With only three more guideposts remaining I am reminded that we are very quickly approaching the Christmas season. How appropriate then to be talking about cultivating calm and stillness with is the 8th Guidepost for Wholehearted Living. While cultivating Calm and Stillness may seem challenging for some of us, perhaps it is the ‘letting go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle’ that may be more challenging.
I am acutely aware of how many people thrive on drama and relish in increased levels of anxiety. Some of us need this to the point that they create their own drama to remain in an anxious state simply because it provides some level of comfort, familiarity or safety for them. Does this sound too farfetched or very familiar to you? If it is familiar… read on.
Perhaps as a culture we are too focused on promoting stress and anxiety, much like the concept of ‘busy’ I discussed in my last post. To what end I wonder. Dr Brown says ‘calm is a superpower!’ She says we can never avoid anxiety as an experience but we can eliminate it as a lifestyle. In her audiobook “The Power of Vulnerability” she explains two responses to anxiety. She says “ When it comes to an anxiety response people can either become over-functioners or under-functioners. Over-functioners become controlling and micro-manage in stressful situations while under-functioners disengage and just don’t turn up.” Neither are particularly effective in their approach but they are great signs that we are in an anxious state.
www.anxietycentre.com says that “Anxiety is not a disease, illness, or biological condition you inherit or contract. It’s also not a result of a chemical imbalance or biological problem in the brain. Anxiety is a condition we cause. Anxiety only lingers when we don’t understand it or know how to reverse it.”
What are our options for reversing anxiety in a given situation? Dr. Brown suggests cultivating calm and stillness. If you are a busy, anxious person then hearing the words calm and stillness may send you even further into hyper drive. Dr. Brown defines and helps to clarify what calm and stillness look like. She says, calm is about “creating perspective and mindfulness, while managing emotional reactivity” (p 106). It is about being able to take a step back from the situation, consider the possibilities and be able to “self-talk” your way through the situation with realistic and grounded thinking. Stillness “is not about focusing on nothingness; it’s about creating a clearing. It’s opening up an emotionally chatter-free space allowing ourselves to feel and think and dream and question” (p 108). Stillness is about creating space for reflection in all the busyness.
Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion strategies can work wonders during times of anxiety. We covered her three steps in Guidepost 2 back in April, they were:
- Being kind to ourselves: treating ourselves as we would someone we love;
- common humanity: understanding that we are a part of something bigger and others have shared the difficulties we are facing (we are not alone); and
- mindfulness: being present to how we are feeling, acknowledging it and accepting it as OK.
In addition to this, perhaps it is also time to consider whether we can reduce the amount of self-generated anxiety from over-promising and stop looking for ways to put more pressure on ourselves.
Maybe it is time to check in with ourselves with a little honesty around the topic and acknowledge areas in our lives where we unnecessarily create drama. Instead of repeating the unhelpful practice, let’s consider digging deep to seek some understanding around the reasons why we do this. As with most things, a little self-awareness goes a long way!
When all else fails, feel free to use my highly effective anti-anxiety strategy from Martha Beck (see below) … ask yourself “Am I currently being attacked by a velociraptor?” If the answer is “no” you will probably be OK.
Until next time
Martha Becks 10 questions to ask yourself if you are over-stressed
- Am I currently being attacked by a velociraptor? If your answer is yes, now would be an excellent time to panic. However, absent a velociraptor (or some other imminent physical threat), panic’s advantages decline precipitously. Your biological stress responses are counterproductive in almost every civilized situation. So before getting completely hysterical, remind yourself that right here, right now: You’re physically safe. Just breathe in, breathe out. That’s all it takes to get by.
- Where can I hide? Just because fight-or-flight reactions won’t help with your IRS audit doesn’t mean you don’t have a hormonal compulsion to escape. Hiding is an excellent self-calming strategy, one I use almost every day.
See, the divine plan of this universe has placed bathrooms all over the very same regions of the world where shrieking and clawing are frowned upon. In your next hyperstressed moment, stride briskly to the nearest bathroom stall, lock yourself in and give yourself five minutes to rock numbly. Then ask…
- Why is this happening to me? Your first repetition of this mantra should be spontaneous and heartfelt. I advise biting down on a roll of clean toilet paper, so people in neighboring stalls will hear only “FWAH IFH VIF HAFFADEEG FVHOO FEE?!” They’ll conjecture you’re experiencing the sort of distress Jamie Lee Curtis could fix with her magic yogurt, and they’ll leave quickly. Then ask yourself…
- Seriously, why is this happening to me? After your primal scream, get analytical. What’s really going on here? Hyperstress is usually created by a combination of circumstance and personal choice. Look for patterns. Do you habitually assume too much responsibility, fail to communicate, forget to rest? Tracking these decisions is like analyzing the black box after a plane crash: It won’t erase the present situation, but it can improve the future. Which brings us to…
- How can I keep this from happening again? Diagnosis is half the cure. Once you’ve identified behaviors that increase stress—such as having children—you can stop them. Pinpoint stress-generating actions like procrastination, approval-seeking or overpromising. Remember the vertiginous feeling you get when you’re about to err. Mentally rehearse making different choices—taking 10, consulting experts, stabbing yourself—the next time it happens.
- How old do I feel? On September 11, 2001, I had a doctor’s appointment. I gave the nurse my name—my maiden name, which I hadn’t used in decades. Under severe stress, we all revert to our inner child. Acknowledging this helps you give yourself the kindness you’d show a terrified kid. Whatever age you feel, offer comfort appropriate to that age level. Say things like “It’s okay, honey,” “You’re doing great” or “Wow, you can walk!” You’ll be amazed how calming kind self-parenting can be.
- How is now different from then? Hyperstress can trigger memories of trauma: abuse, illness, an accident. We may think we’re back there, helpless and clueless, instead of in the here and now, with options. Now may be stressful, but it’s not then. You have the freedom to get support, wisdom or skill. Just noticing that will help you relax.
- Is there pie? I’m a pretty healthy eater, but on hyperstressed days, I skip the green smoothies and go for medicinal doses of pie. Pecan, coconut, lemon meringue—these pies are so unhealthy they make potato chips look like organic kale. But they do quiet the nerves. I realize that by giving you this advice, I’m ensuring I’ll go straight to hell. But let’s face it: Pie helps.
- What is the absolute least I can do to improve this situation? I know you usually dot every “i,” cross every “t,” knock the ball out of the park, yada yada. But on a hyperstress day, that ain’t happening. Turn in the absolute minimum performance that enables you to survive—not thrive, just survive. Finish the one bit of work that absolutely, positively cannot wait. Wear enough clothing to keep from being arrested. Feed your children. If necessary, feed them pie (see “going to hell,” above).
- Will this matter when I am dead? It comforts me greatly that we’ll all be dead soon. (Seriously. Fifteen minutes ago I was young and dewy; now I could beat the Parthenon in a crumbling-ruin contest.) On your deathbed, it won’t matter whether you missed that baby shower, downloaded that upgrade or finished all that frigging work. You’ll remember the times you absorbed the grandeur, beauty and tenderness of life as a human: gazing into a loved one’s eyes, laughing with friends, easing someone’s pain. That includes your own pain, the pain of those hyperstressed days.Nothing you’ll do in your life is as important as that life itself. The opposite of living in stress is letting go of everything that’s kept you from fully living. Imagine what you’d do if you knew there was nothing to fear, nothing worth losing yourself in stress. Then, do it. I’ll take your pie.