I am beginning my last taught term at college (I’m studying psychotherapeutic counselling). I have been deep in essays, clinical placement and I’m still there. But it was lovely to have an easter break, to paint, to write, to sleeeep.
Here are some of the things I am enjoying right now:
Listening to BBC Radio 4 * My new journal, which is marbled and sparkly! * Not having a smartphone – it’s my 3rd month and I am feeling only relief and gratitude at this point – also, for my privilage of being able to choose to go smartphone free * Seeing the apple tree getting even more beautiful with a mist of green leaves, buds and spring-time gloriousness * The poems of Rilke * Finding stacks of my favourite books in a charity shop * My sequined cardigan * My red vegan boots * Daffodils – in the garden, on my table, the scent * Seeing violets in the woods * Working on my dissertation – so exciting! * Painting with watercolours * Planning my birthday retreat and celebrations! * Seeing moorhens building their secret nests on the lakes * rose, turmeric and cacao tea * learning rag time on the harp * Self-compassion week in the Trailblazers’ Cafe *
Dear Grace Q &A: what can I do if I’m outside my home, like shopping or working and I have anxiety? If I encounter a painful/difficult situation or I have an intrusive thought or memory that throws me off balance? I can’t use my usual tools like meditating or grounding exercises and I’m stuck on how to handle this.
I really hear you, my dear. On how difficult it is to cope with these difficulties when out and about. When you are in an environment you can’t control or make healing choices that fit you, it’s tough to handle these difficulties like anxiety, triggers or painful memories.
N.B: What I am hearing in this question is how to handle triggers, including for anxiety. And while this is a larger question, and my answer can’t constitute medical advice, I can give my opinion on options that might be available/useful. I am addressing interpersonal difficulties here rather than micro-agressions from systemic prejudice like racism, transphobia, disablism, sexism, homophobia and similar. While all too often these are at the root of the interactions that wound and wear on us daily, they are more indepth and nuanced than I can address in this single blog.
When we encounter someone/thing that throws us, several things might be happening. Our boundaries might have been crossed, we could be feeling shaken, our feelings could be hurt or overwhelming. The situation could also be triggering a mental/emotional/sensory flashback.
All these things can, I believe, be handled, but they can be handled differently. I think it’s important to break it down as it explains why something so ‘small’ can actually be really, really big.
In the case of boundaries being crossed, I think a very helpful thing to do is to get to safety as much as possible.
This might mean calling a friend who is safe, moving to another area, leaving the rude person or situation etc.
Sometimes we don’t realise a boundary has been breached until a lot later. That’s totally understandable, at that point, we can still take action to make ourselves as safe as we can. To reassure and comfort ourselves.
Sometimes it can be as small as stepping away to ‘take a phone call’ and leaving a message with a friend, or going to the bathroom to doing a breathing exercise, journal, listen to music, read a few pages of a favourite book you carry in your bag or similar.
If feelings are overwhelming, taking care of ourselves is paramount.
If we have been triggered or flashback, then it can be helpful to come back to the present if that’s possible and safe.
Things like counting all the blue objects in a room, or the ceiling tiles or floor tiles, or noticing where we are now and what’s present in this situation for all our senses, can help bring us back.
So can things like gripping the chair we are sitting on, flexing our feet/legs or hands, if that’s possible. Rocking a little or wiggling bottom on the chair can be very grounding…
In terms of a memory emerging that we have trouble coping with, it can be useful to contain the memory safely, without trying to push it down into ourselves.
Remember the Pensive in Harry Potter? Can a journal be a Pensive? Can a note titled Pensive on your smartphone contain the memory for now, and hold it until you are in a safe, held place to process it? Can you take a selfie of that moment and let the camera contain what’s happening. To witness it for you. And then you can still be able to be in the present and get yourself safe?
One thing that can be useful is to have a more extensive grounding ritual and then each time you practice it, have a small movement that feels like the beginning/completion.
