With Forethought of Grief: Coping With Anxiety Through Nature and Poetry

Tall evergreen trees in the foreground. Mountains visible in the distance through a clearing. Blue sky.
Photo from my recent visit to the Pacific Northwest

Here’s how good I am at hosting anxiety. I will let a worry trigger a stress reaction — dry mouth, tight throat, racing heart. And in the middle of this, I’ll take it up a notch by fretting about whether I’m using my life’s allotment of heartbeats through these panic attacks. How many days did that episode just subtract from my lifespan? Unsurprisingly, this line of thought does nothing to allay my symptoms.

Two things that do help me cope, though, are nature and poetry. A hike in the woods is the best medicine ever, but not something always available to me. However, even paying attention to a wildflower valiantly blossoming through a crack in the sidewalk can help still my mind, reset my internal rhythm.

Poetry has been a constant touchstone throughout my life, a supportive companion for any feeling, mood or circumstance. “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry is one I turn to often. The words in it that really anchor me are “…wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief…”

Maybe this poem will help you, too, in some way.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free

-Wendell Berry


Redirecting My Toddler Brain

Monarch caterpillar on a green milkweed plant.
See it there in the middle? It’s going to be a monarch some day.

I have a brain that doesn’t like to stop. It’s like a toddler at a playground, running from one structure to another, never wanting to rest because there’s so much to explore. I’ve been experiencing a fair amount of stress in my life lately, sending my mind into a frenzy of anxiety. Instead of fun and joyful discovery, my mind has been peering into all the dark nooks and crannies to see what terrible things might be lurking there. World and national news doesn’t help. I’ve had lots of sleepless nights, bad dreams when I do sleep, and an often racing heart, with none of my usual measures really working for me.

It took a while, but I managed to get set up with a counselor. During one visit I mentioned the tricks I use on myself to keep from doomscrolling the internet. But as I spilled out my worries for the present and future, he said, “Sounds like you’re doomscrolling your mind instead.”

I expected him to give me tips for how to stop or at least slow down my mind. But he told me that might not be my best approach. “Your ability to think so much and imagine possibilities is a super power,” he told me. “Instead of trying to stop your thoughts, you need to teach your brain to imagine the positive possibilities and notice the things that are going right more often.”


I went home, thought it over, and realized he was telling me to treat my brain like a toddler. Anyone who has raised one of those small humans knows that saying “don’t” is usually futile. Instead of saying “Don’t climb on the refrigerator,” you offer an alternate activity. “Let’s play with toy cars on the floor.” Redirect, redirect, redirect. I have lots of practice at this. I understand it.

The photo above, the milkweed with a monarch caterpillar, is something I told my mind to notice going right. I first planted milkweed two years ago, hoping to attract and nurture monarch butterflies. I have seen a couple of adults flitting about before, but this is the first actual caterpillar I’ve seen. I’m so excited. It’s working exactly how I hoped it would. My brain would like to dwell on my various failures, but hey, let’s look at the ecology project that’s succeeding instead.


Tell Me Good Things to Think About

Don't worry, be happy

“Tell me good things to think about while I fall asleep.” For years, this was the near nightly request of my firstborn, a sensitive and anxious child.

I’d prop myself up with Firstborn’s head against me, my hand resting on their back, as I murmured a recitation of everything good in the world that my brain could conjure at that moment. I would talk about puppies and kittens, individual varieties of colorful flowers, the interesting shapes of clouds, fun games and toys, whatever books and movies my kid was interested in at the time, their friends, comfortable clothes, lightning bugs. The list would go on and on. I’d keep talking, my voice soft, until I heard the rhythm of breathing that announced the arrival of sleep. The prime years for this were between the ages of four and eight, though the request still came at less frequent intervals right up to about age fourteen.

Being un-churched, I suppose this was the form of our evening devotion. It started as a way to help an anxious child calm enough to sleep. But it also became a comforting ritual for me.

I know the advice to count your blessings seems hackneyed. But if I really do it, it helps with my own anxiety and depression (my offspring come by this trait honestly.) The key is, though, I can’t just think of one or two things and flip a switch inside. For me, for it to be effective, I have to keep thinking and adding to the list, literally for as long as I can until I run out of ideas or fall asleep. Usually, it’s fall asleep. Because this is how I’m now soothing myself at night when the problems of the world loom. I tell myself good things to think about while I fall asleep.

In helping someone else, I inadvertently created a gratitude practice of benefit to myself. Funny how that works.