During difficult times, are you the “calm in the storm”?

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of the United States earlier this week. From a distance in Milwaukee, many of us watched weather forecasts, texted and called family members to check in a preparations, power outages, how they were experiencing the storm in their location and of course, their safety.

Sometimes, the waiting for a response was agonizing, especially if family and friends were in the path of the direct hurricane landfall. And scenes of what could be happening played out in our mind’s eye.

It’s very difficult to know that loved one are in a dangerous situation and the only thing we can do is watch, wait, hope and for some, pray. Our natural instinct is to want to do
“something” to protect the ones we care about, even in the face of events beyond our control. That space in us between the instinct to protect and the powerlessness of waiting is a hard place to be. The other reality is that we can experience this same feeling of powerlessness when we watch our family members make unhealthy, risky or dangerous life choices, right here, close to home.

How do parents, spouses, partners, grandparents, teachers, doctors and any one who cares about another person do this? Some people seem to just lose themselves in the worry and others are known to be the calm in the middle of the storm. Truth be told, we’d generally rather be around the people who are the calm in the middle of the storm than those who seem to lose themselves in the worry.

As a therapist, I spend a great deal of time assisting people of all ages in learning to name what they are feeling and then how to tolerate what they are feeling. Feeling states are passing. They don’t last forever. When feeling states are intense and uncomfortable (like fear, worry, powerlessness, anger, grief, hatred) our human tendency is to try to escape or get passed them.

Just like Sandy overwhelmed areas of the country, these intense emotional states can and do overwhelm us. We can lose ourselves in these feelings and when we do, we generally don’t act from our best selves. Have you ever heard yourself or someone else say “I was beside myself with fill in the emotion.”

Staying with yourself and what you are experiencing whether comfortable or uncomfortable is the healthy practice. Let me emphasize the word, practice. Learning to stay with ourselves, emotionally, allows us to be present for those we care about, to be that calm in the middle of life’s storms. Research demonstrates that children have a much higher rate of surviving and coping with traumatic circumstances when the adults around them are calm.

There are many, many techniques from breathing practices, to yoga, to various kinds of exercise, to music or journaling, to meditation or a hobby….and the list goes on…that allow us time to practice coming back to ourselves and what we are experiencing in the moment. One of the things I do is knit. I knit a lot. It’s a hobby that expends physical energy and makes me focus on doing one stitch at time because that’s all I can do. I always have knitting with me. It works well for me.

Are you the person people describe as the calm in the middle of the storm? What is watching and waiting like for you? Do you notice times in your day when you are more present than others? What do you notice about that? How do you practice being with yourself and your present circumstances? I’ll look forward to learning from you.

Remember, if emotions and whatever is happening in your life is overwhelming and you cannot find relief from the storm, you can always give us a call at Aurora Family Service 414-345-4560.

Aurora Family Service helps families overcome challenges, changes and crisis to live well again. We achieve stability and strength for families through counseling, parenting, elder care, financial, career, health and community services.  For more information, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, or call 1-414-342-4560.

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