It feels like the heavens, the world and our fellow citizens have been dumping all over us during the last two years.
The pandemic. Racial strife. Gun violence that includes mass shootings in Buffalo and southwestern Texas during the last two weeks alone.
Political discord. Political violence. Authoritarian threats from within and without. War.
This on top of the broken relationships, economic, social and cultural inequities, abuse, sickness and death common throughout the modern age.
How do we even get through the day?
WNY Refresh invited Brian Costello, a mental health counselor whose focus includes post-trauma and addiction recovery therapy, to provide insight into the ways forward.
“What I have found to be most effective is taking a holistic approach,” said Costello, a practicing therapist at Core Mental Health Counseling in downtown Buffalo. “I still think there’s more good in the world.”
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Costello is in long-term addiction recovery himself, and often uses a type of counseling called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, proven to help people recover from trauma and other distressing life experiences that can lead to anxiety, depression and panic disorders.
Question: How do we move forward in such troubling times?
Answer: It’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed with what’s happening in the world right now. Keep in mind that our nervous system can’t always differentiate between a crisis we are hearing about and one that we are experiencing personally. That is because human beings are empathetic by nature.
I don’t think our brains have evolved as quickly as the technology around us. We aren’t equipped to hear about tragedy and suffering several times a day. It’s important to take breaks. Wiggle your toes – literally – and check in with yourself in this moment. Are you OK right now? Are your worries in the future, or are they here now? Feeling unsafe and being unsafe are two different things. If you are safe; remind your brain of that. This is especially important following a traumatic event. As often as possible, remind yourself that you have returned to safety. Seek support, whether from a professional, family, friend or spiritual leader in the community.
Balance the ‘bad’ with good news. Look for it. Better yet, do it. People are wired for prosocial behavior, meaning when we do good things for others, or even watch someone do good for others, our brain releases reward chemicals.
Overconsumption of suffering can lead to skewed conclusions about the world. When I first worked in addiction treatment, I thought everyone around me was an alcoholic. The conclusion I hear often now is "the world is falling apart." There is one part of that sentence that is objectively true: The world is. Life happens and people attach meaning to it. Additionally, postulating that the world is falling apart may prevent us from making the difficult changes we need to make.
Q: You say equanimity is important. What is it?
A: It is a Buddhist psychology term. It means a state of mental calmness and neutrality, regardless of external circumstances. This doesn’t mean that we accept what we can and should change. We certainly do not practice acceptance or complacency with any person or system that causes harm. We still focus on what we can do to make our lives better, rally around those who need support and prepare for difficult times. However, ruminating about things we have no control over is futile. It leads to feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, anger and loss of control. Most of all, it won’t change anything.
Ironically, letting go of things we cannot control reduces our need to cling and allows access to more creative solutions. We have lost touch with our innate wisdom. Modern humans have existed for hundreds of thousands of years. We have survived this long. We seem to always find a way, together.
Q: What signs do you see that many folks are really struggling?
A: Anger. Increased substance abuse. Divisiveness. Pointing out hypocrisy in others and ignoring it in oneself. Extremism, especially politically and ideologically. Seeing people as adversarial. All or none thinking, which is considered a thought error in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It’s happening a lot right now. There’s a selfish quality to this belief, in that people are assuming the way that they are thinking is the correct way, forgetting that there are 7 billion other opinions out there.
Most struggles can be distilled to fear and a lack of trust in life. Fear is universal. It is part of being human. When I see someone being aggressive while driving, I think to myself, "They are afraid." I can relate to that.
Q: What have been the most common concerns and challenges those who come to your practice have faced during the pandemic?
A: People seem to feel "off" and not themselves. Experiencing a lack of joy. What used to work for them isn’t working for them now. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Life changes, sometimes rapidly. Our brain doesn’t automatically do a software update to keep up. Sometimes we need to take a step back and ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing and if it’s working. We can ask, "What lesson might be here for me or for us all?"
What most trauma therapists know is that people feel worse when the traumatic event is over, not when it’s happening. When it’s happening, we go into survival mode. It might be uncomfortable, but our brain knows what to do. It’s when things go back to normal, and we feel like we can breathe again, when the emotion comes flooding in. Just recognizing that can normalize how we feel. You might notice that something that came easy to you a couple years ago feels insurmountable to you today. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. It might just feel like there is something wrong. We are recovering and it takes time.
Q: What are the top messages and encouraging tips you have shared?
A: Focus on what we can control. Do everything you can to make your corner of the world a better place. Focus on growth and inner work during trying times. Ask yourself what internal resource would be most useful to get through this and focus on building that. The same question can be asked about our community. Think about a time you were able to get through something challenging. Notice that feeling of strength. One of my favorite tools to get outside of myself and how I feel is service to others. To me, that is an act of faith in life. Life has my back, so let me have someone else’s.
Even during crisis, the essence of life remains. It’s my lifeline and how I stay grounded. No matter what, it’s always there. Whether you call that God, the Universe or life itself, I believe that connection is always available. Personally, there’s a correlation between how much faith I have in that force and how peaceful I feel in my life.
Talk to people and talk about how you feel. In our culture, struggling can be viewed as weakness. We may not share our struggles. When we don’t, we can’t discover that everyone probably has felt the way. Everyone seems fine on the outside. It doesn’t mean they are. Be bold and open the dialogue.
