The German airplane crash by a suicidal pilot, the Florida shootings, the Boston bombings. Every week, we read about innocent people getting hurt or killed. We try to avoid pain and suffering; we teach children to look both ways before crossing the street, wash their hands after using the bathroom, and not to get into strangers’ cars. Even as we reassure our kids that no monsters live under their beds, we know that in the apartment down the street, there lives a convicted sex offender. How do we cope with life’s uncertainty and fear?
The Monster Under the Bed
We are saturated with information. Not long ago, we’d read a morning or evening newspaper and maybe watch the evening news; today, the news cycle is 24/7. And, because dramatically scary stories get our attention, the media makes sure to foreground them—not just what’s happening locally, but world-wide. We end up perceiving fearful threats all around us. The truth is, though, that we tend to overestimate certain kinds of risk while underestimating others. For example, as the Vancouver Sun notes, “We warn our kids not to talk to strangers even though 90 per cent of sexual abuse is committed by someone a child knows. And we freak out about plane crashes despite the fact driving is about 65 times more dangerous.” (“How much risk do you live with?”)
Studying how people evaluate threats, or “risk perception,” helps show why this is so. Psychologist Paul Slovic has studied the subject for many years; here, blogger Sara Gorman sums up his findings: “People tend to be intolerant of risks that they perceive as being uncontrollable, having catastrophic potential, having fatal consequences, or bearing an inequitable distribution of risks and benefits.” Plane crashes feel more uncontrollable than car crashes; strangers feel scarier than people we know. But control is an illusion. Life is full of uncontrollable things, people, and events, so how do we handle risk?
We cope by using reason and denial. Reasonably, we know that life always involves some risk and that we have a natural tendency to inflate threats. You can probably think of one thing you tend to worry about needlessly or unproductively. Can you really do anything about it? Needless worry robs us of a sense well-being; straining to control things beyond our reach only creates tension. But wait—denial? Isn’t that supposed to be a bad thing? Yes, denial is counterproductive when it keeps you from acknowledging harm that you’re doing to yourself or others, like smoking, cheating on a spouse, or abusing your child. But psychologists recognize that the use of denial can be advantageous in many situations. According to the Mayo Clinic, “A short period of denial can be helpful. Being in denial gives your mind the opportunity to unconsciously absorb shocking or distressing information . . . . For example, after a traumatic event, you might need several days or weeks to process what’s happened and come to grips with the challenges ahead.” Be patient and gentle with yourself in the wake of trauma.
We also must learn to balance risk against what we lose by being too careful. When we’re too sensitive to fearful possibilities, we become paralyzed. Not letting your daughter walk home from school with her friends because a car could run a red light, or a vicious dog might be on the loose, may seem protective. But overprotectiveness is harmful because it deprives children of practicing the mastery and independence they need to grow up successfully. And, more subtly and unintentionally, your anxiety seeps into her without either of you knowing the source.
What if the monster under the bed survives because your imagination feeds it every night?
Kids need to find their own strength by testing themselves in the world. That can start as early as learning to sleep alone, in their own beds. (While in some cultures sharing a family bed is the norm, children may be given other opportunities to practice self-soothing and frustration tolerance.) Kids and parents often resist the stage when they need to soothe themselves to sleep. When we know our child is distressed and may be fearful, we rush to give comfort. But allowing a child to sleep between her parents can come at the expense of intimacy in the marriage. By resisting letting a child sleep alone, parents deprive them of learning to calm themselves and tolerate frustration. For a fuller explanation of this problem and how to address it, see Dr. David O’Grady’s “Help Your Child Sleep Alone: The Snoozeeasy Program For Bedtime Fears. ”The important thing is that we convey trust that our child can manage the little and big things that come their way and feel they have the ability to self-regulate their emotional reactions.
Of course, being able to manage emotions doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen. In mindfulness practices, we teach that suffering is an inevitable part of living. Sickness, accidents, money problems, frustrations, and worries: There is much in life that we have no control over, and as if worrying about the present isn’t enough, we tend to ruminate over past events or future possibilities.
Even spiritual people who actively practice mindfulness can’t escape suffering. In fact, “life is suffering” is the first Noble Truth of Buddhism. I remember listening to an audio interview with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader known for his calm serenity. He coughed and hacked his way through the interview, clearing his throat every few minutes. It was an unpleasant sound, but because I was on my treadmill, I didn’t want to stop and find another CD. I suffered along with the Dalai Lama. At the conclusion of the interview, he took questions from the audience. The question was asked; “Dalai Lama, do you suffer?” He answered, “Of course I suffer, I have been coughing this entire time and it is very uncomfortable.”
And as if present suffering isn’t enough, letting worry about the past or future take hold leads to more suffering. When we suffer from the fears we have about the dangerous, uncertain world we live in, we may think the answer is to run away somehow: shopping, clicking, using drugs or alcohol, or eating when we’re not hungry, for example. But pursuing pleasure doesn’t make our painful fears go away. Instead, our efforts backfire because we feel guilt, or dig ourselves deeper into debt, or become unhealthy—and the fear still exists.
Learning to look at our suffering and accept that it exists is a skill. Meditation or relaxation training can help us develop the skill of self-soothing, thereby enabling us to feel less afraid of both real and imagined monsters. As we do this, we also help those around us to be calmer and stronger.
How to Self-Soothe
Practice some form of deep relaxation, meditation, or yoga daily. This will change your psychophysiological baseline so that you are generally more resilient when worry or stress takes over.
- Accept that that suffering is part of life. We suffer, our children will suffer, and strangers we hear about in the news suffer. Acknowledging suffering helps because we are not pushing fears down, which paradoxically only makes them grow larger.
- Develop a spiritual practice. This helps us develop the strength to look deeply at our suffering; the insights gained about ourselves provide perspective and something to hold onto when our fears run amok.
- During difficult moments, use a short breathing practice (such as the Three-Minute Breathing Space or just silent focus on your breath) to stay calm during difficult moments. Being conscious of our breathing brings mindfulness to the present moment and helps pause the thought stream of rumination.
- Recognize your suffering without judgment. Some fears are truly awful, yet by staying in the present moment, we avoid getting trapped by our thinking. Look deeply at the source of your feelings, find their roots, and work on transforming the fears that need to be changed. This will allow space to nourish the feelings that bring peace and well-being.
This short relaxation exercise may help you to develop skills to relax in moments of anxiety and worry, as well as provide a foundation to help change the automatic, reflexive ways your mind and body respond to stress. https://youtu.be/TCCA1kGSnB8
couples counseling, and Mindfulness-based therapies in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 20 years.
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