In the thick of the current global pandemic, I thought it would be helpful to revisit the timeless wisdom in Robert Frost’s poem,Â A Servant to Servants: “…the best way out is always through.”
I would go even further to argue that the only way out is through. In light of the current crisis, what does this mean?
“The only way out is through,” means facing the pain of a situation head-on rather than avoidance through distractions, including alcohol, drugs, or other behaviors such as gambling, gaming, and work.Â
Let’s look at how this is currently playing out and how we can use the lesson to move through difficulties.
Coping During Difficult Times
A recent Forbes article describes the current situation in the title: .
According to Market Watch U.S. alcohol sales are up 55%, with online alcohol sales up 243%.
A report commissioned by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction recently released data stating the following:
“25% of Canadians (aged 35-54) are drinking more while at home due to COVID-19 pandemic; cite lack of regular schedule, stress and boredom as main factors.”
From long lines outside liquor stores to a recent report of more than 120 cars lined up outside of a Krispy Kreme in Mississauga, people are looking for relief.
Is it really all that bad to want an extra cocktail or a doughnut amidst all of the stress and boredom? Probably not.
But it is also probably something to keep an eye on.
Are these becoming habitual short-term solutions with long-term consequences?
If so, consider how the substance or behavior is serving as a way to avoid dealing with painful underlying thoughts or emotions.
Avoidance Makes Things Worse
This brings us to the lesson that the only way out is through.
The tiger metaphor from my previous article, Why Responsibility Is So Important, seems fitting, so I will restate it here. Besides, everyone is talking about the Tiger King, so I’ll just stick with the theme. Note that thisÂ tiger metaphor is adapted from Steven Hayes, founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Imagine you adopted a tiger cub into your home. It is cute, cuddly, and harmless. You notice it begins to purr loudly, and the only way you can make it stop is to feed it red meat. Over the months and years, you keep doing this, but the tiger is now several hundred pounds, requiring whole sides of beef. Rather than a cute purr, the tiger roars ferociously for its meat. You are terrified, so you keep giving him the meat so he will leave you alone. The more you feed it, the larger it gets, and the more trapped you become.
In this metaphor, feeding the tiger symbolizes avoidance. There is temporary relief, but a long term cost. Each time you avoid difficulties, you are feeding the tiger, making the problem larger, giving up long term freedom and control.
Responding Rather Than ReactingÂ
Since avoidance keeps you stuck, going through difficult situations is the only way out.
Going through situations requires acceptance of what you cannot control and a degree of distance from your thoughts.
In acceptance and commitment therapy, this technique is called cognitive diffusion.
Although it has a fancy name, it is relatively simple, but not necessarily easy.
Throughout our daily life, we see the world through the lens of our thoughts. Cognitive diffusion allows us to step back from our thoughts, seeing the thoughts themselves.
We are either seeing the world through our thoughts, or we are looking at our thoughts. The former comes naturally, whereas the latter takes practice.
The purpose of taking a step back from our thoughts is that it allows us to intentionally respond to a situation rather than simply react to it.
As stated in my article on Why Responsibility Is So Important, responsibility is the ability to respond. Reaction is the opposite of responsibility. Rather than choosing an appropriate response, reactions consist of a habitual way of coping, such as reaching for a drink, logging onto a gambling site, or escaping through compulsive working.
When we are stripped of our regular ways of avoiding difficult thoughts or emotions, we find other ways to avoid them.
For example, if compulsive working was used as a way to avoid facing the underlying thought that you are not good enough, job loss could result in replacing this avoidance strategy with alcohol to calm the anxiety stemming from this underlying thought.
Although working and drinking look like very different kinds of behavior on the surface, they could both be potentially used for the same purpose.
Gaining distance from your thoughts gives you the ability to choose a valued way forward rather than coping through reactive behaviors.
How To Go “Through” DifficultiesÂ
One exercise I find helpful in gaining distance from your thoughts is called “leaves on a stream.”
It consists of closing your eyes, focusing on your breath, and imagining you are sitting beside a stream. As you watch the stream, you also notice leaves floating by. Remain focused on your breath, and as any thought comes into your head, simply put it on a leaf and let it go.
This is difficult to do when you are reading, so here is an audio recording: Leaves on a Stream Exercise.
The purpose of this exercise is to gain skills in lookingÂ at thoughts rather thanÂ through thoughts, giving you the ability to choose to move through difficult situations rather than staying stuck in short-term coping.
During these difficult times, many of us are turning to the comforts of alcohol, sweets, or Netflix binging. Although these behaviors are reasonable and may not be an issue, they are something to keep an eye on.
Noticing patterns of short-term coping that come at a long-term cost allows you to gain further control and freedom to move through difficult situations rather than staying stuck in reactive patterns.
As we move through this pandemic and out the other side, it is helpful to remain focused on things within our control and let go of things we cannot control.
One way to practice letting go consists of the leaves on a stream exercise. This exercise allows you to gain distance from your thoughts and choose a valued path forward, rather than reacting in ways to avoid dealing with underlying issues.