In our upcoming 28-day course, “Loving through Difficulty” we’re going to turn attention to the suffering we experience from facing difficult situations in our caregiving of others.
Maybe we’re watching someone we love experience an illness, or maybe they are aging and losing some of their independence. Perhaps we’re caring for a child who is frustrated as they come up against the challenges of their disabilities. Or our loved one is sinking into another depression.
We might be tired, overwhelmed, feeling the impacts of stretching ourselves to meet the latest challenge. Maybe we’re having a hard time because we feel fear of being criticized or feeling unsure if we’re making the right choices.
When I say we’re going to turn towards these unpleasant, painful things, don’t worry. We’re not going to turn headlong into pain, we’re going to gently explore more skillful ways to deal with it. We’re going to actually turn attention towards finding some relief in ways that work.
This whole endeavor we’re on, caring for another person or other people, is essentially a way of relieving pain. We want our loved one to feel better, maybe to heal and to recover and to step into the best life that is possible for them, or maybe just to get cleaned up and have a good breakfast. Maybe a walk in the sunshine. Perhaps finding the right medication. A good day at school with friends. If our caring is for a community, we want to bring certain qualities of safety, of ease, of living with freedom from difficulties like addiction, violence, impacts of racism.
If our mission is to make someone feel better, to bring relief from pain, this course is going to help us start to see what works. Starting with our own need to feel better.
Is it working?
Years ago I remember being with a woman who had had a long labor–one of those labors that takes several days, contractions not getting strong enough to make significant change, but not letting up to allow for any rest. We were implementing all kinds of comfort strategies, hot packs, hot baths and showers, all the usual tricks. Her midwife suggested some wine or Benadryl or one of those strategies that sometimes helps with what we call a prodromal labor: a long and not coordinated early phase where knocking out uterine activity can be the best way to give the labor a chance to really get going. When this didn’t work, she wanted to go to the hospital to get relief. At first she tried a narcotic; that made her disoriented but didn’t really help her to tolerate the contractions any better. She then got an epidural, and that failed as well. I don’t even remember all the things that didn’t work for this mom. A nurse came in and asked her if she wanted a Popsicle. It had been at least a day since she was allowed to eat anything as is the case once you’ve checked in to Labor and Delivery. The woman, who had been quiet for hours, focused on her labor and doing the best she could to cope, looked up and said the first sentence she had uttered for a long time. “How long will THAT take to go into effect?”
We go down certain paths of treatments, medications, or therapies to see if they will make things better. We try things, see how they work, stick with them a while and if they don’t work, we try something else. If we look at work in, say, public policy, we check our efforts to see if they’re working with some research, some investigating. We go back, and look at what we intended to address or improve and we see if it brought results. If it is making things easier, relieving difficulty, improving quality of life, healing people. Sometimes, we find out that something is not having any lasting impact, or maybe even that it’s doing harm. And we have to let it go and see if there is a better solution.
If you’ve been supporting someone through a health challenge or through chronic pain or illness, you may have been trying lots of ways to help them find relief. There’s that stirring of love and compassion in us that wants to make things better somehow.
But you also may be trying to find a way to make yourself to feel better, to get out of all those stuck rabbit holes in your mind, or the ways of relating to your loved one or to family members that add to the challenges of caregiving. This is hard stuff. As a loved one who is showing up for another person, you’re likely a bit like that laboring woman, facing what can feel like an impossibly difficult journey, not sure how long it will be, or if it will change, but you’re driven by this love to keep on going.
Caregivers face some of the most significant stressors that impact us in our lifetimes. We try all sorts of things to find relief, to find ways of settling our agitated hearts and minds, our hurting bodies. We see tips of self-care, checklists, maybe we take a vacation.
Sometimes these things seem to work, at least for a while.
But then we realize that an evening of taking a break and doing some binge watching a show, or taking a hot bath, or maybe a glass of wine, or being really organized so we feel some control doesn’t give us any lasting or meaningful relief.
When you’re in labor, there is a way to get relief no matter what is going on. If you can’t get out of it, can’t go over it, the best way is to go through it, but differently. This is where we can train our brain to relate to our difficulties in a slightly different way.
