C: Calm Down to Cope – The First Step to Developing Awareness
An excerpt from my upcoming book, “My Mind and Me”
‘Hi! How are you!’ I was way too cheery and my therapist knew it. I sat on the couch and spied the box of tissues on the coffee table. The room was nothing like the Freudian room I had envisioned or expected. The blue walls were actually quite calming as I looked around, making note of the door in front of me and the window behind me. I caught my therapists eye. She smiled gently and waited for my shoulders to drop.
‘Can you tell me why you’re here?’ Her voice was calm and relaxed. There was no pen and paper at the ready and no recorder or anything. Just the smell of tea as one human being asked a simple question. But I froze. I searched for my confidence. I searched for an excuse. I searched for my stiff upper lip. But when I saw the empathy in her big brown eyes, the tears just came, uncontrollably, and I barely got out, ‘Because I have postnatal depression.’ I grabbed three tissues from the tissues box.
‘Talk to me about your day,’ she asked gently. And that’s where it began. I began bitching. Bitching about my husband not being home, having to go to work. Bitching about how I didn’t have a job and felt worthless. Bitching about being so far away from home, in Australia, with no one seeming to care about me at all. I even bitched about my little boy who wouldn’t stop crying. I blamed everyone. ‘How does it make you feel when your son cries?’
‘Honestly, how do you think it makes me feel? I’m here because I’m a mess!’ I said nearly shouting and sniffling. I continued to put the blame on everyone. I was the one who was a mess, why couldn’t anyone help me!
Before I could get much more out, my therapist reached into her bag and pulled out a box of Tic Tacs.
‘Here, take one.’
‘No, thank you,’ I said blowing my nose and wiping my eyes, pissed off that she interrupted me. She didn’t seem to care either. But she just sat there holding the box out to me as if I didn’t have a choice. I finally took one and felt the little nugget roll around my mouth. The mint cleared my nose and I sat, tired and lost. Her eyes found mine.
‘I want you to take these home. Every time your son cries, you feel overwhelmed, or you feel all that emotion flood in, pop one in your mouth and walk away. Walk Away.’
“I can’t just walk away, what if…”
“No child has ever died of crying. Walk away. And when the Tic Tac is gone, go back and BE with your son.” I took the box and looked at it. Peppermint Tic Tacs were my favourite.
What my therapist did was give me something physical to do when my brain was in the emotional rage state. It didn’t take long for me to go digging in my purse for tic-tacs when I got home.
It was “nap” time so there should be no reason why my son should be crying so much. It was a warm Australia day and he was fed and in his cool bedroom with a fan humming gently in the corner. He had everything he liked so why the hell was he crying! The rage, the anger, the fear all overcame me. I didn’t shout, I just took myself and my tears out of his room and left him in his cot, muttering to myself, “no child has ever died of crying”.
I could hear him in the background – screaming. It was like lightning shooting through my veins. I popped the tic-tac into my mouth and sat on the floor and cried. I sucked on the tic-tac, thinking about the little sweet in my mouth. I rolled it around on my tongue. I flipped it from one side of my mouth to the other. I put my hands over my ears and took a huge breath feeling the cool menthol vapors permeate my nose. And then it was gone.
I stood up and walked back into my sons room where he looked at me with his bright red face. I reached down into his crib, picked him up and just held him. And then I noticed it. The hard blue plastic pacifier, which was digging into his back, as he lay on it unable to move. I picked it up, put it in his mouth and his eyes closed. I put him back into his cot, closed his door quietly, walked over to the couch and cried in silence.
That was THE first experience of my entire life when I was able to stop, calm down, and just BE – and it wouldn’t be the last. There was so much going on in my head in that moment that my brain was overcome with conflicting emotions triggering the fight or flight feeling. But the tic-tacs gave me those 2 minutes to stop, breathe and refocus on what was going on.
Tic-tacs worked for me, but for you perhaps there’s something different. Maybe it’s deep breathing, or just walking out of a room, or counting to ten or even thinking about music or looking at something completely different or maybe you like M&Ms?
What’s happening in the brain?
When finding a way to calm yourself down, it has to be sensual. Meaning, you have to shift your focus away from the situation and direct your attention to the senses.
When you’re in a state of pure emotion your brain doesn’t think logically, it reacts. We’ve all been there. That’s because your pre-frontal cortex, or your upstairs brain (as Dr. Siegel explains) has “flipped”. Your downstairs brain which consists of your ancient brain stem, limbic system and amygdala is in control. So to calm down, we have to flip our lids back down and get control of those emotions.
Ten years on and I still keep tic-tacs in my house and on me, for the occasional flying-off-the-handle feeling. I also find doing daily or weekly mediation helps me with keeping my emotions in check.
As you practice or focus on your calming down method, it’ll soon become second nature. Then you can move onto developing a mind mentor mindset.
What’s your calm down coping method?