As the world opens up, who do you want to be?

Who do you want to be as you emerge from this past year and a half? We have an opportunity to change how we engage with ourselves and others as we begin to step back into a slowly opening world. A client of mine recently coined the expression perfectly, she said “I don’t want to have a hot girl summer, I want to have a healing girl summer.” 

So what does that look like and how do we begin to engage in a new way – especially after so much hardship and grief? We have been unmoored and unsettled. How do we find our footing again after the collective trauma of the last 18 months? 

As a mental health and wellness professional, part of what I do is provide people with psychoeducation and teach tools and skills for living a better life, all of which are sorely needed right now. 

Understanding the trauma of 2020.

Oftentimes people underestimate trauma, they misunderstand or think that trauma involves a single horrible event or that PTSD diagnoses are only for military veterans. In the world of therapy and psychology, there has been a framing of “little t” trauma and “big t” trauma – trauma is trauma and it impacts us all, just in different ways – just as the global pandemic has affected each and every one of us, just in different ways, all of which need healing and tending to.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the preeminent experts on trauma, describes being traumatized as continuing to organize life as if the trauma is still going on and every encounter is viewed through the lenses of the past. Dr. van der Kolk elaborates further stating that after trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. If you think you’re not affected I would invite you to imagine being in a crowded room with people coughing and sneezing – after the events of the last year, your nervous system will have a heightened stress response to even just the thought. 

I share this information not to frighten or depress but to help bring to light and awareness what may be happening inside of you or to someone you love. It remains unknown the full impact of the pandemic and we really can not even begin to speculate, however, the sooner we recognize that we have been traumatized the sooner we can step towards healing. 

The power of choice.

With knowledge comes the power to make choices. We gain the freedom to choose how we want to re-emerge from this time and re-engage in the world. Our culture has been achievement and accomplishment focused, which does serve a purpose – like getting vaccines and medical treatments developed in record time. However, I invite you to ponder if a “go go go” pace of living serves you on a deeper level. Are you showing up in your life as the person you really want to be? Are you interacting with the world around you in a way that is in alignment with your personal values? What if the global pandemic has offered those of us that are still here a reset – an opportunity to pivot, shift direction, or recommit to a direction for our lives? 

Great growth can come from great tragedy and we have the opportunity to transform but sometimes we need a little help along the way. Transformation always begins with awareness – a sense of knowing that something is not quite right or feels a little off. Sometimes we can pretend it’s not happening and stick our head in the sand but, in my opinion, that gap between knowing and avoiding is sort of like putting a band-aid on a festering wound. At some point, it’s going to get infected and you won’t be able to ignore it anymore. So what do we do from here? 

Our mind is a pretty tricky operator – it likes to catastrophize some things or suppress and avoid other things – it has lots of opinions, many of them wrong. If you’re feeling indignant right now that’s your mind reacting with a “how dare you” right about now. 

Discover tools for living as your best self.

As a therapist I love to share with people tools for living and healing – some are simple and some are complex – and some work for some people and not for others. But one of the most valuable concepts I can share is psychological flexibility. The concept of psychological flexibility as I share it comes from the modality and theory called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This is a type of therapy and philosophy that has so many practical applications and one can really integrate this way of living into everyday life. As a therapy, it has been heavily researched and proved to be effective in many areas such as chronic pain, anxiety, trauma, and more. 

An interesting thing in ACT we do not try to remove the symptom – we work to change our relationship with the symptom. If I tell you not to think of a pink elephant you will think of a pink elephant. If there is a pink elephant in the room, and I ask you to notice it and let it be there, eventually your focus will shift and you may even forget that it is sitting in the corner. Eventually, you may even develop a new relationship with the pink elephant, this is psychological flexibility in a nutshell.

ACT is comprised of six core principles; a sense of mindful awareness or presence, acceptance, cognitive defusion, perspective taking, values, and committed action. Two notable ACT psychologists, Dr. Diana Hill and Dr. Debbie Sorensen invite the question – “what if you could start living a rich and meaningful life today?”ACT gives us some tools and structures to explore what that means to us as individuals. In this article, I will invite you to discover the mindful awareness principle and give you some ways to integrate aspects of the principle into your day-to-day life. 

