5 Positive Techniques You Can Use When the World Overwhelms You
(Note: The images of bronze shoes shown in this post are pictures I took of the memorial "Shoes on the Danube Bank" in Budapest, Hungary, by sculptor Gyula Pauer. This memorial is dedicated to the men, women, and children who were forced to strip naked, and were shot by a firing squad into the Danube River during winter. They were victims of Hungary's Nazi Party called the Arrow Cross. It serves as a humanizing, and tragic reminder to honor the lives who have been lost to violence and hate, and as an inspiration to keep marching forward towards love and justice.)
Everyday there are countless tragedies: shootings, bombings, deportations, police brutality, suicide, rape, car accidents, systemic racism, sexual assault, discriminatory laws passed, natural disasters, child abuse, domestic abuse, homelessness, drug abuse, hate crimes, the list could go on forever. We experience some of these in our personal lives, and others we experience vicariously. It seems like we can never get away from suffering. When tragedy hits in the world, we can easily feel helpless and overwhelmed with sadness and anger. We can quickly feel stifled in our own lives, and like we don’t deserve happiness when we know so many other people are hurting. We can develop compassion fatigue, and feel like nothing we do will ever help make things better, which can lead to cynicism and burnout. We can also feel like things are the worse they’ve ever been, and that they will never improve.
The truth is, our world has always experienced tragedy and heartache. Human atrocities are as old as time. The key difference however, is our accessibility to learning about them. We have immediate access to the news, and with social media we get updates on the latest catastrophe even when we don’t search for them. In most ways, I believe this is extremely positive. We are able to hold perpetrators of violence and discrimination accountable for their actions because we can post about them publicly. We can come together faster to raise money for a specific cause, or protest because of our online connections. We are able to learn about a wide variety of issues that we had no knowledge of before, and hear directly from individuals and groups who experience discrimination, hardship, and oppression. This can allow us to create personal associations with people of varying cultural, racial, sexual, religious and economic backgrounds, that we wouldn’t have been able to develop otherwise. Not only are we able to hear from others, but we are also able to create space for to speak our own truth without permission. We are able to share our unique identity, talents, stories, and challenges and find community online with people who share similar backgrounds or experiences.
The downside of living in this information age is that we receive exposure to some seriously traumatic events 24/7. If you have any ounce of empathy, and humanity these events undoubtedly affect your psyche, and well-being. If these tragedies trigger something you’ve experienced, are attacks against your family, friends, community, or take place near you, the effect is even harder to deal with. When I heard about the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, my heart ached for all the young lives that were senselessly lost. I also immediately began obsessively worrying about my mom, step-dad, and sister who are all teachers and are trained to be in the first line of fire if a shooter enters their schools. When I hear about unarmed men and women of color being killed by law enforcement, I feel disgusted at the discrimination and meaningless violence. It also makes me fear excessively for my family members, who are darker than I am, and are unjustly harassed by the police more than me, despite us sharing the same blood. When I heard about the girl from Stanford who was raped by Brock Turner, or the countless women who have come forward in the #MeToo movement, I feel angry at the lack of accountability most of the perpetrators face, and saddened by what the survivors went through. I am also reminded of my own experience with sexual assault and begin to ruminate in my own pain that doesn’t seem to go away. These are a few of the world events that hit closer to home. There are thousands of others that have nothing to do with me, yet make my heart ache indefinitely.
I know that I am not the only one. In fact, there’s actually something called Secondary Trauma, in which someone who is constantly exposed to stories of trauma develop psychological, and physical symptoms similar to the people who experienced trauma firsthand. Normally, Secondary Trauma has been tracked in people who treat trauma patients like mental health professionals, caregivers and first responders. The key to developing it however, is the amount of exposure to the stories of trauma. If that’s the catalyst, don’t you think it’s possible to develop at least a mild case of it, even if you’re not someone who treats trauma patients as a profession? I definitely think so, and I believe that needs to be taken seriously. If we want to keep pushing forward to a more just, loving, and safe world, we need to take a step back sometimes and be honest about how world events affect us. We need to be sure to take care of our own well-being, so that we can continue to uplift our friends, partners, families, and communities in this chaotic and overwhelming time.
