As human beings we often resist change, and change triggered by COVID-19 presents many external and internal challenges for us all.
Our external challenges can include work, finances, housing, relationships, food and home schooling, as a mere tip of a vast iceberg we don’t have control over.
Internal challenges include the impact of stress on our emotional world. Things that are within our capacity to develop new skills and tools to help us manage in a world with COVID-19.
Emotions guide our choices and will influence how we emerge through what is being termed the ‘coronapocalypse’. Victor Frankl in his insightful book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ wrote ‘when we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves’.
The way we relate to emotions is largely shaped by our childhood experiences, through the emotional availability of our caregivers, the emotional language we learn early on to communicate or supress, our experiences of safety and of current, historical and intergenerational trauma, as well as our DNA. These early seeds of experience germinate as life unfolds and can be transformed as patterns of relating to our emotional world.
Many cultures recognise the importance of making space for our human emotions to be processed and view this as an essential and integral part of health, wellbeing individually and collectively. There are processes and practices that seek to balance the emotional with physical, mental and spiritual elements of being that can help us reach our potential as human beings.
Some wise folk question whether the pervasive social, political and environmental disfunction currently gripping the world is an outward reflection of our inner turmoil. That we have lost our way and an understanding of what’s important and what it means to be human.
The wise and revered poet Michael Leunig says where fear is present there can’t be love. Are we being challenged to find ways to integrate difficult emotions, transforming our inner world so it may be reflected in a new outer world?
Many of us have grown up in a culture that views difficult emotions as weak, shameful, unpleasant or burdensome for others, encouraging patterns of repression. Many workplaces, government organisations and institutions have become increasingly toxic with productivity and profit valued over compassion and wellbeing, demanding employees engage in tasks that may be at odds with moral and ethical values. This contributes to avoidance, suppression and the ignoring of our inner emotional protests and can, at extreme levels, lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress in the workplace, and moral injury as experienced by many war veterans.
I was fortunate to meet a kind-hearted man in the US who was in his 80’s and said he found himself in Vietnam aged 21 as a Chemical Engineer making chemicals for the government that were used in warfare. He spoke of how overriding his sense of what emotionally he felt was morally and ethically right, led to a life of much pain and suffering. He said in his 70’s he was arrested at an environmental protest that was for him “a deeply cleansing experience”.
How do we resist and avoid emotions? Drugs and alcohol can be effective ways not to feel, as can technological addiction, sleep and a wide range of things that effectively mean we are not feeling and sensing. This can be a protective double-edged sword if we have experienced overwhelming trauma. The writer John Welwood termed ‘spiritual bypassing’ as a way of using spirituality to avoid having to feel what is difficult or unpleasant. These things all may be effective in the short term, but in the longer term can represent habitual patterns that serve to keep us locked in unhelpful cycles that at the core are connected to avoiding difficult emotions.
Ancient wisdom traditions recognise the value of understanding emotions as messengers. As Rumi eloquently wrote 700 years ago, ‘this being human is a guesthouse, every morning a new arrival, a joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes like an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all, even if they are a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of it’s furniture. Still treat each guest honourably, they may be clearing you out for some new delight…..’
How do we treat our guests of sadness, fear, anger, frustration, hopelessness, despair? Do we shut them out, try to get rid of them, fear them, fight with them, try to subdue them, obliterate them, numb ourselves out to them, or can we know emotions as Rumi suggested as ‘messengers’ and guests?
Investigating and learning new ways to deal with difficult emotions is a possibility presented during COVID-19 to develop skills and tools, and emerge with new ways of being that contribute to not only our own happiness but the happiness of all living beings and the planet.
Some things that can help us process and balance difficult emotions may include:
– Journaling, creative writing and keeping a gratitude diary.
– Art, music and creativity can help to connect with and process emotions that are beyond language
– Connecting deeply with the natural world through our senses.
– Reaching out to people we trust to make a safe space to share our feelings can help to connect language to emotion and bring a soothing and calming effect to our nervous system.
– Trauma can be activated in many ways as our stress levels increases. Talking with a trusted friend or health worker can help, as Peter Levine says ‘“Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.”
– Practicing relaxation, healthy eating, being protective of sleep, maintaining a regular routine that includes exercise can help to balance the mind and body.
– Reducing digital overload and making space to turn off devices and limit time on social media.
– Mindfulness Meditation – helps to become familiar with patterns of difficult emotions and can help with developing skills and tools to heal and unlearn problematic patterns of social conditioning and attachment.
– Mindful Self-Compassion programs are offered online by John Julian who is a committed practitioner and wise teacher. See https://www.thinkinghealthy.com.au
– The RAIN practice is adapted from Buddhist teachings for Western minds as a way of managing difficult emotions. You can find recordings on the Insight Timer App, or on www.tarabrach.com or on our website www.mindfulnesspsychologywellbeing.com
– You are welcome to join our community mindfulness practices via Zoom each Tuesday evening from 7-8pm. Details and the recorded meditations are on our website http://mindfulnesspsychologywellbeing.com/online-meditation-in-challenging-times-by-donation/