Acceptance is about learning to sit with and tolerate the unknown. Will I get COVID? Will I lose my job? Will my children be healthy? These are questions many have asked themselves thousands of times over the last few years. It’s important that people deal with this sense of powerlessness without turning to unhealthy escape behaviors like substance abuse, anger or isolation, says Gorka.
When people are able to accept things as they are, they relieve themselves of the pressure to control situations beyond their control, mental health experts say. “Power comes with great responsibility. When you take on too much, it can derail you,” Gorka says.
“It never occurred to me that surrendering is winning,” says Heidi Hess, clinical director at Hope 4 2Morrow counseling and treatment center in Columbus.
“Any time we try to get out of the natural flow, the force of life, is when we really struggle,” says Hess, who is also in recovery. “It’s that fight that causes all the angst, anxiety and depression, even physical illness.”
Ryan Pickut, director of residential services at Maryhaven, agrees. “When we try to swim against the current, that’s where the cycle kicks in,” he says. “We think, ‘There must be something wrong with me. I can’t solve this.’” The harder we try to fight, the more exhausted and desperate we become, he adds.
There are key elements required to live with this sense of powerlessness, according to those in the recovery industry. Those keys include connecting with others, practicing daily disciplines, and having an honest appraisal of oneself and one’s circumstances.
Hess says recovery has revealed to her that “I’m pretty much powerless over most things. … The question is how to be happy, serene, grateful and powerless at the same time.”
Doing Life With Others
“There is something about a sense of community and being with people who are hopeful with you, both challenging and supporting you, and being part of something bigger than myself—these are lessons that really can be extended to the overall population,” says Lori Criss, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
“We live in a culture of rugged individualism,” adds Marjorie Kukor, trauma-informed care coordinator for the department. “When you share vulnerability, you create a sense of safety … and that leads to hope. Hope is essential.”
Pickut calls it “doing life with other people.” Most people coming into recovery have spent years trying to beat their addictions on their own, to no avail.
“This is not a ‘me’ solution,” she explains. “The idea of community is so important, whether it’s business networks, church life groups or people who have similar hobbies. COVID has helped us re-imagine what community looks like.” During the height of the pandemic, community took on more virtual tones with groups forming on Zoom, Facebook and other platforms.
Being in community plays another vital role—getting people out of their own heads, Gorka adds.
“Boredom and isolation get people into a lot of trouble. Your thoughts can go very unregulated, you get irrational and worked up, and there is nothing to break that cycle,” she says. “Labeling emotions can help, and input from another person not only provides a fresh perspective but makes you feel heard. It’s critical that you stop that runaway train.”
Change Your World
The feeling that life is happening to us can set off a cascade of negative emotions and behaviors. Mental health professionals help train people to interpret their situations differently.
A shift in perspective is the crux of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is used to treat depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders. This type of therapy provides methods to help people reinterpret a negative circumstance or thought into something more neutral.
“When people have negative thoughts, they just accept them,” Gorka says. “You don’t have to.”
She uses the image of watching leaves floating in a river. “You don’t have to get in the river and collect all the leaves,” she explains. “You can tolerate a situation without having to change it. Thoughts can go in the front door and out the back door without taking up residence in your head.”
Hess says she works with clients to discern fact from fiction because people’s thoughts and emotions sometimes are based on stories they tell themselves and assumptions they make about a person or a situation. “They create their thoughts, and thereby their emotions.”
Criss says something as simple as using the word and in place of but can make a powerful change in thoughts and feelings. “You can say, ‘I’m reading a really funny book and the pandemic goes on,” she says.
“Hope is a choice,” says Criss. “I can count my blessings, the places I can go, the things I can do. I can always change my attitude.”
One Day at a Time
A sense of powerlessness can feel overwhelming, and paralyzing. Addiction and mental health professionals say there are additional methods to break cycles of obsessive or catastrophic thinking and even prevent them from starting.
Having a daily discipline, such as reciting a prayer, listening to music or going for a morning walk, are vital to people in recovery, and even those who aren’t, Pickut says.
Grounding, or staying in the here and now, also helps allay angst over the unknown. “It relies on your senses, what you see, hear, touch and smell. If you find yourself spiraling, light a candle, use a weighted blanket or do something to bring you back to the present,” he says.
Other daily practices include reaching out to five people, spending 15 minutes outside, doing gratitude lists and unplugging from electronic devices. “They seem like common sense, but they really are grounded in science,” Criss explains.
Pickut says for grounding and affirmative practices to be of real benefit, they must be done daily. “Or you’re going to be in trouble,” he says. “In moments of crisis, we revert to what we know. We want to revert to healthy behaviors instead of unhealthy ones. He compares it to the fire drills practiced regularly at Maryhaven. “In the case of an emergency, we know the way out.
“For me, acceptance is, what do you want to carry with you?” he explains. “How much space do you have for those negative feelings? When we wake up every morning, we have those choices. … I’ve found myself doing the same thing—traumatizing and retraumatizing. It’s a daily decision to live in today, one day at a time.”
“I can’t control everything in this world,” admits Jeff Anastasia, who has been in recovery since 2014. “The past is the past, and the future isn’t here. What matters is today. I try to live one day at a time, and I try to have gratitude—things could be a lot worse.”
He and Bianca, who has been sober since 2015, try not to project fears and negativity into the future.
“Tomorrow might be better,” she says. “I need to stop putting expectations out into this world.”
Read the article at columbusmonthly.com