“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” – Robert Frost

One thing you can count on in life is change. Even during times when you feel mentally, emotionally, or physically “stuck” in a situation, change is happening. Change is an undeniable undercurrent of life, affecting us whether we like it or not. Sometimes changes in life seem to come upon us like large crashing waves, creating a sense of urgency and panic. At other times changes may feel like a calm flowing river, where routines feel safe and established. And then there are times when we feel stuck or paralyzed by change, terrified that the “wrong” choice will lead to disaster.

Life is full of ups and downs, with a good deal of flat terrain in between. The highs come when everything is going wonderfully and success comes easily. At times like these, life feels good… no, great! It can be tempting to think that things will stay this way indefinitely, which only makes it that much more difficult when life takes inevitable turns. The lows might feel particularly low when followed by a period of intense joy, happiness, and success.

It’s crucial to remember during those low periods that you have felt authentic happiness before and you will feel it again. You can even challenge yourself to embrace the psychological or physical lows of life, expressing gratitude for the hidden opportunities for growth within challenging times. Without times of sadness or uncertainty, how would you really know and appreciate what it felt like to be authentically happy?

For most of us, life doesn’t flip-flop between dramatic highs and lows… things usually feel somewhere in between. This is perfectly natural. We all have our own emotional baseline of what feels “neutral,” so it’s important to learn how to recognize signs that you’re traveling along a stretch of flat, neutral terrain. Mindful recognition and awareness of these neutral time periods make it that much easier to navigate major life changes when they do occur.

How to Surf the Ups & Downs of Life

How do you typically respond to the ebbs and flows of life? Notice your habitual patterns of responding to life’s ups and downs… do any themes emerge for you? It’s possible to mindfully surf the ups and downs of life with greater ease, no matter how long you may have engaged in a pattern of undesirable behavior. Dr. Ronald Alexander, a licensed psychologist with expertise in mindfulness-based therapies, offers practical insights into how to traverse the ups and downs of life in his book Wise Mind, Open Mind.

(1) Develop Patience

It’s natural for impatience and doubt to rise to the surface of your consciousness during periods that feel unpleasant or stagnant. The more that you resist what “is,” the longer you are prolonging unnecessary suffering. Instead of fighting against reality, accept it. Fully and completely, with open arms. When you truly accept the way things are, you are practicing radical acceptance. This doesn’t mean you necessarily approve of things, and you certainly don’t have to like the situation… but you accept it nonetheless. Acceptance allows you to cultivate patience by staying present during moments of mental, emotional, or physical discomfort.

(2) Set Realistic Goals

When you set realistic goals, you are recognizing (and accepting) where you are right now, and where you would like to be within a given time frame. It’s crucial to realistically assess your strengths and areas for growth when setting attainable goals. Sometimes it helps to get feedback from trusted people in your life if you’re unsure or feel like you’re particularly hard on yourself. At the end of the day, a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment can come from knowing that you challenged yourself to be the best version of you possible.

(3) Get Unstuck

If you feel like you’re spinning your wheels in the mud and getting nowhere fast, it’s probably a good time to pause and reassess the situation. Take the time to reflect on what action steps you’re taking (or not taking) to get “unstuck.” Maybe you feel like everyday is just more of the same, and some of the joy is missing from your daily life. Or maybe everyday feels like banging your head against the proverbial wall, trying desperately to get results… to no avail. Whatever the case may be, and however you may gotten into a “stuck” place, you can shift your perspective on the situation. If you’re digging yourself deeper and deeper into a hole, stop digging. Even if you aren’t sure what the next step is to get out of the hole, at least it’s not getting any deeper. In the meantime, actively applying mindfulness to your personal experience of feeling stuck in that hole may shed light on things.

(4) Give Yourself a Reality Check

It’s understandable to get into a cycle of guilt or shame when you’re in a slump. For some people, throwing their hands up at a situation or feeling completely helpless is a way of unconsciously saying, “I’m not responsible for this.” And maybe you’re not. Does it really matter? The situation is what it is either way. Giving yourself a reality check often means letting go of the security blanket that helplessness offers. It might mean that whoever or whatever “really” is responsible for things isn’t going to fix things. It means growing up and telling yourself that even though you’re not always responsible for creating your problems, you’re responsible for solving them.

Whether you find yourself experiencing a positive, neutral, or negative period in your life at this very moment, remember that it will change. You can count on it. When you begin to integrate simple mindfulness exercises into your everyday life, the idea of facing life’s challenges won’t feel as threatening. You will trust your inner resources and capacity to handle what comes your way.

Mindfulness allows you to look things head on, with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance. Slowly, you can begin to feel the amount of freedom you have in choosing your response to the ups and downs of life. While you can’t always control other people or external circumstances, the way you think about them and behaviorally respond to them is completely up to you.

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Alexander, R.A. (2009). Wise mind, open mind: Finding purpose and meaning in times of crisis, loss, and change. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Featured image: Surfer girl by Thomas Tolkein / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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