How to stay sane when things get tough – Thoughts on equanimity

How to stay sane when things get tough

How can you stay sane and well when things get tough? How can you ride the waves when the sea is rough? 

In this episode I talk about exactly that and dive into equanimity: the ability to remain calm and grounded, especially in difficult times.

Obviously this episode is very fitting given the ongoing pandemic, but it’s helpful no matter what is going on in your life that feels hard. So how do you stay sane when things get tough?

Here is the workbook that I mention in this episode. 

And if you wanted to explore becoming a client of mine to really turn your mental health around now, then simply arrange a free half hour call with me via this link.

Read the transcript here:

Dear listener, I welcome you to what might be your first time listening to my podcast, or perhaps you’ve been here before.

I always share my thoughts and advice on improving your mental health holistically. So sometimes I discuss things like nutrition and lifestyle changes, or gut health or inflammation or thyroid health – in short I focus on improving your physical health in order to then experience better mental health.

But today I want to talk about ways to cope in those very moments when you feel that the world around you is simply too overwhelming. When the sea is rough, the storms are raging so to speak and the skies are dark. 2020, I mean what a year! is behind us but the pandemic is obviously ongoing….  

I don’t know about you but life still feels so very different to what it’s normally like – without Covid. And I know that every single person has experienced this pandemic in different ways, and I know that some people, particularly the ones that often get very anxious around meeting people, have actually found a sense of relief when staying home became the normal, and there was nothing you were really missing out on.

But I’d say for a lot people these times right now feel overwhelming. The news feel like too much sometimes. So many disappointments, so many worries, so much stress. Loneliness, isolation and often a lost sense of purpose. Perhaps grieving for life pre-Covid and feeling like you’re really running out of steam now and you just wished life could go back to normal.

And I don’t know about you, but all of what’s happening in the world, whether it’s covid or climate change or racism or social inequalities etc…all of it can feel crazy and like we’re in some kind of dystopian novel or film. Longing to wake up to a safer world, with more ease and peace and less overwhelm, negativity and challenge.

And of course, all of this national and global crises are on top of any personal and private challenges that you might be facing in your very own life. Perhaps somebody you love is ill and suffering. Perhaps you’ve lost someone or something significant in your life. Perhaps you’re a victim of terrible things that should have never happened to you. Perhaps you feel lonely…. Yeah, perhaps you feel lonely. Like so many million others.

Or, perhaps you’re struggling with your sense of purpose, not having a good reason to get out of bed in the morning. There are lots of things that can be challenging.  If you’re listening to this podcast, it’s likely that you, like so many others unfortunately, are struggling with your mental health and are finding it hard to cope and to be well.

So how can you stay afloat when life feels really hard? How can you ride out the waves without sinking? Remain firmly rooted whilst the wind is howling around you? How can you protect the light that’s trying to shine from within you when the world or your life feels pretty dark at times?

Well first of all, if you haven’t yet heard of the word equanimity (that’s equanimity), then I’d love to tell you about it. Equanimity is defined as calmness and composure, especially during difficult times. So when you feel that you are going crazy or are losing your mind or just can’t handle everything anymore, well that would probably be the opposite of equanimity. Equanimity is defined as calmness and composure, especially during difficult times. There’s a wonderful saying that goes like this:


You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf. As an individual, I can’t stop Covid. I also can’t stop racism, on my own. I can’t solve the climate crisis, or end world hunger and terrible conflicts or solve poverty on my own. I can’t solve, fix, stop or avoid all sorts of things even just in my personal life- no matter how much I want to.  

Lots of things are outside our control. Even though we really don’t like it: Lots of things are outside our control.

But what I, as an individual, can do is this: to practice equanimity. Develop my surfing skills so to speak. Nurture and develop beliefs and tools that will help me to remain steady even in really rough seas. To try and remain calm (as much as possible) when things get really stressful. That is something I can do and that I do have quite a lot of control over.

