Not Unbothered: How to Navigate Difficult Thoughts And Feelings When They Come Up During this New Year

Winter is a time for cozy hibernation, while the world sleeps. It’s a natural time for reflection, and to integrate the lessons you’ve learned from the past year, as you evolve into the person you will become next year.

I think we’re always looking for peace of mind, learning how to navigate through the storms of life, to manage significant stress, as well as difficult thoughts and emotions. It’s liberating when you start to accept, heal, and relate in a positive way to your thoughts and feelings. But how do we actually do the work, come to acceptance, process emotions, and grow as people?

Illness can be intense, and even traumatic. Or perhaps you’ve experienced grief, stress, manipulation, childhood issues, relationship problems or family estrangement. The most common two reactions are either to obsessively over-analyze or avoid and deny the emotions. Both of these reactions ultimately leave you stuck, with your emotions festering under the surface. Resisting your feelings only really leads to suffering.

For me, the first step on this journey has been to develop greater self-awareness. Can you name your feelings or write down your thoughts? What do they feel like, and where are they felt as sensations in your body (a fluttery stomach, a tight chest, constricted throat etc.)? Spending a mindful moment with your emotions to get to know them, instead of shoving them back down, really helps you to make wiser decisions. Taking that deep breath before responding during a disagreement stops me from saying something angry, or helps me know when I need to take a break because I’m feeling overwhelmed.

It’s important to let emotions flow through you, but to stay grounded all the while. Emotions are like electric energy in this respect. If you recall a stressful past experience, it’s important not to become flooded by emotions (to torture this metaphor further, you might short circuit if this happens!). The way to stay grounded is to stay connected to the present moment, and to your body. Breathe, scan your heart and stomach for sensations (which can be easier to identify than the feelings), look around, listen to the sounds in your environment.

Remember that emotions are like guests, and you are the host. You are not your feelings, and they are not the truth of you. If you feel sad, guilty, or angry today, this doesn’t mean you are a sad, bad, or angry person. Feelings arise and then pass away, while you stay… you! Keeping this distance from your feelings, separating you-the-host (your awareness) from your emotional ‘guests’, helps give you much-needed perspective.

Stop any runaway trains of thought if you become anxious, by breathing, taking a short walk or stretching, making tea, etc. Responding with acceptance and compassion by taking care of yourself when you experience difficult thoughts or feelings is life changing. Do you treat yourself like a person who is only worthy of love when they don’t make mistakes? Turn that around and you’ll finder greater peace and happiness very quickly. Literally start by just doing for yourself what you would recommend for a sick friend when you feel stressed, think soft blankets, rest, cups of cocoa, and favorite movies. You are entitled to acceptance and love, like all creatures. Tell yourself that.

Forget Picture Perfect: How Photography is Teaching Me Perspective on Grief, Stress & Illness

I haven’t posted in awhile because I’ve been coping with some health issues that, well, I’m not ready put pen to paper and write about yet. It’s reminded me that grief over illness loss comes in waves, and isn’t limited to the onset of a condition. Body breakdowns fluctuate over the course of an illness. And limitations affect you differently at different stages of your life. In my 20s it was career and in my 30s it’s been more about family.

I’ve been trying to find those small, good moments and really appreciating them, whether they’re beautiful, or joyful, or hilarious, or super interesting. Not perfect moments. Waiting for those would be like waiting for pigs to fly. I’ve noticed that when something good is happening, I worry that it will be hijacked by…pain, fatigue, stress, GI issues (etc.,etc.,etc.) I’m constantly vigilant, waiting for another flare-up to make me cancel my plans or a painsomnia night to make me scrap my daily to-dos. Those may not sound like very serious problems to someone without a chronic illness. But never being able to accomplish anything makes you doubt your self-worth, especially in our productivity oriented culture. Disappointing the people you care about most threatens your greatest vulnerability, which is losing your community– losing love.

But hyper-focusing on what is bad won’t protect me from a flare or another illness-related loss. But it might prevent me from truly enjoying what is good, like getting a big hug from my husband when he comes home from work, or seeing a butterfly landing on a purple coneflower inches away from me.

I was missing out on those things because my mind was always probing each situation for how it could go wrong. Of course my brain was only trying to protect me, but it wasn’t making me any happier…or safer. I started photographing flowers on my daily walks as a way to stay mindfully present in the moment. (A very literal interpretation of the proverb to ‘stop and smell the roses’! Sorry, couldn’t resist). Each blossom feels like one counter-weight against whatever is bad or negative that day.

Once I started really looking I saw an abundance of opportunities to appreciate simple pleasures. And trust me, I’m still hurting over my losses. This is not me preaching that ‘thinking positive’ will make life all sunshine and rainbows. In fact, I started seeing a therapist earlier in the summer because I wasn’t coping well with recent losses. It felt like my illness were determined to take away every dream I’d ever had for myself. Not just ‘felt like’- my illnesses have taken away the possibility of fulfilling my old dreams. That is still heartbreaking.

But it doesn’t mean that nature isn’t still beautiful. It is. Sharing love still feels so good. Eating a great meal or laughing till I cry still makes my day. And discounting those moments because they aren’t perfect or are side by side with sad or difficult moments just gives more power to my illness, and just allows it to rob me of more of my life. But I won’t let that happen anymore.

Meditation has taught me how to concentrate on one thing, like breathing, while distractions go on around me, like sounds or random thoughts arising. Learning how to gain control over what I pay attention to has been life changing. Like a spotlight, I’m gradually getting better at focusing on good moments and putting them center-stage, while leaving the bad, like pain or worry, in the wings. It’s a skill, not a a one-time epiphany.

Photographing flowers has helped me keep perspective on my illness-related, by keeping the good as well as the bad in the frame. My therapist explained that being on a hair-trigger, ready to activate the fight-or-flight stress response adrenaline rush, or alternately, shut-down and numb-out (to horribly butcher several metaphors), is the natural byproduct of trauma. Chronic illness is traumatic. So finding ways of lowering the threshold for activating the stress response is really important for managing the mental health side of illness.

Natural beauty is a powerful healing force for me. I hope these pictures offered a moment to smile about today for you, too.