When life throws us challenges, it can be beneficial to have ways to comfort ourselves amidst intense feelings of fear, worry, sadness, or other strong emotions. We all have moments like this, whether it might be waiting for a loved one’s phone call when we are worried about their well-being, awaiting medical test results, feeling fear about some upcoming situation, experiencing loss or grief, feeling anxious about a test we have to take, or waiting for someone we care about to come out of surgery. Large or small, these moments can feel interminable and can be difficult to get through.
How do we help ourselves through such moments?
Sitting meditation, with eyes closed, can sometimes be a helpful practice when we encounter difficult emotions, but when emotions are very heightened this can be hard for people to engage in — and may even be contraindicated at times. The following is a short meditation practice that can be done with eyes open, sitting or moving about as you choose.
This meditation uses the acronym S.A.F.E., and its purpose is to help cultivate feelings of safety and stability, even amidst some of life’s challenging moments.
S — Send yourself compassion and care.
While self-compassion might seem like a foreign concept for many people, the power of self-compassion has been well documented. One way you might begin to send yourself compassion is by acknowledging that what you are experiencing is difficult, and by reminding yourself that you are not alone.
Sometimes, during times of distress, we can feel deeply alone with our fear, sadness, grief or other intense emotions. It can be immensely helpful to acknowledge that: (1) other people in your community or in the world (even if you don’t know them) are probably struggling in similar ways and (2) you can be there for yourself. When we can acknowledge our own suffering as part of a larger, shared humanity, as Kristen Neff suggests, and when we can reach out to the parts of us that are feeling scared or hurt or sad, this can help to make our pain more bearable.
You might try putting one hand on your heart and the other hand on your abdomen (which psychiatrist Dan Siegel describes in his book Brainstorm) to send soothing messages to the nervous system. Feel the gentle pressure of your hands as you say some simple phrases that acknowledge whatever you are experiencing. For example, “this is difficult, I am not alone in experiencing this, I’ll get through this.”
A — Accept, Allow and Anchor
Accept and allow that whatever you are feeling is O.K. While emotions may at times be highly uncomfortable, we often can add fuel to the fire by feeling bad about what we are feeling. It is common for people to say to themselves “I shouldn’t be feeling this, this is stupid. I shouldn’t let this bother me. I need to be strong” or other variations on this theme. Know that you don’t have to fight to push away your feelings or feel something different than you do.
At the same time, these feeling don’t have to completely swallow you up or sweep you away. This is where the anchor comes in. Picture an anchor of a ship, holding that ship safe and secure in the harbor even as the storms pass by. At the surface of the water there might be great turbulence, but deep underneath the water, where the anchor is, there is stillness. As you think about this image you might focus on just one thing for a few moments that gives you a sense of being anchored, such as the constant rhythm of your breath coming in and going out, or the feeling of your feet making contact with the solid earth beneath you, or a person in your life who is a steady support for you.
F — Face this moment with all of the resources you have.
Take a moment to think about all of the inner and outer resources that you have to help you get through this current challenge. Call to mind qualities within yourself that have helped you to get through other challenges in your life, qualities such as courage, resilience, perseverance, the ability to find gratitude, or patience. Also call to mind resources outside of yourself that are available as supports to you, including people in your life who you might reach out to, organizations, groups, or professionals who are available to help you. If you are able, write down all of the inner and outer resources that you thought of. Imagine this circle of caring that surrounds you. You are not alone.
E — Engage in something here and now.
Find an activity that allows you to bring your full attention into the present moment. If there is something you can do about the problem at hand, you might choose to fully focus on that task. For example, if you just got news that your parent has dementia, you might focus on finding as many resources as possible on the internet that might offer you knowledge about next steps and/or supportive organizations in your area.
More often than not however, we may be dealing with intense emotions and accompanying ruminating thoughts about a situation for which there are no immediate actions we can take. In these cases, it can be helpful to intentionally engage our attention on something other than our ruminating thoughts. This might include anything from more enjoyable activities such as knitting, gardening, doing a crossword puzzle, going for a walk in nature or playing with a child, to more neutral ones such as folding the laundry with full attention on just that one thing, or washing the dishes.
The idea is to try and steady the mind on just that one activity, and when the mind starts to ruminate in unhelpful ways, to bring it back to whatever you are doing, again and again. Bring as many of your five senses into this experience as possible. The mind will wander repeatedly, but the task at hand becomes a kind of anchor we come back to over and over, to guide us back into the present.
Many of my patients describe engaging in such activities as “distracting themselves”, but I like to reframe this for them. The ruminating thoughts are the distraction that the mind creates; engaging oneself fully in an activity at hand brings oneself back into the present moment.
Practicing each of these four steps in sequence can be a kind of informal meditation practice that can help bring greater ease to some of life’s more challenging moments.