I recently presented to a large group of Direct Support Professionals, people who support individuals with behavioral challenges. I have conducted similar workshops for family members of those with serious mental illness. We talk about stress management, self-protection, and the limits of compassion. We meditate together. But the topic that always garners the most interest is how the supporters’ own reactivity, or fight or flight response, can precipitate negative behaviors in the individuals they support.
For tens of thousands of years our biology has wired us to react immediately to stressful events. As hunter-gatherers, when a pride of lions approached the encampment, thoughts and decisions were costly. What was beneficial was to react immediately – fight the beasts or run like hell. Stress hormones flooded our body, we reacted, and the threat passed. Then there was time to calm down, tell the story, and re-gather our energy.
Today, this biological necessity of our ancestor’s survival persists. But rarely do any of us face an immediate life or death threat. Instead, bills we struggle to pay, children with difficulty at school, jobs that are tenuous, the challenges of poor physical health, caring for an ill family member, and the gnawing of 24/7 connectivity stress us out. Not one of these is as immediately threatening as a predator, but each causes the same physiological response in our bodies. The problem today is that, unlike the lion, our stressors don’t go away. They persist, and the stress hormones keep flooding our systems, often making us sick.
Our propensity to fight or run away often leads us to negatively react very quickly to new stressors, even if these stressors may be relatively easy to deal with. A person we have been supporting who has been taxing our energies may misstep, do something wrong on purpose, or otherwise offend us. All too often we react with negativity far in excess of what is justified by the offense. When we’ve “had it up to here,” bad reactions can only follow. And without a doubt, our negative reaction will lead to increased negative behavior in the individual we support.
Meditation offers us a chance to short-circuit our biology. Instead of immediately reacting to a stressor, we can pause, if only for a moment, and, instead of flying off the handle, react skillfully. Just by not adding tension to an already charged situation, we can help temper heightened, often negative, emotions and calm things down. If yelled at, instead of yelling back we can bring some temperance, empathy, and positive energy to a deteriorating situation. This gives us the opportunity to more effectively intervene on behalf of those we support, and it gives them a chance to naturally calm down, without feeling fought with or judged.
This is easier said than done. Any stressor is hard to deal with. Stress precipitated by interaction with someone we are very close to is exceedingly challenging. A long history of experience, good and bad, exhaustion from one’s most annoying behaviors, and possibly even budding resentment can lead us to react aggressively, often disproportionately so, to the one we care for so much. Meditation practice aimed at releasing judgment can help us put down the long list of previous offences we carry in response to our charge’s behavior. Meditation practice that trains us to come back to the breath, to turn a negative reaction into a positive response, can be especially beneficial. But it takes a lot of practice. In the words of Fred Kofman: “Taking a conscious breath is the simplest way to reengage your awareness and choice… In order to take a breath when it counts – that is, under highly charged conditions – it is necessary to take about 10,000 breaths in training.”
To be aware and to choose how we respond to a situation, instead of reacting forcefully and regretting the impact we have had later on, can only help us bring growth, love, and healing to our relationships with ourselves and with those closest to us. Those we support depend on us to be present, positive and caring. A meditation practice can help us fill that very difficult role.