Explore moment-to-moment awareness.

First, we explore mindful presence or attention in more detail, this mindful presence does not mean we are meditating all day long, but a more deliberate act of noticing the present moment. When anxious feelings arise, they usually are bringing our minds into the past or the future, we worry about things that we have no immediate control over. However we do not need to be anxious to experience disconnection with the present – we can be on autopilot, multi-tasking, or zoned out. Scrolling through our phones as loved ones talk to us, eating mindlessly in front of the tv or computer, or doing too many things at the same time. This is habitual and comes from the fast and highly distractible culture we currently live in – few people are immune, myself included.

However, we can cultivate an awareness and presence of mind, we can ask ourselves “where am I checked out and where would I like to be a little more engaged in my life?”. Perhaps this is with our partners, kids, or work – but when we begin to practice noticing in the present moment we can see what is happening now, we can make more intentional and deliberate choices to connect with another person or a task, allowing for a new way of engaging. We can pause in a moment, notice what is happening, and choose how we want to interact. 

How does present moment awareness help us? Well, research indicates that there are significant benefits to our quality of life including but not limited to improved resilience, increased brain functionality, reduced inflammation, and a greater sense of compassion. Most of all though, increased present moment awareness helps us actually be present for the meaningful and precious moments in our lives which also can provide us with the secondary benefit of gratitude. If we have learned anything in recent times is that life can be so fragile, we have many opportunities to practice gratitude in our lives if we are present in them. 

Learn how to practice.

So how is this supposed to work, do you need to meditate for an hour a day or what? In ACT there is no emphasis on meditation practices but they are certainly a great way to practice strengthening your present moment awareness muscles. We can begin to introduce awareness into all aspects of our everyday life – during cooking, brushing your teeth, sitting at a traffic light, or even just noticing your body as you are sitting in a chair. The challenge comes in remembering to pay attention but I find if you commit yourself to practicing being aware during a daily task like washing dishes you begin to increase your capacity for focus and attention during other parts of your day. 

Another time to practice is that moment when you reach for your phone out of boredom or anxiety – how many times do we engage in that mindless social media scroll and how much benefit are we really getting from that? Chances are that we are not doing much for our sense of well-being in the scrolling. So maybe we can explore what it would be like to resist that urge and notice what is happening for us at the moment. Exploring the feelings in the moment – is it a sense of loneliness, boredom, anxiety – and how can we make a different choice to engage? 

If you are feeling scattered and frazzled, ask yourself if there is a way that you can dial in the focus on one task at a time, sometimes something as simple as using a timer can help. I often recommend to clients that they set a timer to engage in a task – even if it is just 15 minutes, and engage fully in that task until the timer rings. Does the task feel different, did you feel more efficient, clearer, and focused? 

Dr. Ellen Langer, an expert researcher of mindfulness, states that the opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness. I like this description because it is very easy to understand what mindfulness really means – it is not anything other than focused attention in the moment, we can also add to that focused attention without judgment. Just noticing and experiencing what is occurring right now. 

Here are some practical tools.

Going forward I offer you some exercises to practice from a book called “ACT Daily Journal” by Dr. Diana Hill and Dr. Debbie Sorensen, that can help you cultivate your present moment awareness skills in the next few weeks. 

  • Catch your distracted mind – just notice how many times you find yourself scattered, checked out, or rushing around. No need to change, only observe.
  • Can you notice one enjoyable moment in your day and set it in your memory? It can be as simple as feeling a warm breeze across your skin.
  • Enjoy the silence. Our senses are continuously over-stimulated – see if you can create a few minutes of silence in your day.
  • Notice your physical sensations. Find a time in your day to notice the sensations in your body, maybe it is when you sit at your desk or when you lay down in bed. This also can act as a grounding exercise.

Healing is a process that happens slowly – ACT is one tool that can help us engage in the world a little more intentionally and with a greater sense of purpose. I will be sharing the principles of ACT and offering some ways to integrate these principles into your life in this ongoing series of articles with the hope that these tools will offer you some insights and practical ways to live a more meaningful and happier life. Mental health is not just about reducing mental illness but about actively engaging in the cultivation of mental wellness.  

Dive deeper with these resources.

References and resources mentioned in this article are the following: