Fight, Flight or Be Present? How Mindfulness Can Help Us Cope With Anxious Times

by Kim Schneiderman, LCSW, MSW

We live in turbulent times. Not since the 60’s has the nation been so volcanically divided along ethical and political lines, as climate change threatens to destroy the planet with wildfires, drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for millions… that is, if violence, war, or tyrants with nuclear weapons don’t get us first.

Such an apocalyptic picture is enough to make anyone feel a little anxious or depressed, if not unsettled. Of course, those directly impacted, traumatized or re-traumatized by related events, and those with pre-existing mental illness, are bound to experience fear, anger, sadness, disgust, powerlessness, among other uncomfortable emotions, more intensely. Many psychotherapists report clients dealing with significantly heightened stress and anxiety related to the current political environment.

This begs the question: how do we cope with difficult times without becoming overwhelmed, reactive or cynical? It’s a question that we therapists grapple with ourselves. After all, how do we help clients remain calm amid the turbulence, when we share their worries?

Fight or Flight

The evolutionary response to danger is fight, flight, or freeze. That’s how our brains are wired for survival. Fight or be eaten. Run if a large predator surprises you when you left your club back in the cave. Freeze if playing dead is your best option.

Each of these responses is motivated by self-preservation, and therefore not ostensibly problematic. The problem lies in how these defenses are expressed. For example, marching in a rally is a constructive fight response to anger about public policy; shooting up a church or synagogue, is not. Along similar lines, a Netflix binge is a far less harmful flight response than going on a bender.

What determines whether our reactions are constructive or destructive is largely informed by how we relate to our emotions. At the first wave of distress, do we grab a beer, call our Congressman, or stay in bed for days? Regardless of our response, none of these actions – even the conspicuously constructive ones – will fully alleviate the presence of uncomfortable feelings.

Staying Present

That’s where mindfulness can be helpful. What would happen if instead of fighting or fleeing, we just remained present? How much more thoughtful and constructive would any subsequent actions be if our initial response was to pause and check in?

Such is the focus of the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute’s upcoming annual conference, ” Mindful Therapy for Anxious Times,” with renowned psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher Mark Epstein, MD. Dr. Epstein is the author of numerous books including “Thoughts Without a Thinker,” “Advice Not Given,” “The Trauma of Everyday Life,” and “Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart

In his groundbreaking book “Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective” Dr. Epstein describes mindfulness as the ability to observe with curious detachment the moment-to-moment flow of thoughts, feelings and sensations as they arise in our mind and body.

According to Dr. Epstein, this type of awareness is the fundamental tenet of Buddhist psychology, and in itself, healing. Furthermore, there is enormous freedom to be gained from such a shift. “Instead of running from difficult emotions (or hanging onto enticing ones),” he writes, “the practitioner of bare attention becomes able to contain any reaction: making space for it, but not completely identifying with it because of the…presence of non-judgmental awareness.”

And non-judgmental awareness is important. Buddhism posits that judgment is a sign of attachment, and attachment is the root of suffering. For example, when we judge certain actions or events, it’s because we’re attached to certain feeling states, desires, and pictures about how life should be.

This can lead us to feel angry, fearful, resentful, depressed etc. when things don’t go our way. In other words, we suffer because we expect happiness from states and things which are impermanent, and therefore true happiness remains elusive.

Buddhism suggests that a better path is to cultivate a state of consciousness where one is able to sit detachedly with one’s emotions. From such mindful place springs spontaneous actions that nourish and support well-being and aliveness – what Buddhists refer to as the Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right concentration, and well, mindfulness.

With mindfulness, we may still choose to march in a rally, lose ourselves in an episode of our favorite show, or perhaps do a little of both. But our actions will be guided by our inner well of being where we are in charge of our response to emotions, not the other way around.

PSI’s Annual Conference

To learn more, register for our experiential day-long conference on Saturday, January 12, 2019 at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. The conference, which will run from 10 am to 4 pm, is designed for mental health professionals and the general public who are interested in exploring the ways mindfulness can help us cope with precarious political and societal circumstances and events.

The conference will include a presentation, experiential exercise and Q&A with Dr. Epstein. Following Dr. Epstein’s talk, there will be a panel discussion addressing different perspectives on mindfulness and small group discussions. A light breakfast will be served in addition to lunch, during which attendees will be given an opportunity to socialize and network.

Continuing Education Credits and Units (CECs, CEUs) are available to LMFTs, LMHCs, LCSWs, LMSWs, and CASACs.

PSI is happy to partner with the Interfaith Center of New York, Trinity Church Wall Street, and St. Bart’s to bring you the 2019 conference. Students and members of our partner organizations are eligible for discounted admission.

Psychotherapy & Spirituality Institute
50 Fulton St 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10038

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