THE JOYFUL CHRISTIAN LIFE #3
From the book
THE GIFTS OF IMPERFECTION
by Brene Brown, PhD
Cultivating Calm and Stillness
LETTING GO OF ANXIETY AS A LIFESTYLE
After this research first emerged, remember that I made a beeline for my therapist's office. I knew my life was out of balance, and I wanted more of what I was learning about in my study. I also wanted to figure out why I was having dizzy spells whenever I got really anxious and stressed out. I would actually get lightheaded, and the room would start to spin. A couple of times, I literally fell over.
The dizziness was new; the anxiety was not. Before I started learning about Wholehearted living, I had always been able to manage the competing priorities, the family demands, and the unrelenting pressure of academic life. In many ways, anxiety was a constant in my life.
But as I started developing an awareness about Wholehearted living, it's as if my body said, "I'm going to help you embrace this new way of living by making it very difficult for you to ignore anxiety." If I became too anxiety ridden, I'd literally have to sit down or risk falling.
I remember telling Diana, my therapist, "I can't function this way any longer. I really can't."
She replied, "I know. I see that. What do you think you need?"
I thought about it for a second and said, "I need a way to stay on my feet when I'm really anxious."
She just sat there nodding her head and waiting, like therapists do. Waiting and waiting and waiting.
Finally, it dawned on me. "Oh. I get it. I can't function this way. I can't function in this much anxiety anymore. I don't need to figure out a way to keep going with this level of anxiety—I need to figure out how to be less anxious."
That silence thing can be effective. It's a pain in the ass, but nonetheless effective.
I used my research to formulate a plan to lessen my anxiety. The men and women I interviewed weren't anxiety-free or even anxiety-averse; they were anxiety-aware. They were committed to a way of living where anxiety was a reality but not a lifestyle. They did this by cultivating calm and stillness in their lives and making these practices the norm.
Calm and stillness may sound like the same things, but I learned that they are different and that we need both.
I define calm as creating perspective and mindfulness while managing emotional reactivity. When I think about calm people, I think about people who can bring perspective to complicated situations and feel their feelings without reacting to heightened emotions like fear and anger.
When I was pregnant with Ellen, someone gave me a small book called Baby Love: A Tradition of Calm Parenting by Maud Bryt.1 Bryt's mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were midwives in Holland and the book draws on their wisdom. I can still see myself sitting in my brand-new glider with one hand resting on my very pregnant belly and the other hand holding that book. I remember thinking, This is my goal. I want to be a calm parent.
Surprisingly, I am a pretty calm parent. Not because it comes naturally to me, but because I practice. A lot. I also have an incredible role model in my husband, Steve. By watching him, I've learned about the value of bringing perspective and quiet to difficult situations.
I try to be slow to respond and quick to think Do we even have all the information we need to make a decision or form a response? I also stay very mindful about the effect that calm has on an anxious person or situation. A panicked response produces more panic and more fear. As psychologist and writer Harriet Lerner says, "Anxiety is extremely contagious, but so is calm."2 The question becomes, Do we want to infect people with more anxiety, or heal ourselves and the people around us with calm?
If we choose to heal with calm, we have to commit to practicing calm. Small things matter. For example, before we respond we can count to ten or give ourselves permission to say, "I'm not sure. I need to think about this some more." It's also extremely effective to identify the emotions that are the most likely to spark your reactivity and then practice non-reactive responses.
A couple of years ago there was this powerful public service announcement that showed a couple screaming at each other and slamming the door in each other's faces. They were shouting things like, "I hate you!" and "Mind your own business!" and "I don't want to talk to you." As you watched it, you had no idea what or why they kept saying these things, slamming the door, and then starting over. After about twenty seconds of the slamming and yelling, the couple held hands and walked away from the screen. One of them says to the other, "I think we're ready." The commercial then cut to the announcer, who said something like, "Talk to your kids about drugs. It's not easy, but it could save their lives."
The commercial is a great example of practicing calm. Unless we had calm modeled by our parents and grew up practicing it, it's unlikely that it will be our default response to anxious or emotionally volatile situations.
For me, breathing is the best place to start. Just taking a breath before I respond slows me down and immediately starts spreading calm. Sometimes I actually think to myself, I'm dying to freak out here! Do I have enough information to freak out? Will freaking out help? The answer is always no.
[I WELL REMEMBER MY MOTHER RAISING ME WITH, “WHEN YOUR ANGRY KEITH, AND YOU WANT TO BLOW OFF STEAM, COUNT TO TEN” - AND IT DOES MOST OF THE TIME…. WORK - Keith Hunt]
The concept of stillness is less complicated than the concept of calm but, for me at least, way more difficult to put into practice.
