There you are, humming through your day to day. Sure, life isn’t perfect, but it’s generally going well. At least, it's going in ways that seem to be expected.
And then it happens. The sudden death of a beloved family member. The revelation that your husband has been carrying on a full-blown long-term affair complete with secret vacations while you’ve been home caring for your young children. You drive through town hearing sirens, only to pull down your block and realize its your home that has burnt to the ground. You get diagnosed with a serious illness. You're told to pack up your office during a bombshell of major layoffs, and in the matter of moments you lose your professional identity, daily routine, and financial stability. You miscarry when you were certain this time would be different.
Whatever the exact circumstances are, the common theme is all the same: In an instant the safety and security of your life as you knew it is blown into a million pieces.
It is replaced by unbearable pain. Tremendous loss. Trauma. It feels like you don’t know anything anymore; except the fact that the life you were living is over. It can only be replaced by a new one. But the visions of the future that took you through your day to day life have gone dark.
You wonder, 'Is this really it?'
I was recently working with a client in New York who described a time in her life when it felt like there was an evil force that was out to take her down. Within the span of a few months she was contending with a major chronic illness that robbed her ability to have a second child; she was flying back and forth to doctors in another state for help of uncertain outcome; her mother died tragically and without warning; her husband lost both his parents and was diagnosed with incurable cancer; and then, when her husband picked her up from the airport after one of her hospitalizations, a young man attempted suicide by driving his car head-on into theirs at 120mph. The only thing that saved their life was a slight correction her husband made that sent them flying into a tree on impact.
It reminded me of the movie Final Destination. Perhaps as you're reading it now it seems unbelievable. But there are times in each of our lives when it seems that devastation is relentless and we can not come up for air. How do you bear the pain, cope, and move through each day until one day, you live into a new future? While it may seem there will never be a new day again, the truth is that we all need to be able to withstand the tremendous unexpected challenges of life.
Read on below to learn the tips I use with both myself, and with clients, when needing to bear the unbearable.
Grounding and Self-Soothing Techniques:
The physical manifestation of personal trauma and loss is consuming. Use these grounding and self-soothing techniques to help put a stopper on emotional flooding.
Repeat over and over, either out loud or in your head: “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.”
Or, choose a statement of your own, like, “A new day will come,” or “I am still breathing.” Repeat.
Bring your thoughts back to center. When you are being flooded by traumatic thoughts of the past or future, continue to correct your mind to the current moment. Close your eyes and walk yourself step by step through visualizing the current room you are in. Envision something you know exists in your world right now and hold the image your mind there. When your mind wanders, bring it back again.
Physically ground yourself: Sit in a chair and plant both feet firmly on the ground. Feel your feet connecting in all points of contact with the floor. Feel your buttocks on the seat. Feel the weight of your arms resting on your body or the chair. Focus on these points of contact and keep your mind there.
Likewise, use this grounding technique when you are lying in bed and struggling: Talk yourself through all the points of contact your body is making with the bed. “I feel the side of my eye touching the pillow. My cheek is on the pillow. My shoulder is on the mattress. My hip is on the mattress” I repeat this physical connection with the points of contact, it helps replace emotional flooding, and I am able to self-soothe enough to fall sleep.
Breathe: your body and mind can not function without enough oxygen. When we are in a state of brief or prolonged extreme stress our breathing becomes shallow. Take breaths as deep as your lungs will allow. Breathe out fully, and repeat.
Personal and Mental Reminders and Practices:
1. Remember that at the end of the day, you only have control over your own behaviors and choices. What can be painful about devastating experiences is that they were, or are, completely out of your control. This truth of life can either be a travesty or a gift. I remember Viktor Frankl’s quote,
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
2. Seek and cultivate love: From a very young age I came to the realization that to love and to be loved is our purpose in this world, above all things. In times of crisis, love can either be abundant, or it can feel scarce or painful. Perhaps we are even distanced from love in an effort to protect ourselves or others. Whatever the circumstances, do what you can within your means to seek the love of others you trust and can depend on. Make small choices to cultivate love with those you trust and can depend on. This can save your life.
3. Seek and cultivate beauty: Do not underestimate the importance of outer beauty. This can help nurture and heal from the inside out. Wear the clothes that make you feel at your best. Get up in the morning and spend a moment on your hair and makeup, if you wear it. Walk through spaces that are beautiful. Put fresh flowers on your table. Focus on the beauty of a unique bird’s call outside, or put on beautiful music. Surround your Self with as much beauty as possible.
4. Never forget your own strength. Hold your head high and remember the innate strength you possess from within. As Viktor Frankl also said,
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
You possess the strength to not only carry on, but to ultimately face, accept, and cultivate the life you now need to live. I believe this. And I encourage you to actively remind yourself of this in moments of despair.
It is the unexpected heartbreaks of life that, at times, can make pure existence feel like an incredulous and cruel joke. But I also know that it is the unexpected heartbreaks of life that can be a life saving gift. They hold the potential to jolt us out of our stagnancies, however comfortable and safe; and, though one must persist through the pain in order to get there, they hold the possibility of delivering us into new ways of living, thinking, growing, and cultivating meaning that would have never otherwise happened.
In times of extreme crisis, it is also so important to create a safe space to work through your difficulties. Seek out protected time with a professional counselor or therapist who can hold your hand and provide you with the nurturance you need to walk through the darkness and into a new day. Times of extreme need should not be solely navigated on your own. We all need someone to help coach us through. Call me at 860-339-6515 to discuss working together or for referral to another caring and capable provider.
I hope these tips will help you survive the unthinkable until you are able to - some day - hold what is hard as part of the story of your past and ultimately begin to thrive again.
Lauren L. Drago, MSEd, LMHC, LPC is a women's therapist and counselor, providing individual counseling in Old Saybrook, CT and online in greater CT, NY & PA. She specializes in working with smart, insightful and capable women to overcome stress, anxiety, loss of identity, self-limiting beliefs, perfectionism, marriage strain, and the pressure of "trying to do it all." Lauren has a passion for helping others to achieve the happy, fulfilling, productive, and meaningful life they deserve. She believes that every woman can and should live out her personal definition of her own best life. Call (860) 339-6515 to schedule your free initial consultation.