I still think there’s more good in the world. I believe good prevails, but it takes work. In a society often steeped in taking, in consuming, see what you can do to give. Most great spiritual leaders helped others.
Q: You say our brain is wired for survival, not being happy. How does that typically work for humans? How has it worked for many folks the last two years?
A: Part of our brain is continuously monitoring for signs of danger and indicators of safety. Those cues come from our outer and internal environments. If our inner world is filled with fear, anxiety, depression or exhaustion, our brain looks for reasons we feel that way. Regardless if true or not, our brain will find a reason. The mind would rather have an inaccurate conclusion than no conclusion. Unfortunately, our brain is wired to perceive stress and danger more than experience happiness and calmness. Fortunately, we can play an active role in where we focus our attention. Like the wise bumper sticker says: "Don’t believe everything you think."
Some people are prone to blaming themselves. Others are prone to blaming others. Sometimes how we feel is blameless. We have to work with where we are. Slow down. Focus on managing your emotion. Talk to people you trust. Practice calming activities if you are feeling anxious. Practice engaging and active activities if you are chronically exhausted or shut down. Behavior is the best predictor of a person’s thoughts and emotions.
Q: You say non-attachment helps? What is it? How does it work?
A: Non-attachment is a component of mindfulness. It is not a way to avoid problems in our life or the world. It can certainly be abused in that way. It is a way to reverse our mind’s need to cling to certainty and place our expectations onto life. The truth is, we don’t always know what is going to happen in our personal lives, and whether something good or bad will come of it. As Mark Twain put it, "I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."
Q: This seems like a pretty tight box. Should we live in like this all the time? It seems hardly possible. When is it handiest?
A: Equanimity and non-attachment are tools. We can use it to diffuse stress and anxious thoughts. It can also be used as a spiritual practice to remember that we are consciousness with a mind, not a mind with consciousness. We walk around the world differently when we can remember that.
It's also a great tool for when we can only see the suffering, and not life’s beauty or the goodness in people. It is a way to usher in balance and levity. Young children have access to equanimity naturally. They are awestruck over life. Everything is new. They are the embodiment of love. Their brain isn’t trying to protect them from their past. They are in the moment.
Q: How important is it at this point, after so much that seems to have been designed to break us, to vent? To step back and assess?
A: Talking personally about what is happening in the world, in our community, in our country, and in our lives is invaluable. Tragedy is meant to be a shared experience, not a solo endeavor. It can also facilitate the necessary changes we need to make individually and as a community.
Q: How can we move forward? What steps can bring us into greater balance and well-being?
A: In the short-term following a crisis, take steps to manage how we feel. That looks different for everyone. Our brain is a problem-solving machine. However, emotions are not problems that require solutions. Additionally, our mind likes to generate potential problems, especially during times of stress. Luckily, people aren’t just their thoughts. We just have thoughts. Think about the type of world you would like to be a part of, and act accordingly. Take note of the behaviors you engage in when you are stressed so you know what to look for. Also take note of those behaviors when you are feeling great. Try more of those actions, even when you may not be feeling it.
Q: If we are struggling and fear a crisis, where should we turn?
A: In a perfect world during times of crisis, we should turn toward each other. We should also do some inner work, whether that is therapy or picking up that self-help book your friend gave to you a few years ago. It might also be taking community action, volunteering and starting conversations about making change. Make time for it. If you are really busy, make even more time for it.
Q: How can a mental health counselor help?
A: Therapy helps to sort out our own thoughts and emotions. It can also facilitate the necessary inner work that helps people evolve and get through challenges without growing bitter and resentful. Crisis or trauma can produce parts of us that we didn’t know existed. Not all trauma leads to post-traumatic stress disorder. One key factor involved in that process is returning to a felt-sense of safety following the traumatic event. One way to get there is to speak with someone trained in that work.
Q: Who or what else can provide greater enlightenment?
A: Anything wellness-related and self-care. That might be a spiritual teacher, church, yoga community, chiropractor and other prevention and wellness practitioners. Healthy, nutritious foods, exercise, time in nature, hobbies and passions. All can facilitate a return to calmness in our body. One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that spirituality comes to us in the form of our lives. Knowing when to practice non-attachment to rest and restore, and when to lean all the way in and just show up, will always be a balancing act.
Free, confidential mental health counseling that was supposed to end from 1 to 9 p.m. Friday will be extended through June 3 at the Johnnie B. Wiley Resource Center, 1100 Jefferson Ave.; there is no paperwork to fill out and there is a resource room for children to get help, too. All are welcome. Drop in anytime from 3 to 7 p.m. starting Saturday.
Erie County Warmline: Free confidential non-crisis phone line, 716-248-2941, and text line, 716-392-2221, for people having difficulty coping with life experiences. Open 4 to 11 p.m. daily.
Erie County Crisis 24-Hour Hotline: Counselors are available to talk with those in need at 716-834-3131.
211 WNY: Visit 211wny.org or call 211 anytime in the region for a free and confidential link to health and human services, including community resources for many health, social, mental health, substance use and developmental disability services.
The National Alliance for Mental Health Helpline: 716-226-6264, namibuffalony.org
Mental Health Advocates of WNY: Regional resource for mental health support, 716-886-1242, mhawny.org.
Suicide prevention: Anyone contemplating self-harm can call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.