Getting out of the River

In the immortal words of Jeff Goldblum, sometimes life finds a way. Unfortunately sometimes life finds a way to overwhelm us. It can be a sudden life changing experience such as a car accident, or maybe it is from carrying too much, for too long, and now you feel worn down and worn out.

When we feel overwhelmed, when we feel unheard, we can get swept away by our thoughts, feelings and/or emotions. This is what I call, ending up in the river.

The Riverbank

When life is going well, we are engaged in meaningful activities, connecting with friends, generally taking care of ourselves, we often find that we are on the river bank. We can observe what is happening on the inside, without becoming absorbed by it. This is when we can notice when we are starting to get worn down. When we are on the riverbank, things are easier to manage, it does not always mean things are easy. We all have our own clues that let us know when we are on the riverbank. One of my clues, is that when I am making more time for reading than constant scrolling, I am probably at least in the area of the riverbank.

Sliding Down

Part of being human, is ending up in the river. It is inevitable, and sometimes it is the things that matter to us that draw us down the bank. So, if we all end up in the river at various points, then we are also going to slide down the banks. This can look like falling out rhythm with doing the things that matter to us, and can truly be anything from slowly losing social connection, disengaging from our hobbies or interests to periods of increased anxiety or depression.

Head over Heels

It is not always what it is cracked up to be, especially if we are in the river and being swept away.

There is an Eastern proverb, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. We are going to end up in the river from time to time. Pain is inevitable. So, what then do we do when we end up in the river? Our first step, our first goal is to notice. I cannot change the fact that I am drowning until I am aware of that fact.

Fortunately, as good Mr. Goldblum mentions in the timeless classic Jurassic Park, life finds away. Even though we are going to find ourselves in the water, there are ways of finding our ways to the river bank, and I would like to share with you a few that I have found helpful both personally, and in my work with clients.

From the Current to the Shore.

Regardless of where we are, on the riverbank, able to notice our inner experiences, or head over heels being carried away by the river, our first step is to notice. One tool, or practice I like to use, is called Dropping Anchor. This comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) an approach that focuses on increasing our psychological flexibility when responding to difficult thoughts feelings and emotions.

So, when we drop anchor, we are looking to accomplish three things, Acknowledge our inner world (thoughts, images, memories, emotions), Connect with our body, and Engage in the world around us. Often, one of the side affects of being in the river, is we feel overwhelmed, or fused with something in our inner world. Dropping anchor is a way to defuse, disconnect from those inner experiences. This is a tool I teach, but also use. When we first learning something, a new tool, a new skill, it is easier to learn it during peace time, so we can use it during the storm.

So, some mornings, I will do this in the morning before work and it can look like this:

I’ll take a few deep breaths, close my eyes and just notice what is happening internally, I am noticing a thought, image, memory, emotion or sensation. Often, it could be a sensation (tired), and once I notice one of those inner experiences, I move to the next section; Connect.

There are many ways to do this, one such example, is taking pressing your feet into the floor, shrugging your shoulders, or taking several deep breaths, and I will just focus on how it feels before moving on to the third part, Engaging in the world around me.

This is completed through a grounding exercise, a common example is 5-4-3-2-1. Which is identifying 5 things we can see, 4 things we can touch, 3 things we can hear, 2 things we can smell, and 1 thing we can taste. That is it. The entire exercise takes approximately 90 seconds, of course you can adjust to be shorter in length based on your personal preference.

The function of this, is to unhook, to create some space between our selves, and those inner experiences that lead us to the river. Of course, you would be free to try this out during inclement emotional weather. However, if we practice when it is calm, we make it easier to remember its an option when the storm comes.

Noticing where we are, is the first step in moving from the current to the shore. If you are feeling overwhelmed, and find yourself thinking that you may just need a hand to find your way from the river, please, reach out to to find how we can help get you to dry land.


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Geordy Murphy

MA Registered Provisional Psychologist

Registered Provisional Psychologist. EMDR and Gottman training. I work with individuals, and couples.