Bear with me. This is better than a Popsicle.
Great balls of yucky snow
Samsara is a term used to describe the cycle of pain and suffering, the wheel that we’re on, according to Buddhist teachings. We experience something painful, and we don’t quite know how to respond to it, so maybe we do something awkward and unhelpful. Let’s think of these awkward and unhelpful things as two ways of trying to get relief. One is to avoid it, just push it away, and another is to grab for something that might feel better, and that might be dreaming about a vacation, or going shopping, or my favorite, chocolate.
But instead of solving the discomfort, we get more pain or discomfort. When that same painful thing comes up again, we now remember our past experience, it’s really thick and sticky, so now it’s like two times the pain, and we might try again to relieve it but we don’t really know how, so we end up hurting some more. And then a few hours or weeks or months later, we find ourselves feeling some familiar echo of this painful experience, and now it’s three times the pain, even more stickier, and we are really activated now.
We’ve often added a ‘why me’ to it, or a ‘here we go again’, and ‘why am I so stupid’. This aggression towards ourselves makes us even more wired and maybe even determined to avoid the situation on some level, but whoop. There it is again. We’ve got all this pain and now we’re maybe getting angry and blaming others. We act out some awkward way of coping, now habitual, and it again, adds on a whole lot of pain, more layers, more confusion.
It’s like a snowball that we roll down a hill. Sticky, heavy snow that accumulates more and more. Every time it touches an experience that we find painful, it grabs up another layer to try to cover it all up.
When we start to collect twigs, dirt sticking out, roadside sludge, we may see that this is getting out of control, or, we may just go on thinking making big balls of cold snow is just what we do. We did it growing up, we learned it from our family, we saw other people doing it. Maybe we even feel nostalgic about it. Maybe we make a snowman that feels all friendly like the one with the magic hat.
But inside that cold ball, we have a heart that is hurting and wanting all along to love and to be loved. To actually not be all covered up.
Our particular ways of trying to awkwardly make pain go away might be to get all caught up in what other people are doing, or to try to be impossibly perfect. Maybe your habits and conditioning lead you to stay in motion, tidying up life, your home, your kids, your emotions, so that the pain isn’t going to bubble through. Maybe we have a few drinks, eat too much, isolate too much, watch too much Netflix, work too much, control things, avoid things, act out our pain with aggression towards others, or with aggression towards ourselves.
Each of us have endless ways of trying to get comfortable amidst the things that we can’t get away from. Our habits and conditioning tell us what to try, but the mechanism is the same. Pushing away what is unpleasant or reaching for something pleasant.
I’m raising a teenager who is practicing her own ways of relieving the distress of, well, being a teenager. Being a girl in this world. Facing the pain and confusion of finding her way. But as her mom, I go into stress reactions watching her have stress reactions.
I experience distress. I become controlling, and don’t know what to do sometimes with how helpless I feel.
When she’s having a tough time, or we have a mother-daughter conflict, I’m likely to turn to snacking or to self-blaming. I go into a pattern of wanting to be an impossibly perfect mother whose daughter would never be caught up in this pain. I know my own patterns from my childhood spin the wheel from time to time and it adds a pressure to the situation. I work harder to find answers for her, and though I know that as a teenager she needs to find her own, I still shove them towards her.
These things don’t bring lasting relief to my own distress, but in my habit mind, it’s always worth a try.
Doing the Research
When I pay attention, I can be like those researchers, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Not just for our interactions, for our relationship, but having to do with how I relate to my own experience. I can make some commitments to catch myself when I start to go down that path that isn’t working, with humility and forgiveness. Because my daughter and I and billions of people on the planet, we all have brains that work in similar ways.
We now understand more about how the mind works and it’s no surprise that we do these unhelpful things when we experience stress. Buddha’s theory now is explained by advances in neuroscience, psychology, and even epigenetics has revealed that we have stress patterns wired in us from our ancestors!
- In times of stress, our mind is more likely to return to amygdala led reactions- patterned responses built from our implicit memory, rather than to see more expansive and creative solutions. It’s hard to try something new when we feel unsteady.
