Friday, August 30, 2013

Loss, and Longing, and other L words…

Life deals us many hands and we go through many changes, whether by choice or by predetermined circumstances. Due to these various changes, I've come to realize that in life we face what I call "people turnover." People come into our lives and leave our lives. In a discussion about death with a spiritual group, one insightful individual stated that death is hard to deal with because "we were never meant to experience such loss," a perspective I appreciate because it helps me feel as though my disfunction has a rhyme and reason. In order to explain my personal experience facing loss, another dear friend tells me it is because I care so much and so strongly about the relationships in my life that it becomes so difficult to accept when people leave my life for one reason or another. All of this helps me to understand my experience better, but the struggle of dealing with loss remains. I do understand that the bottom line is: people will come, and people will go, and my little heart will have to accept that.

Of course there are deep spiritual thoughts that can help us face and understand these issues. Yet, I can't help but feel frustrated. I watch as relationships that once sustained me end, in which we were in some form for each other, and as people who were in my everyday life just vanish, slowly dissipating into the past. I attempt to fight it, and reach out and sustain them. Yet as texts go without response, phone calls unreturned, my little heart tugs with disappointment, and sometimes a crushing sadness at the loss of friendships, even whilst understanding that "life gets in the way."

And those are the losses we experience in living. There is also the coming to grips with loss that is no one's doing. I've experienced death in my life more times than I care to count, each one a painful blow and a deep struggle to understand how we move on. This person who was once in our life, who graced us with love and laughter, who cradled us and supported us, or who simply brightened our days, now gone forever. Conversations gone. Their touch forever a memory. We --unfortunately-- constantly face death and the final separation from those we grew to love. How do we encounter that? How do we understand it? How do we surpass it?

Last week I read The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live--and How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist and psychology and psychiatry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He defined Emotional Styles as a part-genetic, part-environmentally influenced, more stable definition of our emotional beings than personalities and moods. There are six dimensions that define how we think, feel, and react, that create your unique emotional style. While there is no right or wrong emotional style, through reflection and introspection, we can learn more about our own styles and decide if we feel we need to alter these in order to help ourselves along, be healthier, happier, or whatever the need may be. You can read more about that in the links below and in his book.

What I learned through this book was that in the Resilience dimension, I fall towards the "Slow to Recover" end of the spectrum. Resilience in this context is briefly defined as how long it takes you to rebound after adversity and is determined by signals between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. I had already acknowledged and learned through my 27 years of living that I struggle with adverse situations, but particularly with facing loss--loss of certain circumstances, but most importantly loss of people in my life, whether through break ups, relocation, or death. There is something comforting in being able to place what I saw as an inability to deal with one of life's most universal truths to something physical (neurological) and not just that I am emotionally and psychologically broken or damaged. I am literally wired in such a way that makes it difficult for me to face these changes. My attachments to the people I love in my life are neurologically explained. Hooray!

Through tips from Davidson's book and other practices, like mindfulness meditation, journaling and introspection, I can work with myself to move down the spectrum to a healthier (or what I consider healthier) way of facing and reacting to adversity--more towards the "Quick to Recover" side of the spectrum. This is the welcomed challenge I now face to learn to help myself along. It has also helped me to understand myself and accept who/how I am, to understand I have a particular emotional signature that helps me deal with life's ways. This book was a challenge to read in some ways, but ultimately an empowering declaration of our own agency within our bodies. Yes, we are emotional creatures, as Eve Ensler states in her book, but we are not determined or frozen by our emotional character. The human brain is a mighty creature, and while it can define us, it is brilliant enough to adjust as needed so we can be enriched and live more wholesomely. But this adjustment can only occur if we work on it.

So while yes, I am emotional, loving and attached, and death and separation make absolutely no sense to me, I now have new hope that I can learn to face these adversities in healthier ways, to fully experience them while not letting them diminish me.

To read more about Richard J. Davidson's work and learn about your own Emotional Style, read The Emotional Life of Your Brain, and click here for a quick summary of Emotional Styles.