That’s why I compiled a list of 5 techniques you can use when the world overwhelms you!
1) Take Action. Donate, Volunteer, Contact Your Representatives, Protest.
When I read the book “The Body Keeps Score” , by Bessel Van der Kolk, which explores how trauma is kept in the body, one of my key takeaways was that one of the best methods to release trauma is to take action. He explains that trauma is often stored in the body when we aren’t able to ignite our flight or fight response, and are forced to remain silent, or sit still. Instead of just sitting at your computer thinking about all the difficulties in the world, channel that energy into some positive action! You can do this by donating money to a friend or family’s Kickstarter, or to your favorite non-profit or community organization. Every penny counts, so even if you have five dollars to give, that goes a long way. You could even consider recruiting some of your contacts to donate with you by hosting an event, or creating your own campaign. Donating doesn’t just have to be about giving money. You could even get creative and donate some of your services. Are you a yoga teacher, music instructor, or master bartender? Choose one day where you will offer your services, and donate all the proceeds to your favorite cause!
Time is also an amazing way to contribute. Consider volunteering for an organization you love. If you are short on time, you can volunteer for a single event, or if you have more time, try volunteering weekly! If there is an issue that you feel really strongly about, you can also contact your representatives. There are multiple scripts out there that can help guide you in what to say on the phone, or what to write in an email. I personally use an email service because I am out of the U.S. right now, and it only takes two minutes to send a message. Additionally, protesting can be a great way to take action. Not only are you standing up for what you believe in and demanding change, but you are also not doing it alone. Host a party and make picket signs, and come up with some chants you can use to get the people going. On the day/s of the protest/s introduce yourself to the people around you and make some new friends. Remember there is invaluable power in solidarity.
I want to remind you that how you take action might change depending on where you are in life, and that’s ok. It all matters. A few years ago, I volunteered more regularly and in High School I attended numerous marches and protests. After college I worked with two different non-profits, and now that I am abroad, I am able to donate, and contact my representatives more. Whatever you do, just don’t get stuck, and remember that there is always an action step you can take!
Democracy.io- A great email service (that I use) that allows you to send messages to your representatives.
VolunteerMatch- A great site you can use to find volunteer opportunities in your area, based on your passions and time capacity.
2) Practice Tonglen + Loving Kindness Meditation.
I know, I know, thoughts, prayers, and meditations are not enough. Even though these practices do not take the place of changing policies, and taking action, they do help us think more clearly, and feel more grounded so that we can keep moving forward. Two of my favorite methods of meditation that apply specifically to dealing with world issues are Tonglen, and Loving Kindness meditation. Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that means giving, and taking (or sending and receiving). It is the practice of connecting to and transforming suffering. Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist, describes how to perform Tonglen as follows: “we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath…It can be done as a formal meditation practice or right on the spot at any time. If we are out walking and we see someone in pain, we can breathe in that person’s pain and send out relief to them.” It is a method of turning towards suffering instead of ignoring it, and as a result we learn how to cultivate more compassion and awareness.
Loving Kindness Meditation is another practice I like to use when I am especially needing some loving energy and want to connect to important people in my life and the world. It is a practice designed to cultivate feelings of pure love towards others. It contains a series of mantras that help you open your own heart, and to send love to someone you love deeply (like a family member or your partner), someone you love dearly (a friend), a neutral person (a coworker, classmate, shop attendant), and someone you feel hostile towards. You visualize these individuals to send them health and happiness, and also visualize each of them sending you the same. This is the meditation, that in my experience has the most immediate, positive effects. It helps you to have a lighter, kinder, more altruistic heart. Below are some links to my favorite guided Tonglen, and Loving Kindness meditations.
Guided Tonglen Meditation by Tara Brach
Guided Loving Kindness Meditation by Emma Seppala
3) Cultivate the Opposite.
