Last week we talked about tips for managing our own ongoing mental load from COVID-19. This week we are going to address a different part of the experience — ways we can cope with continually witnessing the pain, loss or challenge of others.
To frame this, I will share that I recently had an odd experience. On Monday, just before bed, I received several messages in a row about the impact of COVID on people and a community I love. It was hard, and sad, to hear about even closer impact from this virus. Several hours later I woke up, teetering on the edge of a panic attack. I recognized it because I have felt that way exactly one other time in my life, when my infant daughter was gravely ill. That comparison alone was enough to encourage me share this information with you.
For reference, I am not typically an anxious person. I offer that for two reasons: 1) Don’t discount the impact of repeated exposure to loss, trauma and/or pain just because you happen to be a chill person. Everyone has a limit. And, 2) if you are someone who does struggle with anxiety, please know that this year you are dealing with more than usual. Please don’t be hard on yourself if you are having more difficulty. You’re not living in the same world you were.
There is a lot of pain around us, both on a global scale and in our own back yards. Even if everything in your immediate experience is going fairly well, many of us who are empaths can feel overwhelmed by the pain of others. Feeling overwhelmed, or even secondary trauma (typically associated with healthcare professionals) is not out of the realm of possibility in the weirdness that is 2020. If you are having difficulty staying centered in this particularly painful year, here are some tips for managing the pain of others’ experiences.
Ground Yourself: Part of why we have difficulty witnessing other people’s pain is, at our core, it feels threatening to us. Even if we don’t recognize it explicitly, our brains are considering, “What if this happens to me?” If you begin to feel overwhelmed by another’s story or pain, sensory and situational grounding can be really helpful. Saying things like, “I am in a safe place” “I know how to get help if I need it” and keying into your five senses can reorient you to your current, safe experience.
Recognize & Set Your Limits: If you are someone who is particularly sensitive to others’ pain, you will need to limit what you take in. I cannot safely read, watch or witness what lots of other people can. I evaluate carefully what I have coming up or what time of day it is (i.e. not before bedtime) if I am going to do or see something that is harsh. Obviously, we cannot avoid knowing or hearing about other’s pain (nor should we, see below) but there’s no medal for taking on every article, news report, or friend’s need. You are not a limitless vessel of giving, so don’t try to be.
Reframe Your Response/Responsibility: I actually wrote about this one in last week’s Instagram post. As people of faith, we must remember that we do not bear witness to pain alone. Rather than shouldering the experience on our own, we share it with Jesus. It is our chance to share in His heart for His people — and remember that we are not in charge of fixing it alone. It’s way less intense when we encounter pain with support, rather than on our own. “A burden shared is a burden halved.” ~ T.A. Webb
Ride the Fear Wave: In last week’s post, I offered “ride the grief wave” as a way to manage your own losses. This concept is similar, but associated with the fear that can come from the many threats and destruction we are watching others encounter time and again. Whether it’s just a little wave of anxiety or a full-fledged panic attack, it’s going to feel awful. And, that recognition is probably the most important place to start. “This feels awful — and, I won’t always feel this way.” Fear and panic attacks typically resolve faster when you don’t fight them. Rather, tune into your breath, close your eyes, and ride the thing out. Exactly as I had to do in the middle of the night this week.
My dear readers, this time we are living through is so unique. Unlike the usual pattern of life where individuals have hard seasons, we are encountering one collectively. That requires us to not only manage our own pain, but also possibly cope with our ongoing witness to one another’s difficulties. Be kind to yourselves, and forthright about how hard this is. God is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18), so I imagine He is hugging every one of us now. Thank goodness. We are able to love each other better when we aren’t trying to do it alone.