- Negative emotion can lead to Automatic Negative Thoughts and behaviors. Which in turn, lead to more negative emotion. Big snowball situation here.
- We are wired to react to grabbing something that we think will make us feel good and avoiding things that are unpleasant.
But here’s the fascinating insight into what brings lasting relief. It’s finding a way to be with this uncomfortable state or situation we find ourselves in. It’s letting contractions be contractions, and noticing the ‘non-contraction’. Getting curious and staying still to see what life is really like.
Systems of Regulation
Paul Gilbert describes that we use three emotional regulation systems to try to find some equilibrium, and these involve neurotransmitters that bring about different effects on the body.
Dopamine triggers us to keep going for things that don’t really bring relief, but they cause such a big ‘itch’ that we are wired to scratch. This relief-seeking behavior is part of our Acquisition system. Our Acquisition mindset has us thinking that everything will be perfect when (we have that piece of cake, we make more money, we find a better house, we beat this illness, we get likes on Facebook). It’s not all bad. We all like to have a ‘win’ like finishing a project. But we’ll see how it can trick us into relieving distress, and how this mechanism can be easily manipulated by products and technologies. Well like that selfie posted on social media.
Cortisol rules our Threat Avoidance system and leads us to try fighting, fleeing, freezing, or ‘following’, which we’ll talk more about later. Our cortisol dominated states lead us to have all the health effects that, according to research, go along too often with caregiving. Cortisol dominated states lead us to live with inflammation, fatigue, foggy and anxious brains, and without mitigation, we face stress-related diseases, like diabetes, heart disease, obesity and an otherwise shortened lifespan.
We need a bit of ‘get up and go.’ Cortisol isn’t ‘bad’, it’s just becoming a depleted resource for those who are triggering a steady dose of it. If we face a difficulty, respond to it, let it go, we build resiliency. It’s the constant expenditure of our stress response system’s to get away from what’s difficult, to fight with it, to add to it, to live as if we could just escape difficulty if we just work hard enough to be a good person, or just stay home, far from harm’s way, that blasts through our body and mind’s resources.
But one of these three is a state of calm, of connection, where oxytocin dominates. In this state of Calm and Connection, we find balance in the midst of life’s storms in a more helpful way. This emotional regulation pathway leads to a sense of wellbeing, our heart rate and blood pressure regulate, we digest nutrients, we restore and regenerate damaged tissues and we feel love. We have a more expansive capacity to notice things around us, the good as well as the difficult. We feel compassion. We see our pain as not something that isolates us from one another, but bonds us in a common humanity.
This is what Rick Hanson calls the Green zone and it’s the place we’re going to practice working with in times of difficulty.
Melting the Snow
In this 28-day online course, we’re going to invite the possibility of melting some of that unhelpful stuff. We’re going to step back and lovingly see what might not be working. But we’re going to appreciate that the good news is that we have a built in impulse to get happier, to try to find relief. We are designed to be compassionate beings who want to make things better.
Each difficult moment isn’t a failure. Not only are difficulties inevitable, they are universal. None of us are spared from this stuff.
And each difficulty is an opportunity. We can start over and try out something else. And when we find something that is helpful, we can practice it over and over again. When we find some in-roads to retrieving our inherent kindness and warmth in moments of difficulty, we start generating more warmth. We find that we can apply kindness to any situation, even when we are doing our habit-mind stuff, and even if we do repeat a habit, that love is there to warm and melt any of that snow, right now, in this moment. Not letting it gather in the first place.
We’re not trying to get new hearts or to become better people. My wish for our time together is simply that we find some freedom from what gets in the way of who we really are, that allows our essential, loving natures to be less covered up with those layers of misunderstandings and unhelpful coping strategies.
I’m writing this as the weather is 24 below zero outside. It’s the end of January and my family has been house-bound all week with this dangerous weather. I’ve lived in the Midwest my whole life. I know that it’s a patterned response to think winter will last forever. We complain. We are shocked. But a part of us knows and remembers that spring will come. I don’t know how warm it will be when you read this, but you can notice if there is just a bit of warmth that brings you some ease.
Let’s let that warmth begin to grow. Melt that snow away.