“Help! The sun is shining, but it is also dark!”
The sun is shining; the days are longer. Summer is approaching. For some, summer is a break from study or work. For others, it may be an opportunity to take a week of vacation to relax and rejuvenate. Whether it is a two-to-three-month break, or simply more time in the evening to enjoy the sunshine, it is a time for which most look forward. It is often a time of joy, laughter, and reprieve. Summer is associated with rest and play, all of which can promote positive well-being. And I embrace all of it.
However, I am also keenly aware of the various tragedies we have collectively experienced over the recent months. With the “last day of school” and the “first vacation of the summer” pictures also come news of mass shootings, war, and other difficult events. There is exposure to pain and suffering on multiple levels, whether indirectly or directly.
Thus, I get the sense “the sun is shining, but it is also dark!” I find it necessary to acknowledge the current conflicting duality of our reality and the distress which many are experiencing, while sharing a few reminders to help us navigate through.
First, during times like this, it is crucial to recognize it is normal to have a plethora of intense thoughts and feelings, as well as an urge to act. It is also expected there will be differing viewpoints and ways these events affect individuals based on a variety of factors.
Second, it is important to highlight there are times when words are insufficient to convey the depth and intensity of feelings or to comfort adequately. Perhaps we don’t know anyone personally who has been directly affected by one of the current tragedies. Yet, we have been impacted. We may find ourselves juggling varying thoughts and feelings and struggling to put these into words. I would invite us to lean into what we are experiencing in our bodies. Accept there may not be “right words.” However, we can give space for our thoughts and feelings, accepting them as we experience them. Sitting in silence might be necessary. It might also be helpful to focus on possible actions. For example, if we are feeling helpless, we might brainstorm a way we can make a difference or identify an area where we do have control. We can also find ways to show care, concern, support, and express meaningful presence with others amid the current tragedies.
Perhaps we do know someone who has been directly affected by one of the various tragedies or observe others being more deeply impacted by our current shared experiences. Again, we may not know the “right words” to say to those who have suffered directly from a tragedy or are in more distress. That is okay. There is a reason why words fall short; it is because ultimately, they often do. Thus, instead of getting caught up in “saying the right words,” we can focus on embracing being a meaningful presence. We offer authentic support through honest connection. Even saying, “I don’t know what to say; however, I am here for you,” or “I don’t understand or know the solution, but I am here to listen.” Offering just to be with someone is powerful.
Next, we may experience discomfort when we feel “caught in the middle” of opposing circumstances or even opposing feelings. On the one hand, it is summer. We have plans to relax, find joy, rejuvenate. Yet, we find ourselves surrounded by various tragedies. The degree of impact may vary. We are both impacted and aware of the suffering; yet also are navigating daily lives. We are both excited about summer plans, but also angry and sad about world events. Or we may be struggling with different stressors or difficult life circumstances, but also must continue to function. In these situations, it can be powerful to embrace “both/and.” Often we are influenced to exist in an “either/or” mindset. Either we are happy, or we are sad. Either we are fulfilled, or we are discontent. Yet this negates the complexity of both the outer world, and our inner worlds. Joy and pain can coexist; celebration and grief may show up hand in hand. Vacations are happening in the middle of world conflict. We are both celebrating our young adults graduating college and mourning for those killed in a mass shooting. Embrace and hold space for “both/and.” Multiple, often conflicting, thoughts and feelings can be true at the same time. It is necessary to accept all of them.
Lastly, we can utilize healthy coping skills to navigate these “distressing-at-a-loss-for-words-embracing-both-and” times. Consider strategies which have been helpful in the past, as well as those we may not have utilized previously.
Find ways to express our thoughts and feelings, giving ourselves permission to hold several thoughts and feelings simultaneously, while also releasing them. (Allow time for “both/and.”) Resist the urge to hold them in. Even if we have moments of “no words,” we must find ways to release them in nonverbal ways and then be willing to let words flow when they do come, without judgment. Releasing feelings is an important skill to practice.
Get moving, be active. We cannot separate the various parts of our bodies; they are all interconnected. Moving is good for all areas of our health, increasing endorphins. Research also supports various activities such as yoga, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system, decreasing stress and muscle tension. We can engage in physical activities we love, whether it be swimming, kayaking, or biking.
Be creative. Engaging in novel and creative activities increases dopamine. Make art; write, create music. Simply listening to music has been found to decrease anxiety and stress. (We can even combine the coping skill of releasing and expressing feelings with this one!)
Seek social support. Make connections. We increase the oxytocin (the “love hormone”) in our brains by spending time with family, friends, and pets. We are inherently built to be in relationship with others.
Stick to routine; take the vacations we have planned. Routine helps us stay motivated and organized.
Maintain healthy habits. Sleep/rest. Eat well, hydrate.
Limit social media/news exposure when current events become too distressing.
Seek ways to advocate and get involved in organizations created to assist survivors of events or those which support issues we find important.
And lastly, let us not hesitate in seeking professional help if levels of distress increase, we are unable to function or fulfil roles, unhealthy coping has increased (drug/alcohol use), there is difficulty sleeping or change in appetite, and if experiencing severe hopelessness and suicidal thoughts. We are here to help when the sun is shining but it is also dark.