How to Be OKAY When Other People Are Suffering

It's hard to watch people suffer. When these people have names and faces you know, it's another level of heartbreaking. I live about 240 miles from Houston, Texas. And because of Hurricane Harvey, much of Houston is drowning. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography, Houston, and it's surrounding environs, is bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island. And much of it is underwater right now.


If you are in the calamity, our prayers are with you, and you're likely not reading this today. This newsletter is for those of us watching from the outside, feeling rather helpless. There are helpful and not so helpful ways to be when something like this happens.


It's not useful to:

  • Obsess over things we can't control.That's the express lane to crazy-ville.
  • Play out the worst-case scenario for our loved ones. 
  • Make ourselves sick with worry. We can be of no good use to anyone in that state.
  • Ignore our feelings. Or drink them, drug them, or shove them down with cake. 
  • Glue ourselves to the TV, Internet, or phone watching the footage over and over. 


Trust me, I know all this is easier said than done. If you find yourself loop-loop-looping, playing out endless "what-if's," it's because your brain is on high-alert and trying to find "the answer." If it can find the pattern and create a "story," the brain's survival circuits reason, it can know what to avoid in the future. The brain is just doing what it does, no matter that by doing that, it's creating a super-stressed internal environment that is wrecking your sleep and not helping anyone. 


What would be more useful?

  1. Recognize what's happening. Ah, brain, you're in survival fear mode. Thank you for trying to keep me safe.
  2. Get a context. Am I in danger right at this very moment? If I'm not, if I am safe and have food and water and place to sleep, I am OKAY regardless of the feelings generated by survival brain.
  3. Get clear on the fear. What is it I am REALLY most afraid of here? Many times doing just this stops the brain whirl.
  4. Is this a real fear, something really happening right now?Then take action to solve a specific problem.
  5. Is this a false fear or catastrophizing? Then acknowledge the feeling and refocus into mindfulness.
  6. Get Mindful. Your goal is awareness without hyper-vigilance. To do this, you have to be grounded in what is, without uber focusing on the bad stuff. Now's the time to get into your meditation or mind-body exercising, to focus on breathing and on being present. 


One of the problems with 24/7 news coverage is we can become inundated with horrific images which literally put us into a negative trance. Have you ever watched the news during something crazy or during a tragedy, and just felt yourself hyper-zoned into the negative narrative? Trance state is caused by narrowing your focus. You don't want to program that fear into your yourself!


A better move is to be aware, but then shift your focus off the screen, and towards a feeling of compassion.  Compassion says, "I see your pain, your suffering, and I wish you to be free from it." Because compassion comes with the desire to alleviate suffering, it motivates us towards action. 


Thoughtful, grounded, pragmatic action...becoming part of the solution...that's how we can be our best during the worst.


Many prayers for Houston, for southeast Texas, and for all parts of the world where people are at the mercy of natural disasters right now.