Making Meaning: A Toolbox for Confronting Sustained External Decoherence
The world is ending. There was a mass shooting in my hometown. There was terrible flooding that shattered my understanding of what natural disasters might be on the horizon. I can’t send my child to school without having a panic attack. But ANYWAY, I had a pretty good week, you know, other than all that.
COPING WHEN OUR COPING STRATEGIES WEREN’T DEVELOPED WITH THIS WORLD IN MIND
Dark humor can be meaning-making. So can getting real about what we’re seeing, thinking, and feeling.
We need these anti-venoms. Burnout was two years ago. We’re in a post-post-burnout windfall moment, witnessing and living sustained trauma, with no clear vision of anything else.
As outlined in “Self Care, Community Care: Grounding, Meaning-Making, And Moving Through,” most typical anxiety coping strategies rely on the fact that the anxiety is in some capacity unwarranted, and are thus unhelpful in situations of sustained external decoherence. Here and now, anxiety is very much valid.
Predictably, rampant systemic gaslighting about this sustained experience of deep external decoherence — in its historical forms, like the status quo’s insistence that the world was always an ok place for everyone, despite racism, sexism, and other deep harms and in its more recent outcroppings including the status quo’s denial of the destabilization of systems, structures, and patterns of life that were previously considered solid — is making it difficult to develop alternative coping strategies.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The attempt, where we make connections and do our best to keep going in relationship to those around us, is itself perhaps the best coping strategy we have in this moment.
Look in front of you.
What we can do is what we can do. Grounding, being present, looking at our streets, looking at our kids, and allowing that to lead us into meaning-making for ourselves and our community, that’s what we can do.
Call this list what you want — anti-venom, coping strategies, a starting place — and share your additions and subtractions as you see fit, but know that I, too, am searching for what to do, how to do it better, and how to do it together. As you keep going, try out:
-Grounding your days in practices or work that readily provide you with the opportunities to grasp and make meaning. To me, being purposeful in my work is very comforting.
-Joining, starting, or engaging in a group, as formal or informal as makes sense to you, where you can discuss your experience, feelings, and perspectives. I sit in a weekly women’s council. The connection at meetings, deep and authentic sharing and the memes, thoughts, and revelations in our group chat are deep nourishment and incredibly normalizing for me.
-Finding ways of connecting through discussion. Another pursuit of meaning-making, for me this has looked like long conversations with women I respect, listening deeply and coming to new understandings of how to continue to make an impact (where, how, and whether to take actions, how to combat internalized/systemic racism, etc.), and being open about how the world looks and feels to me. I also soak up great podcasts and audiobooks on my daily walks.
-Being present with your children, spouse, and other loved ones, rather than following the anticipation train. When I help my kid get ready for bed with my full attention, I am able to temper my anxieties about the future.
-Moving your body. There are no rules for how to best do this. For me, a daily long walk is essential. Sometimes I walk in silence, sometimes with music, sometimes with a podcast or audiobook and sometimes with a friend. I walk in rain or shine and I walk for an hour and 10 minutes.
-Doing away with anything that’s mood destabilizing. Think about what you’re putting in your environment and body. For me, taking care of my nervous system is a full-time project, including taking alcohol, coffee, and sugar out of my day-to-day.
-Saying no to things that will dysregulate you. For me, this has meant saying no to invitations and leaving events when I start to feel dysregulated. It has also meant closing the door to dysregulating conversations and people. While I wouldn’t share the latter as univocal advice, there is something to be said for knowing when to take a step back from situations that deeply throw off your nervous system.
-Claiming moments of joy. Disregarding the constraints the American status quo puts on what should bring us fulfillment and success, and the ways that we are taught to understand joy, can be uniquely freeing and connective. Have you ever tried forest bathing??
-Learning strategies from your friends. It is freeing to approach coping from an openness to experimentation, saying to myself: “I could try that on. I wonder what parts of it will resonate.”
In my experience, these are all ways to stay afloat, often even opening the door to thriving even when thriving is somewhat elusive in this survival environment.
Within all of this, it’s good to see another ship on the horizon. It’s good to know we aren’t alone. Belonging is essential. Recognition and community are so important; our synergistic pursuit of self-care and community care allows us to be grounded in the meaning we make together.
When we embrace ourselves and others and find meaning, it is revolutionary in a peaceful protest kind of way. When we sit with each other and share joy, food, art, creativity, that, too, is an anti-venom.
THE ROLE OF THERAPY
Yes, the sky is falling.
While discussing what this looks like with your neighbors can be a wonderful exercise in meaning-making, shouting it down your street may not be.
The role of therapy in these times is to have a place to take all of your raw, unedited, unexamed, extensential terror and have it be held. Your therapist is there to hear it. You will burn cleaner having shared it. And maybe you’ll find a way to make new meaning and connections based on what you’re seeing with fresh eyes.
These are hard times right now. And, what is happening in your relationships right now is important.
Just because you are recovering from a mass shooting in your region doesn’t mean your fight with your partner shouldn’t matter. It can be overwhelming to reckon with both the collective world and the relationships closest at hand, but pain and suffering in both contexts is real, important, and valid.
Remember that therapy is an immensely helpful tool in our individual and collective toolbox.