by Katrina Williams, LCSW
Butterflies are not only beautiful and colorful, but they are fascinating in a variety of ways. Butterflies can provide a unique perspective on how therapy and mental health coping skills can help people make necessary changes, so they function well in their lives.
Challenges Can Lead to Transformation
Butterflies undergo a unique transformation known as metamorphosis. This is a process that can be explained scientifically with many technical terms. Very simply, when a caterpillar is encapsulated within the chrysalis, it turns to “goo” before it miraculously changes into a butterfly. This goo is essential to metamorphosis because it breaks down all the elements of the caterpillar and restructures them into the butterfly.
It can be easy to also simplify a person’s happiness down to it being a choice. To a degree this is true, but this concept can feel overwhelming and unattainable for many individuals with mental illness or in times of significant challenge. I think of the hard things we all experience as the “goo” of life that are possible opportunities for transformation and growth. As human beings, our brains are designed to protect us from harm and pain, both physical and mental. It can feel natural to follow the urge to ignore or not acknowledge emotional and mental pain. Remarkably, when people are given the opportunity to explore their difficult emotional states they can establish and clarify what is important and most valued. Then with that information as a guide, they can make incremental changes that transform and restructure perceptions and daily functioning. This is one goal of therapeutic treatment.
Delicate and fragile are some words that are typically associated with butterflies, but the effort and strain a butterfly exerts as it breaks a small hole in the chrysalis and pushes its way through requires strength and tenacity. This action is so difficult that butterflies will pause several times before continuing to free itself. Once out, the butterfly hangs from the chrysalis, gently unfolds its wings, and lets the wings dry before it can fly. The seemingly fragile butterfly has a more laborious process to arrive at full maturity than many other species. Yet, if someone or something tries to free the butterfly to spare it the stress, the butterfly doesn’t gain strength enough to fly and will die.
Individuals may want to spare themselves and others from persistent challenges or feeling difficult emotions. Experiencing challenge is part of living and a common shared experience all humans possess. When we avoid dealing with mental health issues, or accommodate others too much in theirs, the problems in functioning and managing our emotions do not go away. Instead, the problems and mental turmoil usually increase. Working through challenges, facing fears, cultivating new ways of thinking, and other goals set in therapy can give individuals confidence and inner strength. There may be times when progress slows and other times that individuals are able to push themselves harder. This is to be expected and typical. It takes time and determination to work through it, but the reward for completing the process can be monumental. This is metaphorically how we can strengthen our wings so we can fly.
Balancing for Survival
Butterflies have a few behaviors that help them to balance out threats to their survival. Butterflies are cold blooded and are unable to regulate their body temperature. If they are cold, they will land and spread out their wings wide to allow the maximum amount of sunlight to warm them. If they are too hot, they seek refuge in shade or puddles to cool off before continuing their journey. Even butterflies’ antennae help them balance as well as gain a sense of their surroundings. Antennae allow them to stabilize and take stock of what to do next.
Mental health is primarily about balancing our lives. Individuals must look at current patterns of thinking and behaving that are contributing to the imbalance in their functioning and begin to balance them out with opposite actions. This looks like seeking meaningful connection and engagement with people instead of isolating, going towards an innocuous fear instead of avoiding, planning, and taking rest instead of continuously pushing through, looking for the ways their lives are going well or enumerating things to be grateful for rather than focusing on what isn’t working out. Even specific coping skills are meant to balance the body and mind. Purposefully using slow deep breathing calms, a racing heart, the mind, and the body. Using the five senses to notice what is going on around us is a grounding technique to balance the focus we might have on our inner commotion, like panic and stress. Alternatively, taking a moment to evaluate our body and notice tension, fatigue, hunger, or other physical sensations can bring awareness to problem-solving outer commotion causing overwhelm and stress. Using our imagination to envision more likely or helpful outcomes can provide alternatives to the dread of anxiety’s “what ifs.”
A Kaleidoscope of Support
Butterflies often are found in groups, called a kaleidoscope. What a fitting name for their colorful and fluctuating nature of the group. Monarch butterflies are the longest living butterflies, and they travel up to three thousand miles in very large groupings to migrate. This migration also usually takes 4 generations of butterflies to complete. These butterflies depend upon each other to survive, but they also land on flowers and trees to rest and find nourishment.
People need support in the form of other people and sources of inner support. Outer support from others can come from friends and family, community-based activities or resources, and professionals. Reaching out to others can provide validation, empathy, and care that is vital to feeling that one is not alone. Inner supports can be practices such as self-care, simplifying commitments, perhaps even pursuing hobbies or goals. Self-care can include a variety of activities or priorities. The most essential support self-care provides are those that attend to choosing to take care of physical and psychological needs. Getting to bed on time, making a nutritious meal, physical movement, journaling, and mindfulness practices are some examples. Simplifying commitments also helps reduce stress and provides time to add the color to our individual kaleidoscope of support. Planning something to look forward to, focusing on creating and enjoying positive experiences, and having time to “stop and smell the roses” by intentionally allowing ourselves to feel good and recognize happiness might be ways to add color into our lives.
Catching a butterfly is much harder when chasing it and trying to capture it. Butterflies are more likely to come to a person who is still and calm. If the person deliberately cups water in their hand to provide the butterfly a place to land and refresh itself, all the better. The opportunity to explore and examine this beautiful specimen in this way will be more gratifying and serene.
Our lives are busy. They can be joyfully as well as uncomfortably full. This in turn can make our minds full, and depending on where we turn for respite, we may inadvertently make our minds distracted or full to overflowing if we use certain means to soothe ourselves. While many things are not inherently harmful, turning to social media, food, shopping, or the like, may only provide distraction from our full minds for a moment but usually cannot provide mediative benefits. Mindfulness is a practice of intentionally focusing what is presently occurring with openness and curiosity. Mindfulness might include focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity. This helps train awareness of self and others, improve attention, provide mental clarity, and stabilize moods to achieve calmness. Occasions to practice mindfulness are only limited to one’s imagination. Doing dishes, waiting at stop lights, eating dinner, or spending time with others, is a small sampling of opportune times to slow down, take notice of sensations and emotions, and to find calm beauty within the moment.
The Butterfly Effect
Butterflies are truly amazing, as are people! People are resilient, stronger than they know, and inherently valuable. The affects a person has on the world can vary, but when people attend to their mental and physical health, they are more able to have a lasting impact on the important people around them. Like the butterfly effect, when individuals strengthen themselves in effective ways they can add to the kaleidoscope of support within their families, communities, and the world at large. This, in turn, improves us all.
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