I wish I could tell you how much I resisted even hearing people describe stillness as an integral part of their Wholehearted journey. From meditation and prayer to regular periods of quiet reflection and alone time, men and women spoke about the necessity of quieting their bodies and minds as a way to feel less anxious and overwhelmed.
I'm sure my resistance to this idea comes from the fact that just thinking about meditating makes me anxious. When I try to meditate, I feel like a total poser. I spend the entire time thinking about how I need to stop thinking, Okay, I'm not thinking about anything. I'm not thinking about anything. Milk, diapers, laundry detergent. . . stop! Okay, not thinking. Not thinking. Oh, man. Is this over yet?
I don't want to admit it, but the truth is that stillness used to be very anxiety provoking for me. In my mind, being still was narrowly defined as sitting cross-legged on the floor and focusing on that elusive nothingness. As I collected and analyzed more stories, I realized that my initial thinking was wrong. Here's the definition of stillness that emerged from the data:
Stillness is not about focusing on nothingness; it's about creating a clearing. It's opening up an emotionally clutter-free space and allowing ourselves to feel and think and dream and question.
Once we can let go of our assumptions about what stillness is supposed to look like and find a way to create a clearing that works for us, we stand a better chance of opening ourselves up and confronting the next barrier to stillness: fear. And it can be big, big fear.
If we stop long enough to create a quiet emotional clearing, the truth of our lives will invariably catch up with us. We convince ourselves that if we stay busy enough and keep moving, reality won't be able to keep up. So we stay in front of the truth about how tired and scared and confused and overwhelmed we sometimes feel. Of course, the irony is that the thing that's wearing us down is trying to stay out in front of feeling worn down. This is the self-perpetuating quality of anxiety. It feeds on itself. I often say that when they start having Twelve Step meetings for busy-aholics, they'll need to rent out football stadiums.
In addition to fear, another barrier that gets in the way of both stillness and calm is how we're raised to think about these practices. From very early in our lives, we get confusing messages about the value of calm and stillness. Parents and teachers scream, "Calm down!" and "Sit still!" rather than actually modeling the behaviors they want to see. So instead of becoming practices that we want to cultivate, calm gives way to perpetuating anxiety, and the idea of stillness makes us feel jumpy.
In our increasingly complicated and anxious world, we need more time to do less and be less. When we first start cultivating calm and stillness in our lives, it can be difficult, especially when we realize how stress and anxiety define so much of our daily lives. But as our practices become stronger, anxiety loses its hold and we gain clarity about what we're doing, where we're going, and what holds true meaning for us.
Get Deliberate: My anxiety detox included more calm and more stillness, but it also included more exercise and less caffeine. I know so many people who take something at night to help them sleep and drink caffeine all day to stay awake. Calm and stillness are potent medicine for general sleeplessness and a lack of energy. Increasing my daily intake of calm and stillness along with walking and swimming and cutting caffeine has done wonders for my life.
Get Inspired: I remain inspired and transformed by something I learned from Harriet Lerner's book The Dance of Connection., Dr. Lerner explains that we all have patterned ways of managing anxiety. Some of us respond to anxiety by overfunctioning and others by under-functioning. Overfunctioners tend to move quickly to advise, rescue, take over, micromanage, and get in other people's business rather than look inward. Underfunctioners tend to get less competent under stress. They invite others to take over and often become the focus of family gossip, worry, or concern. They can get labeled as the "irresponsible one" or the "the problem child" or the "fragile one." Dr. Lerner explains that seeing these behaviors as patterned responses to anxiety, rather than truths about who we are, can help us understand that we can change.
Overfunctioners, like me, can become more willing to embrace our vulnerabilities in the face of anxiety, and underfunctioners can work to amplify their strengths and competencies.
Get Going: Experiment with different forms of still and quiet. We all need to find something that works for us. To be honest, I’m never more open and emotionally clutter-free than when I’m walking alone outside. It's not technically still, but it's an emotional opening for me.
How do you DIG Deep?
JESUS HAD A VERY VERY BUSY MINISTRY; HE HAD TO GET AWAY, OFF BY HIMSELF TO PRAY AND BE STILL, TO RECHARGE HIS PHYSICAL AND MENTAL SELF, TO GO BACK OUT AND BE BUSY. FROM WHAT THE GOSPELS TELL US IT WOULD SEEM JESUS GOT HIS FUN FROM EATING MEALS WITH VARIOUS ONES, THOUGH HE WAS STILL OFTEN TEACHING ON SOMETHING THROUGH THAT MEAL. WE HAVE TO REMEMBER JESUS HAD A SPECIAL MISSION FROM THE FATHER, AND ONLY 3 AND 1/2 YEARS TO ACCOMPLISH IT. OUR FUN TIMES AND PLAY CAN BE LONGER AND MORE OFTEN.