Is It OK to Feel Alright When Things Really Aren't Alright?

06/20/2011 05:43 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2011

Several weeks have gone by since I met with Kim, a mom who was beating herself up because of her daughter's endless struggle with an eating disorder. In reality, Kim was not in danger of losing her daughter either psychologically or physically, yet she found herself in a near panic. While I am a generally a firm believer in the power of support groups -- parents can receive extraordinary help from other parents -- occasionally one group members trigger another's traumas and all hell can break lose, which was what happened in Kim's case. Another mother's fear of losing her daughter activated Kim's fear that she would share the same fate: losing her daughter physically or psychologically. This is what brought Kim to my office.

In previous posts, I've written about the power of putting fears into words; simply naming our fears helps to defuse and disempower them. This is was what happened to Kim as she opened up and put her fears of loss into words.

Loss is a fear that can unbalance us. I know about it personally, having faced many scary moments when I thought I might lose someone I loved. And it's a fear that's particularly relevant when your child has an eating disorder, when both the health and life of your child are genuinely at risk. While your role as a parent is to provide help, support, nourishment and nurturance, parents struggle with their own guilt and fears. In the next post I will write about dealing with guilt, but for now, let's tackle fear.

Unfortunately, we are biologically wired to be fearful. To keep our primitive ancestors alive, safe from ferocious animals and enemies, our brains evolved the default setting of cautiously scanning the environment for trouble. Lions, wolves, enemy tribes and nature's dangers (floods, blizzards, tornadoes and hurricanes) were actual threats about which our ancestors truly needed to be continuously vigilant. We became wired to fear. Unfortunately, this is our biological heritage, and although these threats are no longer present, for many of us, a chronic fearfulness is the background -- the default setting -- of our mental life. It's a default setting that can be activated in myriad settings and in a matter of seconds, especially when your child has an eating disorder.

We all know that chronic worry doesn't solve problems; instead, they wear us down, physically and emotionally. Nevertheless, I often find myself helping my clients cope with the help-me-stop-worrying syndrome.

Just recently I came across something in Rick Hanson's blog, "Just One Thing," that excited me. Hanson, a neuropsychologist, blogs and writes a weekly newsletter containing exercises and simple practices that bring peace of mind and heart. I found this exercise so helpful that I thought I'd share it with you:

So take a moment, take a breath, and another ... and just notice ... how you are feeling right now. You may be feeling not much at all, which is how most of us feel most of the time. You may be able to notice: no one is attacking me, nothing particularly bad ... or good ... is happening ... I'm just reading along, I'm alright right now.

Hanson suggests that we pay attention to that phrase, "I'm alright right now." He suggests that we repeat it, whisper it, breathe it in deeply. I suggest that we use it as a mantra. And what I've noticed is that accessing what he calls our "Fundamental Sense of Alrightness" is like a vitamin: it can build an inner resource that can combat an inner sense of worry and fearfulness. The exercise asks us to do something both profound and simple: simply leave both the past and the future. It asks us to stay with the present moment, this moment... this moment.

I introduced it to a worried parent who was skeptical. He asked me, "Is this simply slapping a bandage on a gaping wound?" I told him that I didn't see it that way. We don't need to live in the darkest moment all the time. I quoted one of my heroines, Eleanor Roosevelt, who, at the outbreak of World War II, was quoted as saying, "It's better to light a candle than sit in the dark." Roosevelt wasn't diminishing the importance of the war, nor do I think parents should minimize the importance of an eating disorder. But we all need a respite. We need to remind ourselves that even in a dark moment, we can find a glimmer of peace. Consciously noticing moments when a sense of safety, peace or alrightness prevails builds resiliency and reminds us that this is one reality -- not the entire pie, but certainly a piece of the whole pie.

What I've noticed is that it's possible for me to access that sense of alrightness at moments when I might be doing nothing (which is OK, too): when I wash the dishes, brush my teeth, tidy up my desk. Little moments of alrightness can be a candle.

I'd love to hear back from any of you who experiment with this practice. I'm looking forward to your feedback, and my next blog will tackle dealing with guilt.