And as I’m sure you can see – developing equanimity will help you throughout your entire life. It’s not just about the current craziness that we find ourselves in. We can’t stop external events but we can practice remaining calm despite them. To not automatically react to unpleasant feelings that we get in response to things like yet another lockdown.

But to make it clear that this isn’t about simply becoming indifferent, I want to quote my all time favourite psychologist Rick Hanson. Here’s what he said about equanimity:

“Equanimity is neither apathy nor indifference: you are warmly engaged with the world but not troubled by it. Through its non-reactivity, it creates a great space for compassion, loving-kindness, and joy at the good fortune of others.” Rick Hanson

I love this. And I love the word space in there. Equanimity is very much about giving yourself space.

So that sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? And before I dive into some of the ways through which we can all grow this quality within yourselves, so that we can try to stay sane in a crazy world – let me just make this really clear:

Any advice that I ever give, including today’s topic, is never ever about perfection. Is it possible that you will never react to unpleasant events again? No!

Is it possible that you become so Zen that life will be nothing but pure bliss in any given moment no matter how challenging? No!

That’s not what it’s about. Life is rich and varied (even if you can’t feel that way at the moment) and it’s complex and so much is still going to happen from right now till that last breath of yours. I would certainly choose an interesting, challenging and adventurous life over a pleasant and nice but yet boring one.  

And also, developing equanimity is not yet another thing that you should now be adding to your to-do list. You’ve got enough on that list already.

Instead, just simply to approach it with a sense of curiosity.

It’s not something that you either master or fail at, it’s an ongoing practice and an ongoing way to try and relate to what is happening in your life. Sometimes it will come easier than other times. Sometimes you’ll remember to consider this practice, and there will be plenty of times when you will simply forget about it, especially in the beginning.

So, let’s make this practical: How can you develop equanimity? How can you learn to surf the waves? How can you remain calm during stressful times?

Well, luckily this whole concept is not a new one. It’s actually ancient and found across the main religions and also philosophical ideas. It’s not new. Which makes it wonderful because it means that there’s a lot of thought around it.

First of all, you need to know or perhaps be reminded that our brains are designed by evolution to constantly trigger reactions to things that are happening. Because if that’s not the case, if we’re not paying attention to what’s going on, we might get attacked, eaten and killed. Or these days, if we don’t pay attention we might get run over by a car or miss important work deadlines, we miss paying the bills on time and then get into trouble. We have evolved to constantly be on the lookout for negative things all around us, and we are designed to react.

But the thing is, we also react to negative comments, upsetting news, Covid, lockdowns and even just the thoughts in own very own heads. We react. And with that reaction often comes a sense of longing for things to be different.

We react and then we’re often troubled by these reactions and what they bring forth. And that’s what can often leave us feeling really torn and unhappy or even desperate. It’s not the event itself necessarily, but rather our reaction to it. That’s an important, important distinction. You may well have heard about this before but it’s also worth reminding ourselves of this: Things happen. They have done, they do and they always will. But what really matters is how to react and respond to them.

I think it’s easy to see how the constant, in many ways automatic, reacting to things can feel like you’re being battered by the wind, tossed around in every direction – without much control on your part. Your peace and harmony are shattered and your happiness drops. All because of how you are reacting to what’s going on around you.

So remind yourself that your brain is designed to react. It’s designed to spot all the negative things really quickly. In this way, it’s there to help you stay alive and be alert. It’s normal. It’s a good thing in many ways. That’s why you’re still here, listening to this episode.

But: instead of becoming harshly critical of yourself and perhaps your mind, try simply noticing what is going on.

When you feel angry, notice it. Try saying to yourself “I feel angry” or “I notice I am feeling angry” as opposed to saying “I am angry”. There’s a difference there. One is about you as a whole being – I AM angry. That makes YOU the angry PERSON.

The other is simply about a present feeling or emotion that you are experiencing in that moment: You feel angry. You are noticing that right now, in this moment you are feeling angry.

