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Growing within Uncertainty

May 1, 2020

This spring, we find ourselves in transition. Each week draws us closer to the day our Iowa communities are permitted to reopen, and it's hard to know what that might look like. 

In fact, if a central theme exists within this public health crisis, perhaps it would be uncertainty. We can recognize that all of life is uncertain, if we are honest with ourselves. However, many of us feel this more acutely in the current circumstances. 

Change is relentless

Over the course of several weeks, we have experienced change after change. These shifts often occur in multiples, leaving minimal time to process or adjust to new realities. 

Schools throughout the state have been closed since spring break. Tens of thousands of workers have made the cumbersome shift to working from home or have unexpectedly needed to file for unemployment. Shops and restaurants have been forced to dramatically alter their services or close altogether. Medical centers have canceled most appointments and procedures; therapy and psychiatry sessions now occur remotely. 

On top of this aggregate of loss, we may be grieving a loved one. And we may have no current option for a funeral service to honor their life. 

A foundation for psychological trauma

As trauma therapist Michael Salas, PsyD., wrote in a recent post on Psych Central, our current social context is the underpinning for psychological trauma. The need to be gentle and kind with ourselves is paramount, validating anything we may feel. 

All emotions shift around. They tend to move most quickly when we notice them without judgment and bring our attention back to the present moment. It’s natural, and likely, to experience more stress, anxiety, fear, fatigue and confusion in the present circumstances. 

We don’t have a road map for this experience. We have no “shoulds” to follow, nor are the public health crises of yesteryear perfect indications of what we can expect next. 

Two terms may be helpful in recognizing our grief in this time:

  • Ambiguous loss, as researched and coined by Dr. Pauline Boss in the late ’90s, refers to grief that doesn’t have closure. We may experience ambiguous loss as we watch a loved one go through dementia or pass away without the option to visit them in the hospital. 
  • Shadowloss, a term discussed more recently by thanatologist Cole Imperi, includes the broad experience of grief that doesn’t necessarily pertain to death—such as the loss of a job or sense of stability within our daily lives. There is not one way to grieve. All emotions are legitimate and important, even if you don’t like or understand them. 

Practices to help you cope 

As we continue to live through this season together, slowly moving toward the unknown point at which our communities reopen in some form, several practices may help us cope:

  • Engage in activities that slow your breathing. Examples include stretching, reading a book you enjoy, repetitive movements like swaying or chopping veggies for a meal, or meditating quietly. This allows us to enter a deeper part of the brain, turning off cortisol production and lowering stress or anxiety. Allow yourself more rest in this time.
  • Develop a mindfulness routine. Your therapist can help with this, or you can research these ancient practices on your own. Mindfulness is about learning how to tolerate the present moment without reactivity or self-judgment—allowing ourselves to fully be here now. We can drastically reduce our own suffering when we accept whatever is happening around us, and choose to be present, rather than wrestling with our circumstances or trying to control things.
  • Practice gratitude. The cultivation of gratitude can have a direct impact on immune system functioning. And as many people attest, it can even support an increase in joy. Gratitude can deepen in any circumstance, because we can choose it. What’s something in your environment, home or within your body that you choose to be thankful for today?
  • Think about your purpose in this time. Notice any patterns or personal meaning that may emerge. Is there a cause or organization you want to get involved with when our communities reopen? Pay attention if you find yourself drawn to something; perhaps volunteer work or a new curiosity, skill or passion.
  • Connect with people however you can. This could be over the phone or via social media. You could spend time on a handwritten letter, or create art for a loved one. As you connect with others, allow yourself to be honest. We don’t have to be “fine” all the time. It’s okay to ask for support or acknowledge when we’re struggling. 

A kind of testing—and a kind of healing

According to Pema Chödrön, an American Tibetan Buddhist and ordained nun, “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” 

May we continue cultivating our tolerance of the present moment—each present moment, whatever it brings. May we show up to the challenges and the joys of this time, with the courage and willingness required to grow. 

Rae Noble, LMHC, ATR

Rae is a bilingual (English, Spanish) art therapist working primarily with adult and teen survivors of violence, trauma, eating disorders, mood and anxiety disorders and substance or behavioral addictions. Her work aligns with a person-centered, strength-based model of therapy, and she believes in the individual being the expert of her or his own story. Holistic, body-centered practices are integral to individual and group work. Rae commonly utilizes principles and techniques from several therapeutic modalities, including DBT, ACT, ERP and EMDR.