Several years ago, my daughter was diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune disorder. The intake nurse, trying to be comforting, said something like: “There’s lots of hope. There are new medications coming out every year.” It was then that I realized we were in the “hope” territory – which means there’s no certainty.
I generally don’t do well with uncertainty. When I bump up against it, I get flooded with emotions like a fractured boat in a storm. My mind spins up doomsday scenarios, I lose sleep, and, to numb away the anxiety, my consumption of mindless YouTube videos skyrockets.
It was out of sheer desperation and the need to function as a parent that I started to work with a therapist and combed through the vault of psychology courses & books I’ve amassed over the years.
Two paradigms stood out as promising frameworks for building up stress resilience and coping with uncertainty: Polyvagal Theory and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
The first paradigm, Polyvagal Theory, proposes that our autonomic nervous system constantly and subconsciously scans our environment for cues of safety and threat. When it finds a critical mass of safety cues, it signals to our body that we can be at ease–time to rest, recover, connect and have fun. If it detects cues of threat, then it puts our body on alert to be ready to fight, flee, or even shut down (in cases of extreme threat). The key concept here is that our system is on the lookout for threats – and prepares our body to act accordingly – before we even think about what’s happening. This is why it’s difficult to control how fast I’m flooded by stressful events.
The second paradigm, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT for short), is a psychotherapy approach that teaches psychological flexibility by accepting inner experiences. In other words, ACT encourages us to tolerate difficult thoughts and emotions by separating ourselves from them (known as diffusing) and to accept that they are just one part of our reality – not the totality of it.
To help myself apply the most useful parts of these frameworks, I boiled down their practices into four large buckets: Values, Awareness, Spotlight, and Taking the long view (VAST). I literally go over every letter of the acronym in my head, one by one, when I’m struggling.
The practices didn’t suddenly turn me into a walking Zen monk – when life comes at me hard, I still sink into scrolling YouTube shorts for hours. The difference is that each time I pick up these tools and use them, I get a little better at getting back on my feet.
So, in hopes that these tools are helpful to you too, let’s go over them one by one.
We can engage with our values during stressful times by asking three things:
1. What kind of person do we want to be when things get difficult?
Do I want to be the person who hides behind my phone and sticks my head in the sand, or do I want to be the one to take care of myself and my family? It’s not easy or instant to pick yourself back up when things get hard, but if we pay attention to the direction you want to move towards, we can slowly inch towards it. When I remember the kind of person I want to be, I slowly remember to drink water and feed myself…to stand outside and breathe fresh air… to enjoy a moment of pure silliness with my kids.
2. What values does this difficulty point to?
All our difficult emotions point towards what’s important to us. If we feel angry, it might indicate that we value fairness. Our sadness might be a pull towards human connection. No matter how we are struggling, there is a need or desire for something we want to move towards. Those are the things that are important to us–in other words, they point towards our values.
3. How can we be more kind?
One specific value that has been helpful to me is that of being a safe person for myself and others. That means being kind and empathetic whenever possible, in any way possible, even to myself. This is a self-reinforcing value. In other words, when I’m socially awkward, triggered, cranky, and not in a mood to be kind, this value states that it’s important to have empathy for all the ways I’m currently suffering, even as I’m struggling to embody this value.
Awareness has two components: Being aware of and accepting present reality and being aware of the physiological state of our body.
Accepting and staying with present reality has generally been challenging for me. It wasn’t until I watched a few interviews with Dr. Steven C. Hayes, the founder of ACT, speak about what he meant by acceptance (the “A” in ACT). He described it in terms of the etymological, Latin sense of the word. In Latin, the word for accept is acceptare, meaning “to take or receive willingly,” kind of like a gift. Rather than resigning or even tolerating our circumstances, we treat the difficulties as part of our larger human experience.
A thousand years ago, our ancestors experienced the grief of losing a loved one, the angst of rejection, anxiety over securing resources (including money, shelter, and food), and anger at institutions that harmed them. Our difficult experiences mean we are a living, continuous, part of humanity. Scores of art, poetry, literature, movies have been devoted to exploring this hardship. If science fiction is to be believed, there is an AI somewhere wondering whether it would accept the price of emotional pain just to experience what it’s like to be human. It is in fact a precious gift, because it’s nearly impossible to not have empathy for ourselves and others when we see our suffering as part of the whole of existence.
Acceptance means we allow those experiences to touch us and connect us with our humanity. To allow our struggles, to “receive them willingly,” is to tap our self-compassion, our compassion towards others, and show us what’s most precious to us in life.
The second component, being aware of the physical state of our body, just means tuning into our physical sensations. Is there a knot in the stomach? Are our muscles tense? Do we suddenly feel warm or cold? Over time, we can learn what sensations correspond to our nervous system being in fight or flight, in play or at peace, calm or shut down/numb. We can then take steps to give our body what it needs to maintain its current state or to shift out of states that keep us stuck in unhelpful inclinations.
Imagine you are an actor on stage, acting out a monologue of raging against the unfairness of the world. You are really feeling those emotions, caught up in the scene as if it was really happening to you. Now, imagine you are the one operating the spotlight shining on the character. You can now observe the intense emotions of the character, marvel at the actor really being caught up in the scene, and maybe even start to critique the plot and how the play should go.
This is a metaphor for the spotlight tool. As much as we get caught up in our emotions, humans have this amazing thing which we will refer to as an observing self. (It has many names in different spiritual and therapeutic traditions: Inner Witness, Higher Self, Observer, etc). If we can shift our consciousness to our observing self, it’s kind of like shifting our attention from being the actor in the spotlight to being the spotlight operator.
The benefit is less overwhelm and flooding from our experiences. If we say to ourselves: “I’m noticing something inside me is…,” we are able to be with our experiences without being flooded by them. It is then much easier to accept our feelings willingly and with compassion.
Taking the Long View
Taking the long view is about pivoting our day-to-day habits and environment towards circumstances that are conducive to our mental and physical health. For example, just being more mindful about having calming, screen-free activities an hour before bed can have a big impact on how rested we feel a week later. Putting more plants in your workspace can make it feel just a bit more pleasant to be there. Likewise, drinking more water during the day can make us feel more alert. We’re talking about noticing small things we can do for ourselves and our loved ones that would make our body, mind, and life run a bit smoother over the upcoming months and years.
This is also an ongoing process. We all get caught up in a flurry of daily responsibilities and managing the latest chaos. Suddenly our sleep habits slide and we walk around chronically dehydrated. If we treat taking care of ourselves as an ongoing process, we can expect the slideback and notice when we are ready to rebuild good habits. We become aware of what season of life we are in, what we need to function better in that moment, and what will help us over the long run.
Did you find anything that was helpful in these tools?
If you would like to explore these in more detail, stay tuned for the following:
- An upcoming series of posts that will unpack each element of the VAST framework.
- An ongoing Interintellect Salon Series (Zoom workshops) where we put the VAST framework into practice.