So step one in developing equanimity is simply being able to consciously notice how you are feeling and experiencing things. Naming your feelings. Detaching yourself from your reactions to some degree. You aren’t your feelings – but instead you are noticing your feelings come and go.

Right now, I notice that I’m feeling worried and concerned that the virus will be here for quite a while longer. This makes me feel tired and sad. I notice my longing for life to feel normal again.

Whatever you are feeling right now, try to name it. Try to name it. You don’t even need to put that thought into a sentence, just simply try to name the feeling: Anger. Sadness. Despair. Hopelessness. Boredom. Longing. Grief. Or joy. Relief. Excitement. Love. Peace. Harmony.

Whatever you feel, in any given moment, it can be helpful to simply name it for what it is. Acknowledge it rather than pushing difficult feelings away, allow them to have some space and name them for what they are. Feelings come and go.

And then pay attention to how it feels in the body. How does it feel? Can you notice the emotion in a particular part of your body? Perhaps a heaviness or a tightening around your chest, or something around your head or heart or your whole body? What does it feel like? Have you noticed this before?

This practice alone can reaaaaally help to ground you in the here and now. It can also help you to avoid going down rabbit holes, creating mountains out of mole hills and overreacting.

It can calm you, avoid activating the stress response again and again. It can help you to avoid feeling utterly overwhelmed and like you’re losing control. And it can help you to feel centered enough so that your emotions won’t trigger certain reactions that you might later on regret doing.

So to summarise this first point: Try to become aware of your feelings by allowing some space them, naming them for that they are, and noticing how they feel in the body. Become aware, name it, notice how it manifests in the body.

And the more you do this, the more you will realise that emotions come and go. As I’ve said previously, the brain is designed to react and so it will continue to do it. And so you will continue to react to things happening, these reactions will trigger certain emotions, and these feelings will keep on coming and going.

You know, sometimes the sea is calm, gentle and flat, even like a mirror at times. So smooth and inviting. Other times, the sea becomes dangerous and the waves keep crashing on top of one another, they are wild and loud. Stressful thoughts and emotions are like waves on the ocean of life. They rise and they fall. And they will continue to do so.

This practice, what I’m telling you about here, is really what mindfulness is all about. So in order to become more at peace with our world and our life and all the things that keep on happening, we need to become more aware and more mindful of our thoughts and feelings.

Another key aspect of developing equanimity, so again remaining calm in a hectic chaotic world, is spaciousness, meaning being able to see whatever is going on in your life from a perspective of wisdom, of patience, of compassion. Being able to see the wider perspective instead of getting caught up in little things.

This is where it can be really useful to spend time reflecting on your values in life: What is it that truly matters, to YOU? Is it the big house, the big pay check?  The cleanliness of your kitchen, the prestigious career and extraordinary reputation? The perfect family? Or is it honesty, love, adventure, lifelong learning, family, open-mindedness, commitment, loyalty? What is it that matters to YOU?

Once you have a good understanding of the things that matter to you. And by the way, if you have no idea- I have created an inexpensive workbook that will help you to do exactly that, I will link it in the show notes – so once you have a good understanding of your values and the things that really matter, whenever something difficult or irritating occurs, you can ask yourself whether this will really matter? Will this matter at the end of my life?

If you become attached to particular things in your life, especially if they are things that you want because society tells you that they’re great – for example a certain job or career, a certain house, to be the perfect mother who has everything on perfect control, or perhaps you’re after the latest fashion trends, a certain amount of money to make each month, a certain social media following. Whatever it is, if you become attached to these outer goals, without them really being rooted in any of your true values, you will probably be suffering a great deal in your life.

