We can’t feel empowered to create change from a place of despair.
I’m halfway down Mount Rainier when the sky starts turning white.
I can see it moving in, like fog blanketing the horizon, quickly consuming the flags in the distance that mark the trail.
It’s not so much a “trail” as a suggested route up and down the snow-covered mountain to avoid plummeting down crevasses and off the sides of cliffs.
I’ve hiked a lot, but I truly know nothing about mountaineering.
When my friend, Ada, invited me to hike to Camp Muir, which is as high as you can go without a climbing permit, I didn’t give it much thought. Growing up a very fear-averse person, there were a lot of things I’d said no to because I was afraid, and I was tired of missing out.
I purchased snow spikes that I could attach to my hiking boots, bought a neck gaiter to try and avoid getting a sunburn up my nose (it’s a thing), borrowed Ada’s spare ice axe (what would I even do with that?), packed my weight in snacks and water, and said yes.
Looking back, it was probably irresponsible to rely on the knowledge of others and hike up this snow-covered volcano with no first aid kit, compass, or GPS of my own.
But there we were, standing in the middle of a full-on whiteout, which is when clouds, snow, and wind create conditions that make it nearly impossible to see what’s in front of you.
As we lost sight of the trail markers, we relied on following the boot marks of others who had come before us. I turned to always-prepared Ada, assuming there was a plan.
I could see she was worried. We consulted her GPS and quietly kept moving.
When we heard a noise in the distance and called out, getting no response, I assured Ada it was most definitely not a bear, just some hikers ahead of us.
When she mentioned she was afraid our partners, who had hiked up with us so they could ski down, may not be safe, I assured her they had for sure taken their skis off and hiked down (they hadn’t).
We continued to follow the dot on the GPS and look out for boot tracks and any semblance of a trail. We could only see the ground a foot or so in front of us.
Meanwhile, I shared the inner ramblings of my mind and chatted like it was any other hike.
We eventually emerged from that whiteout cold, wet, exhausted — and laughing.
I can’t say I know how I was able to avoid panicking, and I certainly had moments of fear. Regardless, my outward calm helped Ada relax, and helped us both get down the mountain safely.
From yoga classes and meditation teachers, I had heard the idea that tending to your own inner peace could be beneficial for others.
Direct that om out to someone in need…
We don’t practice for ourselves, we practice for the world…
It turns out that what many people might dismiss as “woo” is grounded in science.
Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, PhD, the science director at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, tells me that the viral influence of someone’s emotional state on the people they encounter is called “interpersonal emotion regulation.”
Specifically, it relates to the ways in which we intentionally regulate our own emotions for the benefit of a group. It’s been studied in the context of sports teams, workplace leadership, mental health, and more.
“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
The effect is most pronounced with in-person interactions, but it’s also possible to influence another’s emotions via voice or video communications, Simon-Thomas says.
Say you get on a phone call with someone who’s sharing a story of their grief. You can hear in their voice just how sad they are. This would likely affect your emotional state in measurable ways.
“Depending on how you relate to that experience yourself, you may also feel profoundly sad, you may be reminded of your own experiences of grief and loss, and you may feel an urge to comfort them,” she says.
On the other hand, if instead of joining in and spiraling into a grief storm with them, you maintain your calm, it would have a different effect.
You could instead assure them that their experience is real, legitimate, and valid, but would pass. It could also lend them some sort of core meaning in their life moving forward.
Your capacity to maintain calm may actually enable them to recover from their own difficult emotional experience in a way that’s constructive, says Simon-Thomas.
“When we’re able to maintain our own calm, our own stability, our own balance, we become a source of calm and stability and balance for the other people we encounter out in the world — and that’s a service,” she says.
An uncontrolled pandemic, racial injustice, political and social divisiveness, and extreme weather events are enough to make anyone want to bury their head in the sand.
It can feel Pollyannaish to suggest that being calm should be a goal when the convergence of these events is downright terrifying. It’s easy to feel peaceful when everything is going OK. The real work is in maintaining that state through the hard times.
Plus, research shows that when people feel good, they’re more likely to take action on current issues.
