We have been living under threat for the last two years. COVID impacted us in numerous ways and the trauma is real and palpable. As if that was not enough, we are watching the events in Ukraine unfold just as we are trying to emerge from the shackles of COVID. In the best of times this invasion would be brutal to watch.
As we are trying to cope with this new stress while already feeling burned out and anxious. It is imperative to keep focus on positive coping skills as there can be a tendency to give up.
Positive coping skills include keeping a consistent sleep and wake cycle, focusing on a healthy diet, engaging in exercise on a regular basis (this can include brisk walking), reaching out socially and having fun, and minimizing substance use. Therapy is also a good idea if you are so inclined.
There is a therapy from Japan that can be helpful. It is called Naikan. It roughly means “looking inside” or “introspection”. It is self-directed and something you can do on your own just in a few minutes a day.
In times of stress, we tend to be wired to focus on inconveniences in our lives, to think negatively. This therapy is designed to derail that thinking.
The method is boiled down to answering three questions (this can be done by writing/journaling or simply thinking in a quiet space):
- What have I received today from ____________?
- What have I given today to _____________?
- What difficulty or trouble have I caused to _____________?
The first question is akin to gratitude exercises. Acknowledge something good you received today. This can include people or objects. An example would be, “I am grateful for bikes and for those that invented them.” It can have a depth such as being grateful to farmers who grow our food, truckers who deliver it, etc.
The second question can have a wide range. The answers can be as simple as acknowledging a piece of trash you saw on the ground, you picked up, and threw away. When you answer this question be specific about an action that you did. This question can work like a transaction to reconcile the first question: “I have received, and this is what I give”. It also is a way to focus on positive things you are doing.
This process can relieve a feeling of being “owed” and the resentment that comes with it. It can take us away from the feeling of desire and bring us to awareness of what we can give. Giving can instill happiness and make us feel more grateful.
Regarding question three, we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how others affect us. We tend to dwell on a difficulty or inconvenience another person causes us. Our default, especially when feeling bad, is to focus on what is missing or what is wrong.
On the other hand, when we are a source of difficulty or inconvenience to others, we often don’t notice it.
“If we are not willing to see and accept those events in which we have been the source of others’ suffering, then we cannot truly know ourselves or the grace by which we live.” (Krech, “Naikan Therapy”, Tricycle Buddhist Review, Winter 2015.
Thinking of how our actions affect others can take us out of a victim role. In addition, the process of examining our lives in how we impact the world takes us away from a view of our obstacles and challenges. Being accountable for our behavior is liberating.
After listing out these three questions, examine what you can learn from the work. What new awareness do you have? What have you taken for granted? What do you need to do and what can you do differently?
Research has shown that this “treatment has positive effects on how people perceive themselves and the world in which they live, their mental health, and their adoption of coping styles (Ding et al., 2017; Liu, 2018)”.
To be effective in this therapy, we need to minimize distractions. It takes focus to truly go through a day in our mind and look at things we can be grateful for, things we have done for others, ways we have affected others, including any failings we may have had. This is not an instant therapy. It is one to engage in daily for five to ten minutes. With consistency, one begins to truly sense the therapeutic benefits. Stay persistent with this and your other positive coping skills.
This kind of self-reflection can be challenging but effective. It leads to personal growth, growth in relationships, and it fosters self-compassion and less judgment and criticism.
Further information on this can be found in Naikan podcasts. In addition, there is a book by Gregg Kerch “Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection”.
- Benabio, Jeffery, Clinical Psychiatry News, Feb 2021
- Sutton, Jeremy “Naikan Therapy: Applying the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection, Positive Psychology, February 28, 2022.