We live in an either/or world. Either I'm right, or you're right. I either have, or I have not. Either I'm ok, or I'm not ok. What if it doesn't have to be that way? In philosophy, religious studies, and business, the both/and idea opens up the playing field and allows for more possibilities than the rigid either/or model. Both/and says that we can both be right. And maybe, that I can be both not ok, and ok at the same time.
In DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), this is the dialectic. A dialog between two seemingly opposing ideas. The idea that two things can be true at the same time. That there is space for both, and that we don't have torture ourselves with the either/or. I can experience this intense craving and also not use drugs or alcohol. I can feel scared and move forward with the scary thing. I can feel angry and guilty about my anger and silly about feeling guilty and believe that my anger is justified, all at the same time. There don't have to be ors, even when all the ands don't seem to make sense.
In EMDR, a highly effective technique for treating trauma, we see the both/and concept in the practice of dual awareness. In fact, EMDR works largely because it allows us to remember and in some ways re-experience a traumatic event, while also attending to the present moment, where we are reminded that we are safe. EMDR asks us to feel distress and (re)process unpleasant memories, and at the same time, to hold onto the awareness that in this moment, we are ok. In fact, EMDR can't work without this dual awareness. With no awareness of our current safety and ok-ness, the trauma is too scary or overwhelming, and no healing will occur. And without holding space for the discomfort of the trauma to arise, it remains hidden, unprocessed, and lurking underneath to continue to do us harm. Even outside of EMDR, I believe that healing requires both: feeling discomfort, and feeling ok.
We don't like feeling discomfort. (Thank you, Captain Obvious). Much of human behavior is done to avoid discomfort. Sometimes, really maladaptive, harmful behaviors are continued despite negative consequences because we believe that they will allow us to avoid discomfort. The trouble is, that the only way for the uncomfortable emotions to leave us is to move through us. By the time people come to therapy, they have usually accepted the idea that they are going to have to experience some discomfort in order to heal. Sometimes that knowledge is the very barrier that keeps people from getting help. But here's a bit of good news - I see one of my number one jobs as a therapist as helping you remember the other half of that equation. Yes, working through your stuff that you've buried will be uncomfortable. It will feel bad. Sometimes, really bad. But at the same time - you are also/already ok.
Sometimes we are so used to feeling pain (manifesting itself as depression, anxiety, addictions, physical pain, etc.), that we have lost sight of the other piece of dual awareness. Healing cannot occur when we are solely mired in our pain. We must also, at the same time, hold a tangible sense of safety - an awareness that we are ok. So, one of my most important jobs as a therapist is to help you develop the connection with that part of yourself. It is only when you feel connected to your inherent ok-ness, safety, and worth, that all of the uncomfortable stuff can be effective. So, it's ok to feel like shit sometimes, as long as you also are connected to the fact that you are ok. Most people are great at the feeling crappy part - reach out for help if you need support in connecting to the good stuff that will allow your suffering to have meaning, and bring about healing.
I've included below a meditation that I have used with my clients, intended to help you practice this dual awareness - experiencing an uncomfortable feeling while maintaining a connection to your safety and worth. If at any time during this meditation you feel overwhelmed by your negative feelings, or unable to feel connected to a place of ok-ness, simply stop the meditation and simply return to slow, deep breaths.
Align Wellness Solutions is a holistic therapy practice. This not only means that we utilize holistic modalities – neurotherapy, biofeedback, yoga, meditation, breathwork – in addition to traditional types of therapy, but also that we believe that our bodies and minds are not separate entities. There are many things that you can do outside of therapy sessions that will support your healing.
When people find out that I’m a therapist, they often ask how to cope with stress and anxiety. In an already go-go-go! culture, our abundance of technology makes the bombardment seemingly inescapable. To-do lists, endless reminders, near-constant interruptions, messages of comparison, incoming images and sounds that stoke emotions of alarm and panic are everywhere – in our hands, in our faces, and in our pockets.
In order to answer this question - what do we do about this overwhelming amount of stress and anxiety? - my question back is initially: who's asking?
It's usually an individual asking about their own growing sense of unmanageability. But I often wish that this was a question that people in powerful, culture-changing positions would ask. Certainly we have some leaders on the national level that help us to challenge and change this narrative of what a successful American life must look like, but I'm talking about leaders of microcosms of culture - heads of organizations, small-business owners, faith leaders, principals, parents. Each of these roles are in a position to change the tempo of their small corner of the world - to challenge our belief in multi-tasking and the glorification of busy-ness, to call our attention to the importance of transitions between activities, to create systems that reward, or at a minimum do not penalize, spacious schedules that allow unplanned time that is crucial for creativity and innovation. With a realization that stress and anxiety negatively impact performance, absenteeism, job satisfaction, physical illness, and mental health, business leaders are in an ideal position to begin to affect change that not only keeps us healthy, but improves the bottom line. And with an acknowledgment of the harm that stress, rushing, and a lack of rest and play has on kids, parents are their family's own best shot at being healthier and happier.
My next question is when are folks asking? We are so accustomed to stress, that we don’t often seek help until we hit about an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. Often, we are so busy and disconnected from our bodies and our feelings that our stress doesn’t even register in our awareness until we’re around a 7 or 8. As a therapist, I can certainly help you when you’re at an 11, but I’d rather help you before then. In addition to providing relief from the immediate stress, we also want to help re-calibrate your stress-o-meter, so you can tell you’re experiencing stress before it gets to such a harmful level.
I often use an analogy of dental care when talking about stress, because every one loves going to the dentist (ha!). For those of us who dislike visits to the dentist, it's likely because we've had to utilize their services for some type of unpleasant and urgent dental issue. We can either have the pleasure of getting a root canal, or we can practice preventive dental care: regular check-ups and cleanings, and practice daily dental hygiene. Similarly, for stress management, we need both emergency coping skills, for when our body's alarm bells are ringing, and daily preventive practices, to help prevent the alarm bells in the first place.
Have you ever had an especially busy day and then looked up at the clock and realized it's 4:00pm and you haven't had anything to eat today? Have you ever noticed that you needed to take a bathroom break, but just wanted to finish that one email first, and before you know it an hour has passed and the signals faded from your awareness, but now you are really aware of them? This is clear evidence that we are not hearing all of the messages our bodies send us. And if we can tune out messages that our basic human needs of food and elimination are not being met, we can certainly tune out messages about stress and anxiety.
The good news: stress management techniques are really simple. The bad news: maybe even because they're so simple, we tend to brush them off as not important. It is immensely hard to prioritize this type of self-care, because we are so conditioned that these activities are not contributing to our productivity. These techniques may be very simple, but they are not easy to implement. The work here is not challenging in the typical check-list, figure-it-out, hustle, sweat, anxiety-increasing way that we typically think of "hard work." This work is difficult in the I'm-asking-you-to-do-the-opposite-of-what-our-entire-society-has-conditioned-you-to-do-since-birth kind of way. It might not feel like you are doing much. But you are. Rest is a constructive action, and the "work" is in ignoring all of the pieces of you telling you not to do the work. You might surprised at your own thoughts and feelings that rise up to resist you as you set out to practice good self-care. Our work is in counter-acting some of the sources and results of stress and anxiety.
Next week's blog will focus on some of these simple, though not easy, solutions. Stick around!
If you would like to schedule an individual therapy session to work on your own stress and anxiety, reach out via email or use my online scheduler. You can read more about my practice here.
If you are looking for help for your organization to better address stress and anxiety on a more macro level, contact me to discuss specifics and a free brief consultation and proposal presentation
Melanie Storrusten. Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Owner of Align Wellness Solutions.