“Being able to manage stress and anxiety and worry, in my view, is really far from an indulgence,” Simon-Thomas says. “Because once we’re there, once we have the skills to find calm, to find ease, we’re actually in a much better place to take action.”
Here are four practices that can help you build these skills.
Name your emotions
The next time you find yourself experiencing unpleasant emotions, try pausing and asking yourself what you’re feeling. Then call it out to yourself with an “I am” statement.
For example, if you’re reading an article about climate change, this may look something like “I am feeling scared. I am feeling angry. I am feeling really sad.”
“Just naming your emotion is a step towards recovering from the intense feelings associated with it and the sensations around it,” Simon-Thomas says.
With each trial, participants got closer and closer to the spider, until eventually they were asked to touch it with their index finger.
Some participants simply went through this exercise as a form of exposure therapy, while others were asked to name what they were feeling around the spider.
When the researchers measured biological signs of fear, they found that everyone benefited from the exposure therapy, but those who named their fear and anxiety fared better.
For further benefit when naming your emotions, try taking a third-person perspective. Instead of “I am feeling scared,” it would be “Kristen is feeling scared.”
Research suggests that doing so can help give you some distance from your own narrative.
“That does even more to quiet or diminish the intense sensations or feelings that can make an emotion start to be destructive or get in the way of your ability to do something meaningful or valuable,” Simon-Thomas says.
Spend some time admiring your surroundings
Being in nature elicits awe, an emotional response to things that feel vast and challenge your sense of ordinariness, Simon-Thomas says.
As a result, daily doses of nature may result in improved well-being and life satisfaction, according to a 2018 study in the journal Emotion.
“It doesn’t have to be in front of Niagara Falls. You can simply very deliberately direct your attention — to sound a little bit corny — to the miracle of the nature that is around you in that moment,” Simon-Thomas says.
Simple things, like the shape of the clouds or the pattern of leaves on the trees, can elicit awe when viewed with intention.
You may not only feel better, but you may become a better person as a result.
Research has found that experiencing awe can make you feel more connected with others, and more likely to engage in helpful and generous behaviors.
How? Shifting your attention away from yourself toward something larger may have the power to quiet the ego, making you less focused on self-oriented concerns.
“You’re suddenly part of this bigger enterprise of humanity in these moments of awe,” Simon-Thomas says.
Since the future feels more uncertain than ever, leaning on practices that help me connect with the present moment — one breath at a time — helps ease anxiety about the future.
Research also suggests that mindfulness may increase empathy. Developing the skills to observe what’s going on in the moment without judgement or reaction can boost self-compassion, which is an important tool for stepping into someone else’s shoes.
Unfortunately, most yoga and meditation centers have had to close their doors or greatly limit class size in an effort to practice physical distancing. The upside is that there are now more online resources available than ever before.
If you’re financially able, paying for online mindfulness classes can go a long way toward supporting a small business during these hard times.
As the election nears and colder, darker seasons set in, it’s possible that we have even more adversity ahead of us.
It may feel tempting to succumb to anxiety, to believe the future is bleak, to label anyone who doesn’t have the same opinions as the enemy, and to feel totally hopeless.
But the paradox of feeling despair about the world is that we want things to change, but we can’t feel empowered to create change from this place.
“There are lots of things that we can do at any moment that are legitimate contributions, albeit not the solution, to the challenges that we’re facing,” Simon-Thomas says.
Things like wearing a mask, chatting (from a distance) with a stranger at the supermarket, pausing before posting something hateful on social media, or reaching out to someone outside your echo chamber are all ways to contribute to the greater good.
“We won’t see that or have the resources to take action if we’re consumed by stress, worry, anxiety, hopelessness, and grief,” she says.
As we continue to move in and through this new normal we’re all experiencing, I want to be remembered as someone who chose peace over reactivity, love over hate, and hope over fear.
It won’t be easy, but I believe we can get through the whiteout together.
Kristen Domonell is an editor at Healthline who’s passionate about using the power of storytelling to help people live their healthiest, most aligned lives. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, yoga, camping, and tending to her indoor plant jungle.