Aware of my nearly daily use of the word “overwhelmed” lately, as in “I’m feeling overwhelmed,” I decided to take a look at what the word means to me: when I use it and how I get through it.
Politics, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes aside, my own little world in northeastern Vermont went spinning out of control when, in far too short an order,
- Our septic system went kaput (and is not yet replaced). Fortunately, my closest neighbor is my mother, and she has a great claw foot tub.
- The water pipe that feeds the barn broke underground and needed to be replaced, which would have been easy enough but was in an area where underground electrical and telephone wires come together. To end the deluge, we had to turn off the water to my mom’s house. FOUR DAYS AGO. Everyone has been hauling water, either for my mom or for my chickens.
- I lost my beloved hybrid Prius as we became a one-car family for a few years. A move which seemed smart until
- The date for our meat birds to go in the freezer (how’s that for a euphemism?) was moved up a week, creating unexpected havoc with the plans I had for the other parts of my life.
Writing about these things (there are more, but you get the idea), I realize how trivial they are when bracketed against the news from other parts of the world.
- Did the people of Barbuda get off the island in time?
- However will The Florida Keys recover?
- Will our political leaders and Texas oil barons finally open their minds to the science behind climate change and what can be done about it TODAY?
Somehow (insert wry smile here), that last one got me thinking about the word “denial” and how it sometimes serves to soften the impact of what might otherwise feel overwhelming. Maureen Reagan, older daughter of former President Ronald Reagan, at some point between her father’s Alzheimer’s being announced and the return of her melanoma, declared, “Denial is a much underrated defense mechanism.” That’s a great way to put it, I think.
Too often we think of denial as something we must expose, expunge, or extinguish. Today, instead, I’d like to excuse, examine, or exonerate it. (Yes; that was fun.)
When Woody and I ran the Birch Tree Foundation and did our therapy workshops for people who stutter and the therapists who treat them, we viewed denial like the bark on a birch tree (hence the name).
As the tree sheds its bark when it is ready, so too do we shed our denial when we are ready. If we tear that denial away too soon, like the birch tree with its bark torn off too soon, we can cause damage.
Another analogy I’ve liked is that of the warm wool blanket (aka denial) that protects against the winter chill. My job as therapist was to warm up the room, allowing the client to take off the blanket when ready.
Well, that was an
unexpected unprovoked digression.
Let’s get back to how we humans deal with sudden catastrophe, beyond denial.
How do we deal with this sense that our world is spinning out of control? Have you felt like that lately?
It’s always a loss of some sort. That’s the first thing I came up with. In the case of the victims of the various weather related disasters, most have lost–even if temporarily–their possessions, their homes, their pets, their ability to work. For me, I lost my sense of serenity. I imagine that would apply to the others as well.
Whether it’s a leaky pipe that causes you to shut off the water for a few days or a Category 5 hurricane hurtling toward you, how we deal with the accompanying sense of overwhelm is an individual undertaking. Our attitude is everything.
Do we rally, organize, reach out to help others in our own time of distress? There was a lot of that during both Harvey and Irma. And that can be a useful and most welcome diversion. For me, in my distress, there was no one for me to reach out to help.
Sometimes we point fingers, blame, get angry. Anger gives us back the sense that there is something we can do, even if it’s only to scream. Sometimes when denial doesn’t work, anger is all we can muster. And that’s OK — for the time being. The fact that anger can sometimes serve as a vent to let off a bit of built up steam is as accurate a cliche as I can think of.
It’s the acceptance of the reality that we’re striving for. And to feel the pain of that reality can be overwhelming. When the grief finally comes, it’s a gift; but it’s a gift that can’t be forced. It can only come in its own time. And with that time, we gain perspective. With time, we gain strength.
So, we’ve gotten through denial, anger, grief, (and time) and acceptance. Shades of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross here, which was not my intent. It’s just that what she wrote so long ago in her On Death and Dying is still relevant today. We know these stages of loss aren’t as linear as she may have presented them nearly fifty years ago. Still, they are phases we all go through at one time or another, so we might as well acknowledge them.
People in Houston, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, and Florida will be in overwhelm mode for months. People throughout the Caribbean–the list of countries affected is unbelievably long!–may be in overwhelm mode for years. How will they cope?
How would you cope?
Here’s what I’m doing. I’ll break it into three phases:
1 — I must remember to breathe. My breaths come quietly, regularly, and serve as a reminder that the important things in my life (like breathing the air that keeps me alive) don’t necessarily have anything to do with what I control. I just have to remember to let them do their thing (i.e., not hold my breath).
2 — Next, rather than thinking of what I’ve lost, I focus on what I have. Some folks call it making a gratitude list. It’s a powerful antidote to dismay, despair, or depression. Just thinking, “What am I be grateful for today?” is powerful. Psychotherapist Amy Morin has collected Seven Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude That Will Motivate You to Give Thanks Year Round and published in Forbes magazine in 2014. (Yes, just before Thanksgiving that year.)
3 — Finally, I do something that will nurture me. Do I take a bubble bath? That wasn’t in the cards this time around, like it was when I was struggling in Kazakhstan. Sometimes I take a walk deep into my woods. Sometimes I sit and read. And sometimes I just sit. Today, I moved myself outside into the sunlight to type up this blog post.
It wasn’t always easy for me to identify what I could do that would feel nurturing. But, like so many things, it gets easier with practice.
Breath, Gratitude, Nurture
How about you? How are you coping during this time of turmoil in our world?