class—anything form of movement that requires your attention is a great way to create a little distance from those anxious thoughts. At the end of your workout, you are likely to be able to perceive it more objectively and logically.

Next time: more ideas on how to manage your anxiety in a crisis. Please feel free to send any questions, comments and ideas my way. I love hearing from you!

1For a really comprehensive explanation of your body’s response to extreme stress, check out this New York Times article, Stress and Anxiety: The Body’s Response

Resilience: A Pollyanna Ploy or Perseverance?

Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue is what counts.”

Resilience has, I think, a bit of a Pollyanna rap. For those of you who didn’t grow up with either the book or Disney movie version, Pollyanna was a young girl who was irrepressibly optimistic. Yet in a crisis or traumatic situation, always looking on the bright side-as Pollyanna found out-can feel unbearably hard. Sometimes, before you move on or bounce back, you might just need to throw a pity party first.

I don’t believe that resilience means you never have a bad day or that you accept everything that comes your way with a blithe smile and a song on your lips. During the three year stretch that my family went through one life threatening illness after another, I hosted a few pity parties – some of them fairly spectacular. At the time, the extra glasses of wine or spirals into dark thoughts seemed a logical outcome, given the fact that two of the men I loved most in life both had cancer.

The real question is, after you’ve had your pity party, then what? Do you stay stuck in victim thinking? It can be pretty cozy, snuggled up in the cold comfort of feeling mistreated by the world. But for me, staying in that gloomy spot didn’t seem to get me anywhere. And, frankly, I didn’t like my own company that much when I was dining on negative thoughts and crooning over my hurts.

That’s when I would find just enough energy to rummage around in my heart and remembered my goal – who I wanted to be—even when things were lousy, even when I felt just a little bit neglected by the Divine, and even when part of me wanted to crawl back under my comforter stuffed with victimhood and whine a while longer.

I had decided, when my son was first diagnosed with lymphoma, that the only way for me to keep it together, and be who he needed me to be, was to have a plan. Since I couldn’t control the outcome of his diagnosis, I decided to focus on who I wanted to be during that journey. My answer had been that I wanted to trust in the Divine, believe that growth, even blessings come from hard times, choose generosity of spirit over pettiness, and stay positive. With those intentions as my anchors, I always found the next step, the one that took me back towards courage.

Having a goal, and taking those actions-however small-is one of the ways I believe resilience is built. Making one small movement towards your goals or intentions – even if it is only washing your face or taking a walk around the block-is a step away from feeling overwhelmed or impossibly discouraged.

To get back on track with your goals or to find just a bit of courage to keep going, ask yourself:

  • Who does my best self want to be right now? What are the qualities and characteristics I want to demonstrate in my life—even if I don’t feel like it right now?
  • What is one small step I can take that will get me moving in that direction again?

Good luck and don’t forget to clean up the mess from the pity party!

Resilience: Building The Ability to Bounce Back

Where did this come from? I pointed to a note someone had left in my husband Vito’s ICU unit where he was lying paralyzed. A serious case of Guillain-Barré, a neurological disease that attacks the myelin sheath around nerves, had rendered his body’s nerves useless. I had gone out to grab a quick lunch only to come back to find a yellow post-it note with some words scrawled on it.

Who left this? I asked as I re-read the quote, beginning to tear up. The words landed squarely in a well of vulnerability and need that I hadn’t yet named. Despite my outward facade of having it all handled, I really needed to hear those words. That quote meant someone believed in our family’s ability to handle this latest gut punch, even if I was feeling kind of shaky.

The ICU nurse smiled and said that Dr. Jason Litten-our son Nick’s oncologist-had dropped by. He only had a short break from his own duties, but wanted to see Vito and spend some time with him.

Jason was especially important to our family. He had been the lead on Nick’s oncology team from the moment that Nick was diagnosed at age sixteen and had seen us through some really hard times.

It was precisely that knowledge of who we were as a family and what we had gone through that made his words so powerful. He believed in us and in our ability to get through this. But even more than that – Jason held up a mirror so that we could see it ourselves – our own resilience. He came by to remind us that we had, even if we might have temporarily forgotten them, inner stores of courage, persistence, and wisdom.

What do we know about resilience?

Webster’s dictionary defines resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” For me, it means being able to get back up after a gut punch and keep moving forward, even when the way isn’t yet clear and the footsteps are still bit wobbly.

