It’s all too easy in today’s world to go from “everything’s OK” to “OMG!” in a few seconds flat. Money is already tight and the car breaks down on the side of the road and won’t even start. Your best friend, who was fine just yesterday when you met for lunch, finds out they have stage three cancer. Your beloved pooch snuck out of the fence and got hit by a car. I don’t have to go on. I’m sure you have your own list that readily springs to mind.
I used to be surprised when these kinds of “bad” things showed up in my world. Not anymore. I’m here to tell you that I’ve learned that the bad stuff is just as much a part of life as the good stuff. Expect it. I don’t mean that in a pessimistic way. I mean that in a realistic way.
Eckhart Tolle says, “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”
Now, I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve that. However, when upsetting events do show up, I’ve found that I can make things more painful and difficult or I can help myself through them depending on how I respond. When something bad happens, I’ve learned to not react instinctually. Rather, I consciously work with my thoughts and choose my actions to help myself calmly navigate the situation.
Your Brain in Crisis Mode
OK. Something bad happens.
Your brain is screaming “red alert” and you have that panicky, want to run away feeling. That’s natural. That’s your amygdala, a primitive part of your brain responsible for the fight or flight stress response, just kicking in and doing its job. When the amygdala is fully engaged, it activates a chain of events preparing your body to mobilize for an emergency. Any degree of stress affects your basic brain systems of attention, energy, and memory. Basically, your brain eliminates all unnecessary functioning except focusing on the threat.
I’ll bet you know the feeling. It’s no fun at all!
What you do next determines how the rest of the story goes and how you experience the situation. You can react subconsciously out of habit and respond with anxiety, anger, or panic. I can tell you from personal experience this can make a situation go from bad to worse very quickly. Reacting emotionally reinforces the stress response in your brain, encouraging more of the same, and doesn’t do anything to help you get through the crisis.
Alternatively, you can choose to help yourself through it. Whatever “it” is. The situation, then, becomes a tool with which to work for your growth and learning. This choice builds and reinforces the anti-anxiety pathways in your brain and calms the amygdala. I guarantee you that it will also make the experience much more manageable. How you handle yourself does not change the circumstances one bit, but it does change the way you experience them.
Three Mindful Steps to Calm Your Brain
In his book, Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, Rick Hanson tells us that:
Clinical psychology, coaching, human resources training, personal growth workshops, and the world’s contemplative traditions offer many ways to be happy, loving, effective and wise. But for all the variety in these approaches and methods, they cluster into three groups, three major ways to engage your mind.”
This first step is really about acceptance. Hanson tells us “to be with what’s there.” This means to feel your feelings –even the uncomfortable ones. Come fully into the present moment. Notice what’s happening physically in your body. Breathe.
Then, acknowledge the reality of the experience. This is where you quit wishing things were different. Stop struggling against what is and resisting the reality. Then, recognize that the situation to be just another occurrence in life. Recognize that you are not the first person this has ever happened to and that things are and can still be OK.
You aren’t trying to change anything here — feelings or thoughts. You want to avoid judging your reaction/feelings/thoughts as being right or wrong. Be understanding, compassionate, and encouraging with yourself, as you would be for a friend. You could even get curious about and explore what’s behind your thoughts and feelings.
This step is a hard one, and it may take some time. Give yourself as much time as you need to arrive at and move through acceptance. The same goes for any of the steps. Hanson writes:
Trust your intuition about when to move from one step to the next. It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in which one bed was too hard, one bed was too soft, and one was just right. What feels ‘just right’ will depend on the experience itself.”
In the second step, Hanson advises us to “decrease the negative”. This means to actively prevent, reduce, or end whatever you can that is proving painful or harmful to you. He writes:
For example, you could vent feelings to a friend, step away from self-critical thoughts, stop bringing home cookies that fuel a desire for sugar, or ease tension by relaxing your body.”
This could mean things like:
- physically venting your emotions – to a friend, crying, yelling in the shower, writing in a journal;
- visualizing the feelings floating away like a cloud;
- doing a guided meditation to release emotion;
- working with your thoughts about the situation.
In this step, you consciously redirect your attention and brain away from the negative and anxiety-producing thought loops. Challenge your negative thoughts. Try to zoom out and see a bigger picture. Reassure and support yourself with calming statements, such as:
- This is for now, not forever.
- Similar things have happened, and I have gotten through them.
- Just because it’s not what I wanted, doesn’t mean things won’t turn out OK.
- Challenging times are opportunities for growth.
- I can get through this.
- I am stronger than I think.
Third, you want to intentionally increase the positive in your mind – by creating, growing, or preserving it. This can be anything that is healthy and enjoyable for you. For example, you might practice slow breathing, meditation, or yoga. You might want to schedule a relaxing evening with friends or make the effort to recall times when things did work out just fine that originally had you panicked. In this step, you want to pair and replace the negative feelings you let go with more positive ones. In other words, nurture and support maintaining a sense of calm instead of feeding the cycle of upset.
Even though I’m not always able to convince my mind of it in some highly stressful situations, I’ve learned that if I just accept the circumstances as they are — even when I prefer them to be very different — and allow myself to move through the experience, let things unfold, and quit resisting, everything can turn out OK, great even, in the end.