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It all seemed to happen in an instant. In a whirlwind two weeks I accepted and started a new job in a new state. My first month on the job, I was living in a mostly empty monastery as I waited to move into an apartment. To be suddenly thrust into all this newness was overwhelming. My routines, habits, and patterns of working, sleeping, and eating all shifted to accommodate a considerably different reality. And as time went on, I noticed myself retreating.

It started subtly enough—a long car ride prompted me to begin an audiobook. In the following weeks, the audiobook began accompanying me to and from work. Sometimes I listened on my lunch break and as I was getting ready for bed, too. Pretty soon, the audiobook was occupying all the quiet moments in my day.

There’s nothing wrong with listening to an audiobook, of course, nor with using an audiobook as a way to relax or self-calm. What became problematic for me was the quantity of time I was spending listening to an audiobook instead of acknowledging my emotions—the overwhelm, fatigue, and uncertainty brought on by this transition. Tuning in to the audiobook became a method by which I numbed my feelings and pushed forward without regard for my needs.

Listening to ourselves

In modern times, this retreating from and numbing to pain is quite common. In a March 2021 article on the Harvard Health Blog, Dr. Richard F. Mollica and Thomas Hübl reflect on the impact of the news on our mental health, touching upon a more universal explanation of why we might retreat and/or numb ourselves in times of struggle: “When a situation is overwhelming, your body protects itself by entering a ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode.”

While my mind was in hyperactive flight mode—the audiobook provided me a way to give my full attention to a fantasy world that felt less complicated than my own—my emotions were in numbing freeze mode. I thought if I let myself feel the full impact of the stressors, I might feel too overwhelmed. The act of choosing to listen to an audiobook over dealing with my feelings allowed me to believe I was maintaining a modicum of control over a reality that was feeling increasingly fraught with uncertainty.

And I don’t think I’m alone. We are living in an age where distress has recently been experienced by a large portion of our society. Interestingly, Mollica and Hübl explore not only personal numbing, but numbing on the societal level: “Collective numbness can surface as epidemic substance misuse; food, sex, or entertainment addiction; media overuse; or in other ways. It reveals itself as a collective shutting-down to crisis, which can derail healing.”

How to be present with yourself

Writing in the wake of a still-present pandemic, in a reality heavy with push notifications and instant access via social media to the emotions of our friends and strangers, I find it’s no wonder that we try to cope via various escape routes. Instead of running from or numbing the pain, Mollica and Hübl recommend standing our ground: “By working together to be with whatever is present, acknowledging and feeling our discomfort, resistance, and pain, we may move closer to integration and a sense of healing during this time of upheaval.” This is work that often involves the support of others—leaning on friends, family, and sometimes a good therapist.

How to stay with oneself in times of distress? While there is much advice on this subject, I’ve found two practices especially useful:

01. Pausing

This is not necessarily a lengthy practice, but rather a moment of breaking out of the low-grade worried chatter going on in my head. This pause might be activated by a particular task, like taking a short walk during my work day. Other times, it takes the form of simply noticing how I’m feeling. Especially during times of transition, longer pauses—a night in, or a decision to be with friends instead of doing more work—allow me to acknowledge the difficulty of the transition, while also tending to myself.

02. Setting boundaries

In the audiobook scenario, setting boundaries looked like switching to podcasts for a while. I’ve found that in this season, I need smaller chunks of information conveyed in a gentle format, rather than the sometimes high drama of a full-length audiobook. Keeping that boundary has allowed me a bit more mental space. I know that when I do return to audiobook listening, it will be with greater freedom to enjoy it, rather than the “stress-listening” I was doing to block out my feelings.

Transitions can be exciting and wonderful; they can also be physically and emotionally exhausting. In times of overwhelm, it seems easier to run and/or numb than to stay with yourself. My hope is that just as we might accompany a struggling friend, we can learn to accompany ourselves through times of transition with compassion, tenderness, and the encouragement of our full presence.