Say, you might begin by putting your hand on your belly and taking a breath. Then the whole grounding ritual could unfold as you need e.g body scan, mindfulness, rooted visualisation. You could end the ritual with the same small gesture.
This then becomes something very evocative of the overall grounding. And it’s such a small movement that you could potentially do it in any situation, using it as a helpful association to bring the sensation of grounding to the fore.
Another option is to use an anchor. Often my clients have used a photo on their phone, or a piece of jewellery they always wear, as something that symbolises the now, comfort and stability.
If triggered they focus on it – it’s very discreet, just looking at your phone, you can have an ‘anchor album’ of photos on phone – and looking at the picture, thinking about the senses, the love for the image…it could be a landscape you feel safe in, a safe space in your home, picture of a nest, picture of a loved one or animal.
It’s an anchor if triggered/spiralling thoughts, to help bring you back.
How do you take care of yourself in challenging situations? Let me know in the comments.
That moment when you wake up and the pain hits you over the head with a hammer? Flare day.
The time when you can’t sleep at.all because of pain/fever/anxiety/all of the above? Flare day.
When the difficulties you deal with day to day just mushroom into impossibility? Flare day.
When living with chronic illness, disability, mental or physical, visible or invisible, we have days that are worse than others. The ‘bad’ days, the days when symptoms are stronger and strength is sapped. We all experience them, but how do we handle them?
What’s a Flare Kit?
We want so much to be well that we often don’t prep, so a difficult or ‘bad’ day happens and we have to start from scratch. To remember ‘what am I supposed to do when this happens again?’ ‘Where are the extra strong pain meds and the big heating pad?’
It’s almost like the focus on wellness prevents us prepping for difficult times. Is it fear that if we prepare for bad things, they’ll somehow happen? Are we just avoiding prepping for times we don’t want to experience? I’ve struggled with this myself, but I have learned, running 2 businesses with chronic illness, that prepping for painful times is essential.
Also: winter magic and herbs for support ourselves through the darker, colder times. I’m celebrating spring on the way with snowdrops, birdsong, trees budding and even violets and primroses emerging. But still – the ground is icy, it’s snowing intermittently and still feels a lot like winter here. I’m supporting my body accordingly.
Do you recognise a biopsychosocial model in illness? This is a new term to me and I’m still exploring it, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Mindfulness can be misused by medicalisation and individualisation of health struggles. I love and adore mindfulness and that’s why I believe we need to guard it carefully against misuse.
In difficult days, self-care can feel like a luxury that we cannot afford, delicious journals or artful altars can feel ever-so-far away. But it doesn’t have to be this way. And painful times are when we most need compassion.
I believe self-care is a way of including ourselves in our compassion (credit: Karuna training)
My favourite self-care activities are non-aspirational, they are in the moment, accessible for those of us on the front lines, those fighting to help or suffering at the sharp points of this world.
A challenge for many of us is making self-care accessible. I don’t know about you, but I have spent far, far too long scrolling through the #altar tag on Instagram. And while there are some beautiful creations there, I am literally never going to make an ombre mandala of roses and then meditate in front of it.
And my journal looks far from the gorgeous pages I see displayed online. And I’m ok with that, because my journal is sacred and it’s mine. A space in this world I can tend to without expectations. A space I can tend to myself, without expectations.
For those of us who need assistance, have carers or are living in shared spaces, setting up a physical altar space can be difficult to improbable. Small children, rambunctious animals (I’m looking at you, Doris), or overly interested/critical family members can make it impractical to set up a physical space for our dreams and devotions.
I’ve had altars on window sills, bookcases (no candles – fire safety!), on dashboards while driving over the darkening mountains. I’ve built altars on a hotel dressing table, over a bathroom sink (hot-pink lipstick prayers on the mirror and feminist postcards NSFW), on my hospital table and…in my journal.
Yes, our journal can be our altar – let me show you how…
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