When Your Mind Feels Like an Unfriendly Place…

Psychologist Giulia Suro, Ph.D. shares strategies for getting space with acceptance and mindfulness

fizkes / Shutterstock
fizkes / Shutterstock

We currently find ourselves in a period of unprecedented uncertainty and threat. The light at the end of the tunnel is not yet available to us. What’s more, most of us now have much more free time and less structure and support than we have had before. Our previous means of coping may not be accessible. All of these factors put together have created a perfect storm for a challenging mental existence. If your mind feels like a scary place right now, you’re in good company.

Irish writer and spiritual voice, Pádraig Ó Tuama, shares that in order to confront our deepest challenges, we must ask ourselves, “‘What is happening right here, right now?’— even if it’s not what [we would] choose.” Most of us have likely spent some time in our heads of late wishing things were different, worrying about what will happen in the future or longing for the way things were last month.

It makes sense that we turn to our heads to get breaks from our current reality. At times this reality feels bizarrely unreal to me, other times I am struck to my core with a fear I have not known before. For better or worse, no matter how deeply I want to escape this time or place, there is no outfoxing the present moment. This is happening. As poet David Wagoner shares, “The place where you are is called Here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.”

The current stranger we are encountering is new and scary.  This stranger is a psychological state that may feel inescapable or without respite. It is the presence of uncertainty, pain and isolation. This stranger is knocking on our door and we don’t want to let it in. We may be trying to ignore it, barricade the entrance or convince it to leave, but it only bangs louder.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, is a psychological approach that was made for this moment. ACT represents the perfect marriage of western cognitive science and eastern philosophies of acceptance and mindfulness. It offers a roadmap for us to get space from the thoughts and feelings that disturb us, ground in the power of the present and find meaning in the face of unfathomable change. Read below for small shifts based on ACT principles you can make now to get out of your head.  

If you are struggling right now, there is nothing wrong with you. You are human. Most of us are now cut off from many of our routines, sources of support, work spaces, outlets for health and places of worship. We are bracing for loss of human life and economic devastation. Feeling fear, anger, sadness and grief is natural and appropriate. These emotions are one of our most ancient forms of intelligence and they are communicating important messages to us. Notice any attempts you’re making to shut them down, “There’s something wrong with me,” “I shouldn’t be feeling this bad,” “The way that I’m feeling is not okay.” To deny our emotions is to diminish what is happening and invalidate our own experience.

Find a beginner’s mind. This is uncharted territory. While every ounce of our being may want to hide under the covers, we have great capacity to face our fears with flexibility and willingness. Much of our psychological suffering comes from the expectations and judgments we impose upon ourselves. “This is going to be terrible,” “I’m going to lose it if things don’t change,” “I won’t be able to handle this.” These thoughts are powerful, and stoke the fires of our already blazing fears. A quick way to break this cycle is to tap in to the perspective of someone who has never experienced this situation before. This may be a curious scientist who is neutral and calm. Or a kind alien who wants to understand the human condition. Each time you find yourself caught up in an unpleasant experience, step back, observe and describe with objectivity. “I noticed my heart rate start to go up a little bit,” “I’m feeling less down today than yesterday.

Return to your senses. Literally. Sometimes our built-in fight or flight response serves us levels of fear and anxiety that take us beyond what psychiatrist Dan Siegel refers to as the “window of tolerance.” In this state, we are too activated to use the parts of our brain that can help us. Luckily, our bodies have a built in grounding system in our five senses. Finding an anchor in the present moment calms the nervous system down and reduces the fear response. This may look like taking deep breaths, naming the things you see around you, holding a piece of ice, smelling a comforting fragrance, or sitting firmly in place with an awareness of the gravity that is holding you down.  

Make space for what’s happening. This is the part where we let the stranger in our house. I understand that this seems counterintuitive. The problem with trying to keep the stranger out is that we’re exerting energy fighting a losing battle. Why? The stranger isn’t going anywhere. Rather than trying to distract, numb or worry them away, try to let them in. This doesn’t require welcoming them inside with open arms. Making space means being willing to feel our organic emotions in their purest form. “I am frightened.” “Sadness is something that is showing up right now.” “I feel lonely.” When we recognize the strangers who are knocking at our door and let them in, we drop the fight with ourselves.  This allows our emotions to do what they do best- come and go.  

Don’t fixate on what you can do, but who you want to be. Many of us may feel desperate to do something. This speaks to our shared need as humans to feel in control. It may look like hoarding supplies, online shopping, or refreshing the news nonstop. Rather than scrambling to find something to do, shift your focus to how you want to be. How do you want to act in the midst of this moment in time? How do you want the people who are watching you- your children, spouses, friends and neighbors- to describe how you faced this challenge? Will they think of you as brave or kind? Do you want to be remembered for carrying yourself with humor or practicing patience? During a time of loss and limitations, our deepest values can never be taken from us. They are our most powerful resources, and when we are connected with them they serve as a natural guide for our next steps.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

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