10 things you can do to survive painful life situations

1) Remember what matters. Consider the connections you have and what your current relationships mean to you. Do something today to honor those relationships, even it if is just expressing appreciation or liking.

2) Look for meaning in the current situation; including spirituality, faith, understanding, vulnerability, and connection. Sometimes our own painful situations get us to take our guard down, soften our stance, and risk letting others in.

3) Keep in mind the “bigger picture.” How do you think you will be looking at this situation in ten years? Sometimes focusing on our current pain prevents us from seeing reality in perspective.

4) Sometimes, when we are in pain, we look around us and see how other people don’t have to go what we go through. Instead, consider what you have right now that someone else would want (A job, an able body, health, a place to live, a relationship, a child, a parent, someone to love you, a garden outside your window).

5) Consider rehearsing, imagining, or writing out a scenario in which you cope adaptively. The key is that you don’t avoid reality and that you respond in such a way that you maintain your self-respect.

6) If you can’t solve a big problem right now, solve smaller problems. Sometimes taking care of smaller problems gives us a sense that we are doing something as opposed to being passive or helpless.

7) Give your mind a “break” by planning adaptive distractions that have nothing to do with your current life stressors. Sometimes perseverating on a painful situation makes us think that we are actually doing something to solve it.

8) Take care of your health. Remember that physical activity can help you “shift gears” by releasing endorphins and changing your physiological arousal. Don’t forget to eat. When you eat, pause and actually taste the food.

9) The only way to get through a situation is to survive the moment. Instead of denying, avoiding, or escaping the moment, breathe into it. This moment too shall pass.

10) Consider how you typically respond to a crisis. Do you do anything to make it worse, such as complete avoidance, threats, or escalations? Take the first step towards doing what works. Be effective and do what is needed, even it if is hard.

When trauma forces us to look at what matters: Newtown, CT, and surviving emotional pain

Traumatic experiences have a tendency to shake us to the very core, calling into question our beliefs about humanity, safety, influence, power, control, and faith. When traumatic things happen, our vulnerabilities are exposed. We may feel raw, defenseless, or powerless.

Trauma cracks open our humanity in ways that may bring out the extremism in all of us.  Some people may react to the experience of helplessness by shutting others out. This might be manifested through withdrawal, avoidance, criticism, verbal attacks, or vigilant efforts to control everything and anyone.  Others might reach out, remember what really matters, or connect more deeply to those around them. Some are suddenly more conscious of what they cannot control; thus seeking to strengthen relationships, deepen their faith, or work harder to protect those they love.

Sometimes it is difficult to know how to react to others who are in pain. One way of addressing our own feelings of helplnessness in these situations is to contribute, share, mobilize efforts to help, reach out, or make ourselves available.

In light of the recent school shootings, I’ve put together some tips for how to be with people in pain. I hope that these tips go beyond today and tomorrow, and that they can be considered useful in the everyday experience that connects us not only to each other but to places like Newtown, CT.

  • Make space for emotions- both your own and someone else’s
  • Acknolwedge pain by allowing it to exist.
  • Instead of platitudes, changes of subject, false reassurances, or noisy chatter try to tolerate discomfort and awkwardness
  • Be direct and invite experiences of emotion to be talked about openly. Name the elephants in the room.
  • The more comfortable you are talking direclty and openly about how you feel, the more of an invitation this will provide for others
  • Be aware that others may not express emotions in the way you expect
  • You don’t have to understand why exactly people behave the way they do in order to be helpful. Try focusing on the what of the feelings instead of the why.
  • Be prepared for ambiguity, uncertainty, and lack of clarity. Being emotionally present is more important than analyzing details or intellectually distancing and describing behavior.

Remember that people sometimes need invitations to experience and express a wide range of intense emotion in the wake of trauma. It is a lonely experience to diminish pain or act like it doesn’t exist- when what is needed most is the experience of not having to face it alone.

Are your walls keeping people in or keeping people out?

With crisis comes vulnerability. When the unexpected happens, we are often confronted with the limits of our mortality. We realize that we can be deeply affected and influenced. The walls that we build around us get shaken, questioned, or torn down.

Fear is on our horizon.

Sometimes, when we are really scared we try to build more walls. We don’t want other people to see us. We snap at people we care about and become strict with ourselves about who sees our pain. We deny our pain to others. We can’t let other people in. We make promises to ourselves that we will never be that open, intimate, or invested in a relationship again. We can’t let other people care about us, and we become calloused to influence.  We aren’t able to receive compassion or see how much alike we are.

Last week I read a post about some people who were trying to make sense of 9/11. This book really touched me when I read it. Ultimately, there was a question of what walls we wanted to build. And in general how much of the world we want to let in. Surviving a crisis forces us to consider those questions.

Sometimes disappointment can be so unbearably painful that it makes sense to be a little cautious. On the other hand, allowing our fear to dominate our ability to be human, to make mistakes, to feel pain, to take risks, and to be vulnerable can prevent us from experiencing intimacy and connection.

Are the walls you build keeping you safe and protected or are they preventing you from reaching out, taking risks, and having a fulfilling and meaningful life?


Meaning making, trauma, and 9/11

Dear readers,

Given that this is the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, I would like to share with you some excerpts from an adolescent fiction novel that takes place in the aftermath of 9/11. The characters are discussing the ways in which they are attempting to come to terms with what has happened, and offer some compelling thoughts about how they are going to get through this. The book is Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan.

Click on the link below to listen:


The value of revisiting trauma

The value of revisiting traumatic experiences is that it gives a person an opportunity to organize, make sense of, and gain clarity on past events. Many people who suffer from post-traumatic stress experience memories and associated events in ways that are intrusive and beyond personal control. This makes the memory itself something to avoid at all costs.

However, the benefit of revisiting memories and recalling traumatic events is to decrease fear that is associated with the remembering of the memory. When a person can remember the memory without shutting down, avoiding, or dissociating, the person can then begin the journey of grieving and meaning-making. The past becomes clearer- what actually happened, happened.  A person can begin to get their mind around it and talk about in a way that integrates self-experience in the context of space and time.

One way of getting through painful times includes valuing, spending time with, and paying attention to the people you care about. Sadness lets us know who matters and what matters. If we did not have sadness, we would not know what is important. Reality as it is cannot always be avoided, but the sustaining relationships we do have are worth investing in, paying attention to, and fostering.