‘Maisel on the family’ is a weekly column written by Eric Maisel in which he shares his insights about family life. This is part 4, being calm in your family.
It is hard for us to achieve calmness. This is true because we may experience lifelong agitation as a result of early adverse experiences, because all human beings regularly experience anxiety and also because we have a brain that naturally races. You’re probably aware of the role that anxiety plays in our difficulties with calmness and you may also be aware of the lifelong negative effects of early trauma. But you may not be aware that our brain is built to do a certain sort of work and never really stops doing it, even for much of the time that we sleep or try to sleep. This racing brain of ours interferes with our ability to maintain calmness. It is hard to be calm or remain calm if your brain is racing along, intent on thinking about something.
No doubt you would love to be able to deal with the difficulties in your family life calmly. Yet calmness is hard to attain, because anxiety is part of our nature, because this racing brain of ours is also part of our nature, because the challenges of living agitate us, distract us, and unsettle us, because we get in the habit of countenancing thoughts that rattle us, and for many other reasons as well. And even if we do manage to attain calmness in one part of our life—say, during our meditation practice or while walking in nature—that same calmness may prove elusive or unavailable when we step into our family circle and must deal with the problems that are making family life feel so difficult. We have two truths to reckon with: that calmness is hard to attain; and that it is hardest to attain when we need it the most.
Fortunately there are many strategies and techniques available to you that can help you achieve and maintain a reasonable level of calmness. There are breathing techniques; relaxation techniques; cognitive techniques; detachment techniques; reorienting techniques (turning away from the stimulus that is agitating you); mindfulness techniques; discharge techniques (like “silently screaming” to release anxiety); and many more.
The following are some anxiety management techniques that you might want to try:
1. Deep breathing
The simplest—and a quite powerful—anxiety management technique is deep breathing. By stopping to deeply breathe (5 seconds on the inhale, 5 seconds on the exhale) you stop your racing mind and alert your body to the fact that you wish to be calmer.
2. Cognitive self-help
Changing the way you think is a powerful anti-anxiety strategy. You can do this straightforwardly by 1) noticing what you are saying to yourself; 2) disputing the self-talk that makes you anxious or does not serve you; and 3) substituting more affirmative, calming or useful self-talk. This three-step process really works.
A variation on strategies one and two is to use them together by “dropping” a useful cognition into a deep breath, thinking “half” the thought on the inhale and “half” the thought on the exhale. Incantations that might reduce your experience of anxiety include “I am perfectly calm” and “I trust my resources.” Experiment with some short phrases and find one or two that, when dropped into a deep breath, serve to calm you.
4. Physical relaxation techniques
Physical relaxation techniques include such simple procedures as rubbing your shoulder and such elaborate procedures as “progressive relaxation techniques” where you slowly relax each part of your body in turn. Doing something physically soothing can prove really useful to help you calm yourself.
5. Mindfulness practices
Meditation and other mindfulness practices that help you take charge of your thoughts and get a grip on your mind can prove very useful as part of your anxiety management program. The better you grasp the idea that the contents of your mind make suffering and the better job you do of releasing those thoughts, the less you will experience anxiety.
6. Guided imagery
Guided imagery is a technique where you guide yourself to calmness by mentally picturing a calming image or a series of images. You might picture yourself on a blanket by the beach, walking by a lake, or swinging on a porch swing. First determine what images actually calm you by trying out various images in your mind’s eye; then, when you’ve landed on some calming images, bring them to mind when you’re feeling anxious.
7. Disidentification and detachment techniques
A great way to reduce your experience of anxiety is by learning to bring a calm, detached perspective to life and by turning yourself into someone whose default approach to life is to create calm rather than drama and stress. You do this in part by affirming that you are different from and larger than any transitory part of your life: any feeling, any thought, any worry, any regret. By taking a more philosophical and detached approach to life you meet life more calmly.
8. Reorienting techniques
You can consciously reorient yourself away from your anxious thoughts and toward a more neutral stimulus. For example, if you’re a performer, instead of focusing on the audience entering the concert hall, you might reorient yourself toward the notices on the bulletin board in the green room, paying them just enough attention to take your mind off the sounds of the audience arriving.
9. Discharge techniques
Anxiety and stress build up in the body and techniques that vent that stress can prove very useful. One discharge technique is to “silently scream”—to make the facial gestures that go with uttering a good cleansing scream without actually uttering any sound (which would be inappropriate in most settings). Jumping jacks, pushups and physical gestures of all sorts can be used to help release the “venom” of anxiety and pass it out of your system.
Let’s focus next on dealing with what for some people is the perpetual chaos that defines their life. Many people today are functioning in the middle of exactly that sort of perpetual chaos. They run all day, commuting, handling work-related responsibilities, picking up their kids, shopping for meals, and simultaneously dealing with everything else that life throws at them, from health issues to bill payments to family crises to the state of their yard. Who can stay centered or even catch their breath nowadays? Where is calmness in that picture?
This chaos and overwhelm only increases if you are also dealing with intense family difficulties. Likewise, this perpetual chaos makes an already difficult family situation worse. Maybe you would be able to focus on your child’s school difficulties, your mate’s coldness, or your aging parent’s daily demands if you weren’t also obliged to handle a hundred other tasks, chores, and challenges. Lost in this agitated blur, you may be just able to get items checked off your perpetual to-do list and keep your life marginally afloat—but as likely as not at the cost of your emotional and physical health and with the added unfortunate result that your serious family difficulties go unattended.
What can help is the following simple ceremony. Take some time each day or a few times each day to do the following. Get a snow globe. Shake it up. Then breathe deeply as you watch the snow settle. As the snow is settling, say or think, “I am settling” or “I am calming down” or some other phrase of your choosing that helps you communicate that you now feel calmer. You can enact this ceremony with an actual snow globe, one that you purchase or have fabricated to your specifications, or you can enact it as a “mind ceremony,” shaking up the snow globe and watching it settle in your mind’s eye.
It is hard to reduce the number of challenging things to which we must attend and it is hard to achieve calmness as we attend to those challenges. A difficult family situation only increases that anxiety and makes it that much harder not to feel anxious. It is therefore imperative that you practice and begin to “own” a few anxiety management techniques that work for you. You want to feel confident that you can calm your nerves before, say, having a hard chat with your child or your mate. If you don’t have that confidence and if you don’t know how to handle your nerves, you’re likely to avoid that conversation … once again. Make a concerted effort this week to bring a new calmness into your life by enacting the snow globe ceremony daily and by learning an effective anxiety management technique or two.