Reading this list you would probably assume I’m Buddhist, because guess what? This is another Buddhist practice! What can I say, Buddhist philosophy is just loaded with wisdom. Anyway, the concept of cultivating the opposite stems from the idea that everything in this world cannot exist without its opposite. Where suffering exists, there is also happiness, where there is prison, there is freedom, where there is hate, there is also love. In times where we feel overwhelmed with negativity, it is vital to cultivate the opposite by planting seeds of positivity, so that our hearts and mind can reach more equilibrium. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh describes this process as practicing “appropriate attention, watering the wholesome qualities in us by touching the positive things that are always available inside and around us…We can selectively water the good seeds and refrain from watering the negative seeds. This doesn’t mean we ignore our suffering; it just means that we allow the positive seeds that are naturally there to get attention and nourishment.” Keep in mind that this practice is not about distracting yourself from suffering. Instead it allows us to stay in touch with suffering, as it is an important part of life, while not letting it stampede us. One of my favorite ways to cultivate the opposite, is to deliberately read as much positive news, as negative news. Below you can find a few websites I like to subscribe to in order to get my daily dose of positivity.
DailyGood- "News that inspires."
KarmaTube- Basically a heartwarming, uplifting, altruistic version of YouTube.
4) Take a Social Media + Media Detox.
In this day and age it is sooooo hard to disconnect ourselves from our screens. There is always something we have to stay in the loop about, someone we have to message, and some meme we have to laugh at. However, all this media time can completely overload our systems to the point where we feel disconnected to ourselves, and feel overwhelmed with information. If you get to this point, you have to reboot. Take a social media and media detox, even if it’s just for a few hours (believe me, this kind of detox beats any kind of green juice detox on the market!). I find that when I take at least 24 hours off of social media, I have more time to work on my personal projects, get connected with my body and emotions more easily, spend more time outside, and am more present with the people around me. The effects of this kind of detox, gets me recharged for days and sometimes even weeks after. If you can’t do it every week, try to commit to a social media and media free day at least once a month to nourish your mind, body, and spirit. This is one of the best ways to take a step back from world issues, and focus on loving yourself, which is a key practice for contributing positively to the world.
Moment- An app that tracks how much you are on your phone, and allows you to set daily limits for screen time.
5) Keep Perspective.
As stated so beautifully by Martin Luther King Jr. “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I know sometimes it feels like we are living in the most hateful, violent, unjust, and unsafe period of history right now, and the work that still needs to be done seems to reach into infinity. It is exactly for this reason that we need to keep perspective. Already, humanity has made incredible strides towards justice, and looking at those strides can give us hope for where we are going. South Africa had a system of Apartheid for close to fifty years. With leaders like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who faced unimaginable suffering, they were able to put an end to the institutional racism through truth and reconciliation. Hungary experienced two terror regimes back to back that tortured and killed thousands of people until the early nineties, but they are now a democracy. In 2016, a hateful orange cheeto was voted into office in the U.S., but in 2017 we voted in some of our most diverse candidates in local elections. Danica Roem became Virginia’s first trans law maker, and beat the Republican candidate, who created the ludicrous bathroom laws that discriminated against trans people. Wilmott Collins who is a refugee from Liberia, became the first black mayor in Montana, and Ravinder Bahla became New Jersey’s first Sikh mayor. These are only a few of the candidates who made history last year. Learning about these victories, can instill hope and belief in each of us that positive change is possible. It takes a lot of hard work and time, and some of our goals of justice may not even be reached in our lifetime. But does that mean we should give up? Absolutely not. It means that we need to build on the work of our ancestors, and those who came before us, do the most we can while we are alive, pass the baton to our children to continue the fight, and make it so that the load will be less and less each generation.
The On Being Project- An inspiring podcast and Blog led by Krista Tippet, that explores "deep thinking and social courage, moral imagination and joy, to renew inner life, outer life, and life together." This is also a great resource for cultivating the opposite.
The Book of Joy - A book that features conversations between Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama about their personal experiences with adversity, pain and suffering and how it all relates to building Joy. This book will have you cry happy tears, and leave you feeling hopeful, and inspired.
I know that the world can be overwhelming sometimes. I know that when you are an empathetic, loving human it can seem like all there is in the world is suffering. I know that sometimes it can feel like nothing you do will help. That's why I am here to remind you that when the world feels overwhelming, it's okay to take a step back and take care of yourself. I am here to remind you that where there is suffering, there is also great opportunity for growth, for connecting with other people, for creativity, and for love. I am here to remind you that you can positively impact the world by simply being who you are, and doing your best each and every day.