In my therapy practice I can pretty easily classify my clients’ struggles into two categories. They are either struggling with overwhelm or isolation, and oftentimes both. Overwhelm comes in many flavors. I sit with young adults just starting out and older adults who are overwhelmed with school work, extracurricular activities, societal expectations and bills, just to name a few of the many ways overwhelm can present itself.
So often these days I hear stories from men and women who feel they can’t leave their current job, even though the workload keeps increasing, but their rate of pay is not. This can lead to feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. In Western psychological terms, overwhelm is labeled anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or panic. Even addiction can be seen as a way of coping with overwhelm.
The theme of isolation has different manifestations as well. So many of my patients feel inadequate in their parenting, their work productivity and in their connection to community while trying to achieve the standard of living the media tells us we should be striving for. These chronic feelings of lack and being “less than” often lead to what modern psychology would label, low self-esteem, depression, destructive personality disorders, and again, addiction in all it’s forms.
How can mindfulness help you cope with overwhelm and isolation? Let’s start by looking at overwhelm. Another way to label overwhelm is to call it chronic stress. In these terms we can look at what is known about the nervous system and how mindfulness practices can reset an overwhelmed nervous system. Mindfulness helps calm a nervous mind by building up resistance to distractions that often trigger, anxiety, fear, and anger – all overwhelming emotions. By focusing on the breath or another object of meditation on a regular basis, the brain and nervous system are soothed, the fight or flight response becomes less of a daily experience, and a greater sense of calm begins to influence our lives.
As for isolation, mindfulness can help us identify habits of thought, word, and deed that keep us feeling like we don’t belong. Mindfulness practice requires a sense of inquiry and curiosity. When we are mindful we can ask ourselves, “what is this loneliness? …where is the root of this lack of motivation? What is this sadness?” After identification of some the roots of our sadness and loneliness we can begin to weaken these often stubborn roots, and cultivate new, more productive ways of viewing our thoughts, words, and deeds, not the least of which is a healthy dose of kindness and compassion toward the self.
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