Sometimes, in times of stress, our worry and rumination circle around a particular theme: the great escape. “How can I get out of this?” “There must be a way out.” We can spend hours, days, and sometimes months or years calculating and recalculating how we will avoid some uncomfortable upcoming event, interaction, or feeling. Our calculations can get pretty elaborate, too. Our brains create intricate, multifaceted flowcharts: “If this happens, then I’ll do that—and if that happens, I’ll do this.” And sometimes our plans get pretty drastic: “I’ll move out of the house into a little apartment and visit the kids on weekends.” “We’ll sell the house and move to a hut in the woods.” Our brains keep spinning, churning out new routes to take—like an overloaded GPS—but many times, if you look just below these thoughts, you’ll find a belief: “I can’t handle it.”
When I think about this “I can’t handle it” belief, I often picture the spoiled heiress Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl, or Mrs. “Lovey” Howell from the series Gilligan’s Island, using the more aggressive form of this belief: “You want me to do what? You couldn’t possibly want me to do that!” It often seems these beliefs come from a place of not trusting the person we most need to trust—ourselves. We don’t seem to trust that we can handle it.
The “it” we need to handle may not be easy, but one guarantee in life is that it is not easy. All of us, at one time or another, will be handed an assignment or task—by a boss, a family member, a friend, or fate—that we feel is beyond us. And that’s often when the worry, ruminating, calculating, and recalculating set in. But knowing that this is how our brains react to stressful situations can help ease the worry. This is part of being mindful—mindful of how we problem solve in difficult, loaded situations. In my case, I worry for a couple of nights looking for the trap door, but then I get it done.
There is a lot of information and research on the efficacy of mindfulness as a way to gain some relief from overheated anxiety and worry. You don’t necessarily have to sit cross-legged on a wooden floor to benefit from mindfulness. When we start to feel ourselves jump on the gerbil wheel of worry and rumination—generating new plans, looking for a way out—we can mentally take a step back from our thoughts. (Yes, like everything, easier said than done!) We can notice how incredibly creative our brains are at looking for a way out. And instead of jumping on the gerbil wheel and reacting to these thoughts, we can appreciate the brain’s creativity and consider moving toward the problem.
Yes, “leaning in” toward the problem and the pain, instead of avoiding it with a great escape plan—though uncomfortable in the short term—does help lessen worry and rumination. As does trusting that if the problem is too big, we will share it and ask for help from friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, mental health professionals, doctors, plumbers, teachers, etc. (Remember, most humans need help at some point—it’s part of being, well, human.) Chances are we are more capable, stronger, and more resourceful than we know.
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