One of the hardest lessons to master when it comes to your emotions is internalizing the fact that calm is an inside job.
Whether you’re worried about tomorrow’s job interview, or an impending break up, channeling calming thoughts is not easy. But before you give up in resignation or tell yourself, “I’m just wired this way,” consider this; it only takes a few minutes a day to get on the right side of calm.
Creating inner peace is similar to following a new dinner recipe. You must gather your ingredients, start from the first step, and build from there. As I say to my psychotherapy clients, “Habits aren’t sexy, but they work.”
Calm people weren’t necessarily born with an even-keeled central nervous system, but they’ve learned what doesn’t work. Namely, three common traps that keep many a well-intentioned mind stuck on the anxiety treadmill:
1. Calm People Don’t Get Stuck in Rumination. The word “ruminate” derives from the Latin meaning for chewing cud, a less than appetizing process in which cattle grind up, swallow, then regurgitate and rechew their feed. (And if you happen to be eating while reading, so sorry). Similarly, human ruminators mull an issue ad nauseam. Obsessing over every possible scenario not only increases anxiety, but depression, as well.
Numerous longitudinal studies point to rumination’s negative effects: For example, research conducted on Bay Area residents who experienced the 1989 San Francisco earthquake found that those who self-identified as ruminators afterward showed more symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
What to do instead: Stop the mental chatter! When you find yourself at the starting block of the Talking Olympics, take a step back and calm your active mind by exploring your options. And if you’re really at a loss, distract yourself by thinking of the cows at mealtime.
2. Calm People Don’t Get Stuck in Avoidance. Nothing creates compounded anxiety like engaging in mindless rituals. Wasting hours looking for proof (AKA social media trolling) that your partner is cheating on his business trip, or spying her text messages while she showers, is not getting you any closer to having that conversation about trust. Or going to therapy to explore the origin of your trust issues.
What to do instead: The best way around anxiety is through action. If you’re unsure how to get unstuck and get moving, here’s 100 suggestions to point you in the right direction. You’re welcome.
3. Calm People Don’t Get Stuck in Unhealthy Coping Skills. A stressful event causes worried thoughts, which then activates the amygdala (the area in the brain responsible for the fear response, AKA, fight, flight or freeze), which leads to increased physical arousal, which leads to more worrisome thoughts, and more intense physical reactions. Automatic, fly-off-the-handle and runaway anxiety happens because each new worry feels like an attack. Internalizing stress, over-reacting, or self-medicating with food, drugs or alcohol are just a few self-destructive behaviors.
What to do instead: Focus on mindfulness. This ancient Buddhist practice teaches us to pay attention to what we pay attention to. Intentional efforts to slow the mind and body creates space between our problems and our reactions. When we get comfortable with the here-and-now, we can begin to see the present with an unobstructed lens, free of past grievances or catastrophic future events.
Anxiety is, above all, over-attention to worries and under-attention to problem-solving. Choose to DO differently next time you find yourself falling into habitual practices that leave you stressed out and sleep-deprived.
“Calming Your Anxious Mind” is a course in mindfulness, relaxation and finding peace in the chaos. Click here for more information.
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Yours in calm, cool and collected,