Renown psychiatrist Peter Kramer once said that the opposite of depression isn’t happiness. It’s resilience, the ability to bounce back from tragedy, to regain a healthy sense of perspective after traumatic or stressful experiences. In my recovery from depression and anxiety, it is calm— more than excitement or joy or contentment–that I seek. I want merely to enjoy a good night’s sleep and an evening without negative intrusive thoughts. I want to keep my heart rate down during challenging weeks, to let emotion take a back seat to rational thought, if that is even possible.
I have looked to the mentors in my life to get me there. One such mentor, psychologist and bestselling author Robert J. Wicks, has debriefed relief workers after the Rwandan massacre and has worked with physicians, nurses, and psychologists treating critically injured military personnel at Walter Reed Army Hospital. In his most recent book, “Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm,” he combines classic wisdom literature with his vast experience as a psychologist to offer readers concrete, practical advice on how to discover a healthy perspective during or after trauma or a stressful experience.
I recently asked him this question: If you were to lay out five steps to find the calm within or after the storm, what would they be?
And he kindly answered me with this response:
It is not the amount of darkness in the world that matters. It is not even the amount of darkness in our country, family, circle of friends or even in our selves that matters. It is how we stand in that darkness, that makes the crucial difference. When we gain, maintain, or regain a healthy perspective, the situation we are in hasn’t changed but how we view it has. Consequently, you are right in seeking some basic ways to ensure a healthy outlook. There is no magic to having or getting a healthy perspective—it takes not simply hard work, but doing the work the right way. It is a little like trying to get rid of a boomerang. If you simply have the motivation and energy to throw it away, it will come back pretty soon to haunt or hit you! However, with the right steps, you can set the boomerang of darkness down and step over it a wiser and healthier person.
Step One: Know that facing life in the best way possible takes patience, perseverance, and courage.
Contemplative monk and prolific author, Thomas Merton, was once passing a dayroom in his monastery when he spied an old monk looking very depressed. He opened the door, walked in and asked, “Brother, are you all right?” The elderly monk said, “No, I’m not. I think I am losing my spirit, my positive attitude…maybe even my faith!” Rather than becoming alarmed, Merton simply leaned back from the emotional scene, gently put his hand on the man’s shoulder, smiled at him, and said, “Brother, courage comes and goes. Hold on for the next supply.” We need patience, perseverance and courage to face the dark times in our life.
Step Two: Appreciate the value of “alonetime” in possessing a healthy perspective.
Once when up on Capitol Hill to speak to some Members of Congress and their Chiefs of Staff, I heard that a senator was asked years ago, “What is the greatest challenge facing Congress today?” In response he quipped, “Not enough time to think.” I believe that can be said of us all. People are in a hurry even to do good for themselves and others; however, that guarantees nothing. A famous Zen story demonstrates this: Once a young man asked a Zen master, “If I enter your community how long will it take me to gain enlightenment?” The master responded, “Ten years.” The aspirant then asked, “Well, what if I work really hard?” “Ah then, the Master replied, it will take twenty years.” Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once noted that even in the case of pleasure, we often pursue it with such haste that we hurry past it. And so, we need to know how to lean back, and not rush to our grave so we can be mindful (in the present with our eyes wide open) in order to learn about ourselves and life in a good way. The way to do this is to take at least two minutes each day in the morning in silence and, if possible, solitude to center yourself for the rest of the day. Also, look for the crumbs of mindfulness during the day when there is an interruption or break when you can take a few breaths and reflect.
Step Three: Debrief yourself at the end of each day. To take stock of yourself each day is quite simple: look at the emotional peaks and valleys of each day. Do this by looking objectively (what happened) and subjectively (what did I feel about it.) As you do this, be aware of the three self-awareness dead ends: arrogance (the tendency to blame everyone else for our problems), ignorance (condemning yourself), or discouragement (wanting immediate answers/change). Instead, with respect to both the “positive” and “negative,” have a sense of intrigue about your life.
Step Four: Be aware of the tendency to manifest “spiritual Alzheimer’s” disease. Be aware that there is a tendency to have “gratefulness tolerance” and lose an appreciation of the wonderful people and things already in your life. David Steindl-Rast once pointed out that we leave the house each day with a list and on that list is what we will be grateful for. Throw away the list, he advises, so you can be grateful for the many different things and people that cross your path.
Step Five: Remember not to hear praise in a whisper and negative things in a thunder. When we look at ourselves, to have a fully balanced picture and a healthy perspective on self, we must appreciate our talents as well as our growing edges. Gain a full inventory of your gifts and then look at when those very gifts (such as enthusiasm) become problematic (intrusiveness) so we can both appreciate what is good about ourselves and those situations that cause our very gifts to become burdens to ourselves and others.
Originally published on Sanity Break at EverydayHealth.com