Resilience has been a research topic for many years, focusing on both children who survive traumatic childhoods and adult victims of serious crises—for example, hurricanes, cancer, bombings, and earthquakes. Researchers have puzzled over why some children and adults go on, even after the most horrific of circumstances, to lead successful, productive lives and others don’t. What makes the difference?

What creates or fosters resilience?

Jason personified one of the most important factors we’ve come to understand in creating or fostering resilience—family, caregivers, friends who surround and support us in hard times. Other factors, according to research, include a belief in one’s ability to solve problems, take action, and personal temperament. (For more on this topic, check out The Road to Resilience)

So how do you develop your own resilience or foster it in someone you love? Over the next several blogs, I’ll share some practical strategies taken from the research and my own experience. I hope you will try them out, keep the ones that work for you, and share them with others. For now, here’s the first two:

Resilience Builders

Create a community of support: I’ve written about this previously (see the blog archive) but it bears repeating. Having a team of people who guide, advise, handle logistics, or just listen is critical, not only when you are trying to survive the initial shock of a crisis. They can also help us find our inner resources and ability to endure during the crisis and afterwards, when the process of recovery begins.

Talk back to the mind monkeys: Your mind, when faced with a crisis, will do what thousands of years has evolved it to do—look for the most dangerous outcomes and respond with the thoughts and emotions those scenarios will evoke. Part of enhancing your resilience is to see the crisis as potentially solvable—maybe not all of it, but parts of it. Like the old adage goes, “How do you eat an elephant? A piece at a time.” Chew on the pieces you can solve now, rather than focusing on how huge the problem seems.

Next time-more strategies and ideas of how to build resilience in yourself or foster it in someone you love.

The human capacity for burden is like bamboo- far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.”

― Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

Going From Bad to Better: The Gratitude Strategy

Focus on the positive. It’s hard to believe that a serious life crisis and the word “blessing” would come in the same sentence. When my son and husband had cancer, idea of looking for something positive in our family’s experiences probably seemed hyper-religious or Pollyanaish in the extreme to some people. Spiritually, I viewed it as a form of radical surrender to an organizing framework of my life; practically, it kept me sane.

Tune down the victim thinking. Leaving behind the “poor me” mentality meant walking away from the norm. After all, my family was going through hell. Didn’t I deserve to throw myself a pity party and invite a few friends? Yet, as comforting as it seemed initially to wrap myself up in the cold comfort of victim thinking or anxiety, or as easy as it was to allow the fears take over my day, I always came away from those internal, negative conversations wearier than before. And I couldn’t afford to add to my exhaustion.

So, logically, anything I could do to grow the positive in my life made more sense to me than focusing on the negative. I needed all the infusions of energy I could get and I found that looking for and counting my blessings filled me up. Gratitude turned out to be the best antidote I could find for fatigue, anxiety, self-doubt and dread.

Cultivate gratitude. Research bears the importance of gratitude. The Greater Good Science Center, citing the research of more than 30 scientists and graduate students, has found that gratitude impacts not only our emotions with increased happiness, joy, optimism, compassion, and generosity, it can also lower blood pressure and improve the immune system. Robert Emmons, a leading expert on gratitude, suggests a few ways to increase the time we spend being grateful:

  • Using a visual cue (such as a picture or even Post-it note) to remember to take the time to be grateful.
  • Keeping a gratitude journal—what happened today that filled you with a sense of appreciation?
  • Learning prayers of gratitude as ways to incorporate more gratitude into your life.

Hang on to the good a bit longer. The author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson, suggests “taking in the good” as a way to counter the brain’s natural tendency to hang on to the negative thoughts and too quickly let go of the positive ones. Whenever something good happens, he suggests that you first fully experience it. Notice that the sky is bright blue after a week of clouds or the delightful smell of fresh baked cookies in the bakery that you’ve just passed.

Once you’ve noticed, focus your mind fully on the experience. Second, keep your attention on that positive experience. If your mind tries to shift away, bring it back to the deliciousness of what you are thinking, feeling, sensing, seeing or touching. Finally, visualize those lovely thoughts, sensations and emotions flowing into your entire body. See them and feel them filling you up until you are full to the brim with all that this experience has to offer.

Next week. More ways to cultivate resilience and make your crisis just a bit better.

Gratitude bestows reverence..changing forever how we experience life and the world.

John Milton