No, we’re not talking a cure for insomnia (although that would be useful), what I mean here is the ability to find peace or at the very least, a sense of calm, within ourselves without relying on unhealthy habits.
I first heard the term ‘self-soothe’ when my sister had her first baby. It’s a stage – a skill if you will – that babies learn once they are past being newborns and it requires them to learn to settle themselves back to sleep. I suspect this is where the theory of ‘controlled crying’ came about – although I’m certainly no expert. In a nutshell controlled crying is allowing the baby to cry unattended for a certain period of time – the theory being that in constantly attending to bub every time he or she cries, you’re denying them the opportunity to learn that there is nothing to fear, nothing to fret over. In allowing them to cry unattended, you’re providing them with the opportunity to find their own peace, to master their own fretting, without outside intervention.
While some of us seem to master this skill through all stages of our life, in any situation, quite a few of us struggle to be able to find that sense of calm, that equilibrium – in particular in moments of stress – but often, even on a day to day basis. The internal tension can’t be managed and stress build up leads us unable to sleep, irritable and argumentative or just plain ‘highly strung’. Even emotionally healthy, high-functioning adults struggle to find their inner sense of calm all the time. Simply put, they’re unable to rely on themselves in moments of strife. This can manifest in harmless ways – the need for glass of wine at the end of the day, an indulgent dessert, a ‘vent’ to a close friend (or friends), a sneaky cigarette or that new pair of shoes we know we can’t really afford. But it can escalate. The ‘everyday stress’ becomes unmanageable, it snowballs. The ‘glass or two’ of wine at the end of the week isn’t helping. The one pair of (unaffordable) shoes isn’t quite cutting it. Our friends are no longer able to deal with our intense emotional neediness. It can escalate significantly and still be socially acceptable, still be seen as ‘taking the edge off’.
For a few years now research has been indicating that drinking – in particular binge drinking – is on the rise in middle aged professional women. Not teenagers or people we inherently associate with low impulse control, but professional, high functioning middle aged women. One would assume, largely as a result of the pressures of trying to balance everything. Similar research demonstrates that while alcohol may be more of a problem with women, men are more likely to use almost all types of illicit drugs. Other addictions are also on the rise: gambling, online gaming, online porn. None of this is new of course – addiction has been around for as long as we have been – and this isn’t really a blog about addiction. But it’s interesting to note that the reality of addiction isn’t the image we still hold of it. It creeps up on us – a series of bad days, feeling overwhelmed in general, too much stress, too many emotional ups and downs, before you know it that glass of wine to take the edge off becomes a lifestyle and the new pair of shoes as a pick me up becomes an unsupportable spending habit. Because in practice – when we’re looking externally to fix an internal problem, nothing is ever quite enough.
A less obvious but still noteworthy way this inability to rely on ourselves manifests is in our interactions with others. We all need and love our friends and family. Close social relationships are something that nearly every research study points to as necessary for human beings to maintain healthy lives – emotionally, psychologically and physically. And ideally these relationships are mutually rewarding and reciprocally beneficial to both parties – give and take, ups and downs, highs and lows. An inability to take our own counsel, to meditate on our own thoughts and ultimately, to calm ourselves tends to result in us leaning quite heavily the people around us. It’s healthy and helpful to get things off our chest, it builds bonds and can help us find a solution to our problem. But no-one wants to be on the receiving end of repeated 4 hour downloads about your latest break-up or hear you bitching incessantly about that issue at work. And quite frankly, no-one wants to be the one doing the downloading because firstly, you relinquish all your personal power and secondly, it doesn’t actually help you to feel calm or at peace. Interestingly, much like drug addiction, it’s never quite enough and it simply ends up feeding the beast.
Being able to find a way to talk ourselves down from a ledge can provide us with a sense of peace, a sense of security and a self-reliance that allows us a personal power that’s pretty hard to beat. How we can achieve this comes down to personal choice – and personal temperament. What helps some people, just won’t suit others. But one thing is certain: it can feel challenging at first and it requires practice for these methods to become ‘second nature’. If our habit has always been to look outside ourselves as soon as we feel the inkling of anxiety, then it’s going to feel forced to do anything different. And we will need to force it. If we’re serious about changing these habits, then we need to consciously and continually reach within ourselves to build new habits. So, where to from here?
The following list isn’t inclusive – I call it my top 3 – and these are ideas that are based largely on my own personal temperament. Finding what works for you may require some research and some trial and error.
