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What To Do When You Can’t Conjure Gratitude?

Since hurricane Sandy hit this fall- ravaging my parent’s home, business, our neighborhood and larger community- I’ve been forced to further reconcile the impermanence of life; all things are temporary and the only constant is change.  As my parents continue to work towards putting their lives back together, I like so many others, have a whole new appreciation for the simple things. Remembering each day to appreciate the good in a heartfelt way centers me. It aligns me with what is going right, and gives me stamina to face what is not working.

And in light of the recent bombing in Boston, as a society unfortunately we are forced to confront the debilitating nature of traumatic events yet again.  It seems as if we have had plenty in the months since Sandy, with the Newtown elementary school shooting being one of the most horrific of all.

I know it can be hard to practice gratitude amidst such darkness. I have been there… a place so wrought with difficulty that appreciation and gratitude (though they were present emotions for me at the time) did not have enough juice to redirect my emotional experience.

So what do you do when difficulty strikes, and despite your best efforts to use gratitude to realign your emotions towards the positive, you are still stuck in a dark place?

Here is a three-step process that (usually) helps me:

  1. Name what you are feeling + go into the specifics. Here’s how to do it. Take your attention into your body and locate what you are feeling.  Is it a racing heart, tightening in your chest, clenching in your thighs?  What does it feel like- butterflies, rapid pulsations, a throbbing pain?  Spend sometime naming out loud where the actual sensation is in your body and then the quality of the feeling.   Keep your attention on the actual sensations in your body, and notice how they shift. Here’s an example. “I feel restriction in my chest with a low, dull, pain circulating around my heart- as though someone pushed into the core of chest with two full hands.” (Thanks to Josh Pais and Committed Impulse for teaching me this.)
  2. Do something to discharge the energy in your body.  For me this usually involves moving my body in a vigorous way- like a fast vinyasa yoga class, or a three-mile run.  However, I remember back to my days when I was sick with cancer and rigorous physical activity was not an option. I totally get it if you are not capable of working this out with vigorous movement.  Instead consider what you are capable of.  Anything from a slow paced walk, to dancing in your living to music (it doesn’t have to be upbeat music- especially if you are feeling melancholy, you can rock out to subdued music too), to rolling up into a ball and gently rocking back and forth on your floor. Movement offers the body a way to physically process the energy it needs to discharge. Consider what works for your body, and choose a physical action that is soothing.
  3.  Breathe.  Connect with your breath and spend some time taking deep breaths with your eyes opened.  Anchor into your breath while you simultaneously become very present with the room you are in.  Notice every sensory detail of your surroundings- the colors, the scents, the sounds.  What does the chair feel like that you are sitting in?  How about the floor you are standing on?  Notice at least three details in your environment that stand out to you.  And then continue to connect with your breath, breathing deeply into your abdomen, expanding your side ribcage, and continuing to breathe deeply into your upper ribcage and clavicle region of your chest.  When you exhale release the clavicle region first, then the remainder of the upper ribcage, the side ribcage and then the lower abdomen last. Repeat the breathing for at least 4 cycles.

After you go through this three-step process see if you can’t return your attention to what you are grateful for.  If gratitude still feels like a stretch, ask yourself this:  What’s going right?  Keep yourself focused on the immediate present moment.  What in this very moment is working for you?  Start with the smallest most minute detail, and see if you can conjure heart felt gratitude- even if it’s for the tiniest of tiny detail.

Remember if anxiety and difficult feelings persist reach out for help.  You do not have to go through this alone.  Tell your friends and family that you are going through a difficult time and lean into your support system.  If needed, reach out to a therapist for help.  I have struggled substantially with chronic anxiety and I would not be where I am today without the skilled assistance of a therapist.  If you are interested in hearing my journey to healing anxiety take a listen to this interview. (My very first interview ever.  I still feel incredibly shy about sharing this with the world, but in the event it may help someone else out, I welcome you to listen. Big thanks to Irene for this.  Btw, she is an amazing somatic experiencing practitioners for those needing support with trauma.

In the meanwhile, be well.  I send you all so much love. May our light rise up in the face of darkness and may all those affected by the tragedy in Boston feel our support.

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