I often wonder if there’s a way to opt out of stress, anxiety, grief, mania, confusion and an assortment of other negative-but-extremely-common emotions we humans experience during the course of any ordinary day. If I were to be completely honest, I’d have to say there are anywhere between five and seven (sometimes more) times in the day when I want to run away. Far away---maybe not forever, but just until the crisis du jour that has me by the scruff of the neck finally lets go.
Of course, then I imagine myself actually running away and if I let that tape roll until the last frame, I end up alone, which would create a new problem. It’s not that I want to be completely alone to avoid the issue. What I crave in that irrational moment, that fight or flight moment of quasi-terror, is to get out from under the crisis.
For that reason, I can’t completely undermine the idea that I need a break for mental health purposes. I know that stress, anxiety and confusion can’t ruin any part of my day unless I allow it. But in that moment, I feel powerless, even though I know happiness is not an external endeavor. It’s an internal awareness. Happiness is a choice. It’s a decision. In fact, it was Aeschylus, the founder of Greek tragedy, who said, “Happiness is a choice that requires effort at times.”
What kind of effort? Another brilliant Greek named Aristotle said, “Happiness depends on ourselves.” But it’s still unclear. What does it depend on us for? The answers to both questions are the same. Happiness depends on the effort we put into the decision to remain unfazed by circumstances beyond our control as well as accepting moral responsibility for our actions.
But how can we do that consistently when life throws dagger after dagger at our heads and we fail to duck in time? The answer to that question is also the same, which doesn’t make it any easier to practice. There is, however, a solution or a coping tool to allow that much needed escape to take place without actually running away.
It may sound like an oversimplification, but a brief mental getaway can offer the kind of self-soothing or nurturing that’s easy to accomplish because it can be done just about anywhere at just about any time. The only thing you need to be able to do is have something beautiful to look at while you breathe deeply and smile for 30 to 60 seconds. It only requires the tiniest of commitments and it’s more of a challenge to remember to do it than to accomplish it.
Imagine yourself in a tough situation. It doesn’t matter what it is. Whatever it may be, it has you by the throat or the scruff of the neck or some other sensitive place, maybe even your heart. You have a physical reaction to the anxiety or otherwise agonizing thoughts and you feel as though you may completely lose control of yourself. But that is just a thought. It doesn’t often feel that way, but thoughts can be released. This thought, for example, can be identified as a self-sabotaging belief that you can choose to let go of. Psychology Today says this about self-sabotage: “People aren't always aware of their own self-sabotage as the effects of their behavior may not show up for some time. Unfortunately, connecting a behavior to self-defeating consequences is no guarantee that a person will disengage from the behavior. Still, it is possible to overcome almost any form of self-sabotage, and people do it every day. There are behavioral therapies aimed at interrupting ingrained patterns of thought and action and strengthening deliberation and self-regulation processes. Motivational therapies reconnect people with their goals and values.”
It’s most definitely possible to overcome it. I’ve done it. While I might have once waited for a crisis du jour to let go of me, I now let go of it long enough to take a 30- to 60-second vacation from the negative thoughts and images in my imagination, and replace them with lovely thoughts and images. Breathing deeply, I look at something beautiful, like the sky if I’m outside or a photo on my phone. The best option is when I close my eyes and imagine something beautiful. Then I make an effort to smile.
Starting the day this way acts as a practice run for when I might need to implement this practice when I feel particularly stressed. In fact, the more I do it, the easier it becomes and the less chance I have of forgetting that I have this capability to mentally escape or run away at any moment without consequence. Think of it as a momentary shift. Once you make the shift, you are less likely to return to your previous train of thought, especially if you remember how uncomfortable you felt before making the shift. Why would you want to return to your troubled mind when it’s just as easy to choose the wise mind?
This is an act of mindfulness, a refocusing exercise, and a chance to save yourself from unnecessary worry. All you have to do is decide.