The Second Arrow and the Power of Choice



by Rachel Koonse, LMFT

In an ancient Buddhist parable, Buddha asked a student: “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If a person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?” He continued by explaining, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.”

COVID 19 is the first arrow. It has upended several aspects of our lives, ranging from provoking financial insecurity, to enforcing social isolation, to evoking unanticipated grief; among others. Life generates difficult circumstances, throws curveballs, and introduces pandemics that are completely out of our control. And this first arrow leaves devastation and pain in its wake.

At this time, devastating damage from the second arrow may feel inevitable. To offer up some normalization, 36% of Americans told an American Psychological Association poll that COVID-19 has had a serious impact on their mental health. Anxiety, sadness, shock, restlessness, and grief are universally experienced emotions during times of unprecedented hardship. Thoughts and worries about the future come with the territory of this pandemic, but we do have a degree of control over how we respond to those thoughts and feelings. Perhaps, in learning from the inevitable pain of the first arrow, we can begin to see the path of the second arrow; exercising our power of choice to decide how much space those difficult feelings will occupy in our lives.

In this post, we will offer some practices to bolster your ability to choose how to respond to your emotional state; to help you honor difficult emotional experiences without those sentiments ruling your life entirely. So that you can see the second arrow objectively, feel the wind as it crosses your path, and allow it to pass without hitting you.

Schedule time to look at the second arrow


While this may seem counterintuitive, neglecting difficult feelings only adds fuel to the fire. If you are aware of the second arrow but neglect to observe its path, it may hit you square in the back. There are several healthy ways to intentionally check in with yourself. Some options include journaling, talking to your therapist, or giving yourself a few minutes to be alone with your thoughts. At times, the simple acknowledgment of your true emotional experience is liberating in and of itself. And at the very least, checking in will allow you to follow the second arrow’s trajectory, empowering you with the choice of how you want to respond to it.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice that enables you to recognize thoughts without over-identifying with them; similar to watching clouds passing overhead. There are several mindfulness apps that can help motivate and structure your practice, including Calm, Headspace, Aura, and Insight Timer. Foresight’s previous blog post details unique mindfulness practices as well as offers additional mindfulness resources.

Set limits around media exposure

It is so important to define the boundary between being informed and being overwhelmed by the news. Set limits around how much news you want to consume, which news sources you want to follow, and how much time you spend talking to your loved ones about the news. These limits will enable you to remain informed while also freeing up mental energy to be invested elsewhere.

Connection

The simple act of communicating with those you love can lighten the load of any difficult feeling you are carrying. Especially during this time, there are so many shared emotional experiences, and the power of someone saying “I get it- I’m feeling the same way” cannot be underestimated.

Find Levity

Watch a funny TV show. Play a virtual game with your friends. Pick up a new instrument. Bake bread with the rest of us millennials. Take up crocheting. Do anything to find humor, lightness, and fun in your days. Because though this is a difficult time, we are still living.

Practice Gratitude

There is always beauty in the world, though sometimes it becomes obscured by difficult life circumstances. Take moments to notice and appreciate that beauty; be it expressing gratitude for a sunny day or gratitude for a warm bed to sleep in. Consistent gratitude practices are correlated with increased happiness and optimism, and great benefit can be derived from a simple daily practice of writing down three points of gratitude. Over time, not only will you reflect on gratitude in the moments you write your thoughts down, but you will look for things to be grateful for throughout your day.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but perhaps will offer a starting point for empowering you to choose how you can best alter the course of the second arrow’s path. And to end with more wise words from Buddha:

“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”


If you or someone you care about is in need of support, call Foresight today to schedule an appointment. All of our therapists are continuing to support our members through telehealth.

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