Not a new idea but one I personally think is underrated. Think of journaling as that 4 hour vent session you would normally download on someone else. It’s an opportunity to vent, but in a totally uncensored way. It gives you the opportunity to ’empty’ your head, to release the tension or ‘mind panic’ that anxiety creates. It provides the same relief as that vent session does, but without the feeling of embarrassment that can sometimes accompany a ‘too much information’ session with someone who’s likely been your leaning post one too many times.
The other benefit of journaling is that, in much the same way as healthy disclosure with a close friend can intensive the bond between you, a session of journaling can provide that bonding experience between you and your inner self. It’s an opportunity to be totally and unashamedly honest with yourself, to get to know yourself. It becomes a voice to yourself. It is sometimes the first opportunity you’ve ever taken to find out what you actually think about something. You may find this initially feels weird, or false. You may find the your initial ‘voice’ isn’t a particularly kind one, that the voice is judgemental, nasty, or unrelentingly harsh. Even this is useful. Because our outer world is always a reflection of our inner world so if you’ve reached a point where you feel life just isn’t going where you want it to, or that people don’t treat you the way would wish, seeing this inner voice in black and white can be the wake up call that you need to change they way you speak to yourself.
You can buy a pretty notebook for inspiration, you can use post-it notes, scrap paper or even the notebook in your phone. It doesn’t really matter, just start writing. Anything at all. Outline the situation that’s playing on your mind. What happened? Why is it upsetting? What do you think about it? And the most important thing of all: how you feel about it. Sometimes we’re just totally out of touch with our emotions, with our thoughts, with our inner selves. Journaling is the conversation you should be having with who should be your BFF – you.
So much has been written about the benefits of exercise, that we don’t need to go into too much detail here. Needless to say that by increasing the heart rate, raising the core body temperature and boosting oxygen levels, exercise triggers several known positive biochemical reactions. These include both changes in blood chemistry to provide more energy and changes in metabolism which, among other things, help us sleep better. Both areas that suffer when we’re stressed or anxious. But the big ticket item for exercise is the famous endorphin high: These nonaddictive, feel-good molecules bind with neurotransmitters in the brain to reduce pain symptoms. Additionally, endorphins help reduce stress, boost immunity, slow the ageing process and create a sense of euphoria. All of which is what we’re pretty much chasing with dysfunctional addiction.
I’ll admit that a few people over the years have said to me that they’re unable to exercise when they’re stressed – they can’t get out of their own heads long enough to get a sweat up. And I recognise there are situations where you’re ‘just not in the mood’. And that’s fine. But the mind excels at making excuses and I think it’s important to try to overcome as many roadblocks and get up and move. Generally, I suspect that that 99% of the time, we will feel better after a sweat session than we will from continuing to scroll through FB or remain glued to Netflix. I know how difficult it is when your head is all over the place or you’re feeling blue, but that’s precisely the time you need to get your arse off the couch.
Take some time out by yourself / Get out of the house and socialise
Yes, you read that correctly. The exact opposite advice – you get to choose what works for you. Ultimately both have been proven to be extremely effective in soothing an anxious mind. It really just depends on our individual temperament. Obviously, if you’re more introverted, chances are you prefer to hibernate when things are overwhelming because it’s solitude that provides you with an opportunity to unwind and re-charge. However if you’re an extrovert, you will generally get your energy from socialising with large groups. The more people, the better. It helps you to disengage from the source of the stress and in effect, take your mind off it.
The trick – or trap – with this advice is that you can have too much of a good thing. Introverts are inclined to wallow in their own thoughts, become entrenched in the comfort zone of their own personal space and get stuck in an overthinking loop – in short, they get caught up in paralysis by analysis. While ‘down time’ may be necessary for all of us to get in touch with our own thoughts, getting stuck in our heads tends to exacerbate issues like depression and feelings of loneliness and isolation.
If introverts get trapped staring at their own belly button, extroverts can get caught in a cycle of running away from their problems with the constant distraction of other people. Without taking a time out, extraverts spend very little – if any – time with their own thoughts, very little time in their own company. While everyone wants to sometimes just let their hair down, an ability to be alone tends to indicate an unwillingness to face our problems and deal with them in a healthy way. It also means that our standards for companionship – by necessity of always needing to be with other people – tends to drop significantly.