It is normal to believe that we would not be able to survive a traumatic life event such as the death of our child, our spouse being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, or any number of other tragic and traumatic life events. However, once we develop the ability and courage to stay fully present with whatever we are feeling, we actually become increasingly stress-resilient. This does not mean we no longer suffer, but we suffer far less than when we try to resist the suffering. This has sometimes been referred to as suffering without suffering.
The challenge is that to develop that level of stress-resilience, we need help in order to be able to fully accept our inner subjective experiences.
One form of very effective help is to find a group of people who have gone through the same type of emotional trauma that we have been through. For someone who is a war veteran it is important to find a group for veterans, often led by a veteran, all of whom know from personal experience what types of unspeakable horrors we experienced. If our child died, a group made up of other parents who also lost a child is helpful. I live with chronic medical conditions and for many years I led support groups for others living with debilitating medical challenges.
Another path is that of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) 8-week classes are a great way to learn. Mindfulness allows us to learn how to differentiate the stories we all make up in our minds from reality. Reality is something that is experienced from moment-to-moment. Examples of mindfulness include observing the physical sensations of breathing and the observation of our thoughts. The idea is to observe our thoughts without getting caught up in the drama of the thoughts.
Still another path is to spend time with close friends who have no agenda for us and accept us with whatever emotional states we may be experiencing.
Self-compassion is extremely helpful. When we can self-soothe and really be there for ourselves the way a close friend or someone who loves us would support us, our suffering diminishes. Being around supportive, close friends can help up develop self-compassion.
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I co-teach a course at College of Marin in Kentfield, California; Mindfulness-Based Self-Compassion (MBSC). For those who do not live geographically close enough to attend the class, this page can serve as a guide: http://larryberkelhammer.com/mindfulness-based-self-compassion/