So again, become an expert on your own values. Reflect on what it is that truly matters to you in your own life, and notice how you can actually let go of a lot of the pressures that come from other people, the media and society to be a certain way. Try to make sure that what you pursue is grounded in your values, not because of a desire for fame, success and prestige. And notice what you are attached to: Are you attached to certain people to feel happy? A certain income or reputation? If you want to be of service to others for example in your work and be helpful, do you need to climb to the top of your career ladder? There’s nothing wrong with striving for success as such, just make sure you would want to be on top of that career ladder because that’s what best reflects your values and where you can do your best work. Not because your parents would be telling all their friends and neighbours about you, and because the newspaper might one day write about you.

And before I leave this point, can you think of people in your life who live according to their values? Who aren’t overly attached to certain people or possessions? Who are they? What are they doing differently?

 

Another piece of advice I’d like to give you is to start practicing equanimity in the small moments of your life. Rather than trying to tackle the pandemic for example, see whether the next times something small but let’s say irritating happens, can you try to stay present with that experience? Can you keep your heart open to the experience and the feeling? And importantly, can you observe these emotions without adding a mental story to them? So for example, if someone made you feel angry because of something they said or did to you, can you observe that feeling of anger without continuously thinking about how bad this is person is or how very wrong they are, and how dare they etc?

So start practicing equanimity in small everyday moments. Next time you spend ages outside queuing outside a shop, or when your computer stops working or your kids keep on talking and interrupting your conversation. Can you try to stay present and centered?

I know, this isn’t always easy. No one ever said that it was. But simply continue practicing. It pays off.

You can also learn to surf the waves by focusing on what’s good in your life. Each call that I have with my clients, I also start by asking them for 3 things that went well since we last spoke. So I’ve told you how our brains are designed to react and also to dwell on what’s negative. This is called the brain’s negativity bias – again, it’s here to keep you alert and alive. But it also means that that one tiny criticism remains at the top of your mind, even though it came alongside 10 lovely compliments that you’ve already forgotten about.

It’s simply how parts of your brains are designed. But the good news is that our brains are also not completely set in stones. The common saying of “What you focus on grows” is completely true: You have a choice. You can dwell on what’s negative and difficult, and worse spin these things out of proportion. Or you can little by little just keep pulling your attention back to what is good right now. What is going well? Or as we are at the end of this year: Reflect on all the things that actually went well!

So you can simply keep a list or do this in your head whenever you remember: What went well? Or at dinner time, ask yourself or each other about your highlights of the day. Or, you can keep a gratitude journal and focus on specific things you feel grateful for.

New connections between the nerve cells in your brain will form, and it will become easier and easier, little by little, to notice all the good things that are happening in your life. But certainly in the beginning, this will require conscious effort on your part – but it’s luckily a feelgood activity so you should feel the benefit straight away. And then more longer-term, you will become more centered and grounded and that’s why this is another great way to practice equanimity.

The last thing I’d like to say about this topic is to not mistake equanimity for inaction. Equanimity is not about indifference and simply not caring about anything anymore. It’s quite the opposite. Equanimity allows you to feel whatever it is you are feeling, to remain steady and calm despite those feelings and to take important and meaningful action DESPITE those feelings. So equanimity, learning the surf the waves, is about not getting sucked into stories of your mind, into your past or your future. It’s about being rooted in the here and now, being true to whatever it is that you are experiencing, and being open to life as it is happening. And then being able to continue with what matters in your life regardless.

So these are my thoughts and advice around staying sane when the world around you feels crazy. As always, send yourself some love. You are doing so well given the circumstances and it’s okay to struggle and to find life hard at times.

Do let me know your own thoughts on this topic and whether you have any other tips to add that have worked for you. I always, always welcome hearing from you!

Like I said at the beginning, I am running a free live class on Zoom all about holistic mental healthcare on January 4th, so if you’re still in time when you’re listening to this episode, then do sign up and join me! The link to register is in the show notes.

Take good care of yourself and I will be back with another episode in 2021.

Welcome to my podcast

I’m Claudia Smith, a qualified nutritional therapist, functional medicine practitioner and coach specialising in depression. This is where I share my thoughts and advice on natural and holistic approaches to overcoming depression.

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