After 45 years as a psychotherapist I now believe the holy grail of therapy is helping people feel safe. If that sounds too simplistic, just think about it. Whatever you are dealing with: anxiety, depression, grief, guilt or anger, the best possible outcome is feeling safe in your body, mind, emotions, and environment. If you had traumatic events in your life, physical illness, abandonment, betrayal, abuse of any kind, you may not feel safe, even if the actual experiences happened years ago. Typically, this presents as anxiety and panic, but the body-mind is very creative when it wants to express itself. It can give you all sorts of physical symptoms, like headaches, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, muscle pains, GERD, blurry vision, vertigo, and a host of other unpleasant and challenging sensations.
While understanding and insight are wonderful, and can feel so exciting in those Aha! moments when patterns suddenly make sense, all the intellectual knowing in the world will probably not make you feel safe inside.
Paradoxically, sitting with whatever arises and investigating it can help you feel more comfortable and grounded. Remind yourself the painful emotion or physical feeling is there to be felt. You might even say, “Let me feel this” when something unpleasant shows up. Giving yourself a cosmic permission slip to feel what you are experiencing is empowering and can lower the emotional ante.
Just as helpful as being with your experience as it unfolds is developing the capacity to soothe yourself. To talk kindly, patiently, gently, and lovingly to the parts of you that feel afraid, alone, sad, or hopeless. This may sound fairly straightforward, but it’s actually very difficult.
Here are a few ways to cultivate lovingkindness towards yourself:
Meditate. Meditation helps develop curiosity about whatever is happening in your body-mind. You sit with what is, notice it, name it, and go back to following your breath. When in the throes of a panic attack or surfing despair you probably won’t be able to meditate, but all that training can allow you to view your current situation from a different perspective: one that helps you see how everything arises and dissolves.
Metta meditation is a special practice that starts with wishing yourself peace, happiness, and freedom from suffering. My version goes like this:
May I be peaceful.
May I be happy.
May I be free from suffering.
May I seek, find, know, and spread joy.
May I be grateful for all that has been given to me.
May I feel safe inside and outside my body.
After wishing these things for yourself you wish them for:
People you love
People you find off-putting or difficult
You can spend as little or as long as you like with this practice, lying down or sitting.
Physical practices can be great reminders of your deep love and concern for yourself. One way to access this connection is by simply placing your hand on your heart. There is a yogic hand gesture called Vajrapradama Mudra that has you intertwine your fingers and place your palms directly over your heart with your thumbs pointing up, elbows wide. Hold the posture for a few minutes or longer as you breathe into your heart. You can also say: I love you. Everything will be fine. This can be incredibly grounding in the midst of feeling something threatening.
A butterfly hug is also quite soothing. Simply cross your arms over your chest, tuck your fingers in your armpits and leave your thumbs on your chest facing up.
Drawing attention to your repetitive thoughts, especially the catastrophizing and self-downing ones, can be very helpful as it allows you to challenge them and substitute more helpful, loving self talk.
Watch out for thoughts, like:
I’ll never overcome this depression.
No one really cares if I live or die.
This pain will only get worse.
I’ll never be at peace.
It’s unbearable to feel this way.
I’ll always be a mess.
If you notice any of these, or other extreme, negative thoughts, ask yourself if they are true. Is there any evidence proving their veracity? Have you felt miserable every second of your life? Probably not. But, even if you thought so in that bleak moment (what the Buddhists call the hell realm) you could still remind yourself the great thing about life is its mysterious ways. The next second you could get a phone call from a loving friend or relative. You could suddenly see some of your thoughts as so extreme they strike you as funny. You never know. I have surprised myself by listening to my audio journal the day after recording an upsetting night’s experience and found things quite amusing.
Try Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), or Tapping. There are literally hundreds of YouTube videos (Brad Yates has one for almost everything) that can guide you through the Tapping protocol to calm your nervous system and clear out negative patterns. It’s very easy to learn, especially if you follow along with the video. Just remember to substitute your words when the practitioner says something that doesn’t feel right to you. That way, you customize the practice to your unique experience.
Wait. Yes, just wait. As Americans we are very impatient with things taking time, but simply waiting until this surge of self-downing, anxiety, anger, grief, etc. passes can make all the difference. If you can consciously choose to let your upsetting thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations be there they will eventually lessen, change, or evaporate.
Use Yoga Nidra, the ancient practice of Yogic Sleep. You may actually fall asleep listening to it, but even if you don’t, it will distract your active mind from all its racing thoughts. You can find more information on this incredible practice here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/yoga-nidra-for-relaxation-insomnia-and-posttraumatic-stress-0202154.
Make sure you are not hungry or thirsty, as both states can trigger a negative emotional cascade. In general, it’s best not to let more than three to four hours go between a meal or snack. Eating breakfast also helps stabilize your blood sugar levels and helps you maintain a better perspective. Some people are more sensitive to these blood sugar fluctuations than others, but almost everyone gets cranky when their levels are low.
Get enough sleep. Resting well and long enough allows your brain to consolidate everything it experienced and learned the day before, as well as gives you the energy you need to face the day. Some meditation teachers, like Jeff Foster, say depression is our body’s cry for rest. While I think depression can be more complicated than that, rest is crucial to feeling good. My colleague, Robyn Posin, always says, “Rest is a sacred act.” I agree. It’s also radical to slow down, take it easy, and consider that a productive use of your time.
Of all these techniques, the most important one is to talk lovingly, patiently, kindly, and gently to your sweet self. Notice when that inner critic’s harsh voice appears and think of other things to say to yourself. If that’s difficult, pretend you’re talking to the five year old version of yourself. Use the Recording and Listening suggestions on this site to record yourself saying supportive, compassionate, patient, understanding, and soothing things so you can listen to it when no one is there to say those loving words to you. You may find that hearing them in your own voice is even more affecting and powerful.
It’s not quick nor easy to change patterns, but you can do it. Every little shift you make will accrue over time into a more compassionate, loving relationship with yourself.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang