How to face death and destruction without losing your mind


*Some details have been changed to protect the individual’s identity.

“I watched them get murdered and I didn’t use.” she said. Her face wore an expression like she couldn’t believe she had actually stayed sober.

The gun man had been on foot, causing bloodshed, leaving our town with four less souls in it that night, including his own. Emma had wrestled with addiction to heroin for 6 years and had only been sober for a little less than 6 months when she saw life get snuffed out by a few bullets right in front of her eyes. She had known them; known them well, actually. Emma had started her new and sober life almost the same time they did. She went to 12 step meetings with them, shared meals with them, spent many long nights in conversation with them about what drugs had cost them and how life was starting to shine with a fresh and new hope. Each life cut off at the moment when their potential for good was finally becoming a reality. “They died with honor…” Emma said, tears streaming down her face. “They died sober.”

This is not a commentary on what should be done about guns or those behind them. There is already too much empty rhetoric around such things. Instead, this is about you. This is about the moment that you will someday face (and may have already faced) when life as you know it gets shattered with a loud and unexpected crash. Despite Emma’s addiction to one of the hardest drugs to get clean from, she stayed sober when that moment hit her. If you put yourself in her shoes, would you?

Below are some tried and true tips to help you become centered, stay centered, and increase your chances of weathering any storm that tries to take you out. Who knows? These could even help you get through the holidays without losing your mind or your temper! The most important thing to know before reading further is that these tips will be quite useless to you unless you practice, practice, practice. When life “hits the fan” humans always revert to their established habits, for good or for ill. If you don’t make these a habit, they will never help you in the moments of terror, so practice them often, especially when life seems good.

  1. Reset Perspective Often – My wife would be the first one to tell you that I get stuck in ruts and follow habits all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I have driven the long way somewhere because I was on automatic pilot. For instance, I would be on my way to work when I wanted to go to the gym. Don’t get me wrong, habits are important and they add vital consistency to our lives, but it is equally important for us to shift things around, look at the world through fresh eyes, and change our perspective. If we do this on a regular basis, we accomplish two things: we increase the chances that we will catch a great opportunity as it goes by and we train ourselves to be light on our feet when change comes around. The better I am at adapting to whatever situation I find myself in, the more mental energy I have left over to figure out actual solutions to it, rather than just trying to survive it.
  2. Learn New Ideas, Even If You Don’t Need Them – Psychological research has shown over and over again that different aspects of your brain (and your brain as a whole) can be seen much like a muscle in that it needs regular exercise to stay strong and sharp. This is no surprise to many of us, but how we go about exercising our brains is a bit surprising. We may value our minds and, in turn, start doing Sudoku’s, dance lessons, or, for those uniquely motivated persons, sit in on some college courses. Once again, the habit loops finds us and makes “or” the most important word of the previous sentence. We typically just do one or two mind exercises and stick with it. Why? Because we get good at it! It gets familiar and we start to feel good about how skilled we are compared to others who struggle with it. This translates into us just using one or two machines at the gym while getting horribly unbalanced muscle growth. Learning is clearly the most effective way to train your brain and learning new ideas in new areas on a regular basis is the most effective way to train all of your brain. The final outcome is increase neural-plasticity which means your brain is more nimble and quick – able to react with great speed and efficacy to new challenges.
  3. Meditate – The first two suggestions are meant to increase mental and physical activity. This one is meant for decrease of those things, thus balancing our efforts. As much as I need to shake things up, I also need to let the dust settle and meditation can be a very effective tool to accomplish that while doing something productive. Meditation is intended to empty your mind and self, but it is very different from simply doing nothing. It is a clearing that allows for focused insight into any number of challenges of celebrations. If you are spiritually inclined, studies have shown that prayer has the same benefits as meditation, so you might try that as an option. For those who feel hopeless at the idea of meditation because they cannot quiet their mind, consider using guided meditation. For those who don’t know how to meditate at all, but see it as an excellent opportunity to live out principle #2, check out this website for instruction on several types of meditation.
  4. Be The Best Of The Real You – I often talk with my clients about the concept of ambivalence. I tell them that, just like the rest of humanity, they usually have a “range of willingness” when it comes to working on themselves, their marriage, or their addiction. Some days the range might be 40%-60%, other days might be 75%-90%, or any combination that fits for the moment. I challenge them (and you) to live at the top of their range for that day. This practice seeks to accomplish two things: release you from the false shame of having an imperfect day and push you to rise past “good enough” which too many of us settle for. If you get in the habit of being the best version of yourself you can be for that day, you will invariably begin to see your average “range of willingness” increase until you consistently hover around 90%-100%. With this habit in place, things like resentment, pain, or injustice won’t have as much of a gravitational pull on your morals or integrity. Combine this practice with the others above and you can become a powerhouse of stability in uncertain times.
  5. Dump Dead Weight – Related to the idea of Neuro-plasticity is the psychological concept of “Ego Strength.” This term refers to one’s bandwidth in dealing with the complexity of life. Someone who has a lot of ego strength is much more capable of handling several struggles at once just like increase internet bandwidth let you download songs, movies, and books at the same time with greater speed. The interesting thing about ego strength is that the “bandwidth” can be taken up by things like resentment and past trauma. This is like your neighbors hacking into your internet and clogging up the line with no benefit to you at all. If our life shatters unexpectedly and a bunch of our ego strength is tied up in resentment about our job or our childhood (the stuff we thought we would have time/energy to resolve later – or we just plain don’t want to deal with it) our odds of being crushed under the pressure spike upward. We need to cut the dead weight lose and clear up our ego strength by processing our resentments or trauma and then letting them go.


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