When life is swirling and twirling, it’s important to step back and stay calm. That’s not always easy to do, especially when you have evidence to the contrary (and we’ve had plenty in recent weeks). But there are practices that can bring us back to center. This Provision explores three simple yet challenging steps: shifting perspective, seeking connection, and studying meditation. I hope they will mean as much to you as they mean to me.
In the wake of the volatile and often devastating economic news around the globe, it’s easy to succumb to doom-and-gloom panic. Indeed, you may be among those who have seen wild swings in your portfolio in the past two weeks, prompting you to start checking the markets and market news like never before. If so, it’s become more than just a curiosity as to what’s happening. It’s become an attempt to fill your mind with information and to figure out what, if anything, you can do to protect yourself in such turbulent times.
Unfortunately, such information and calculation serve only to heighten the sense of anxiety. I had to laugh when a talking head on CNBC proclaimed that viewers should stay tuned to their channel, because they were the definitive and reassuring voice in times of trouble. As the head was talking, the words “crisis,” “turmoil,” and “risk” were scrolling across the bottom of the screen. So much for the reassuring voice! 🙂 The news is far from comforting and the more we focus on it the worse our anxiety becomes.
Take it from someone who knows. Long time readers of Provisions may remember that I suffered a panic attack in December of 2007. In November I had had a couple of warning shots. Then, on the first Sunday in December, I ended up in the emergency room with all of the symptoms of a heart attack.
My heart was pounding loudly, my heart rate was racing, my blood pressure was spiking, my chest had angina, my legs were weak, my arms were tingly, my gut was jittery, and I had a definite sense, as they say in the textbooks, of “impending doom.” The more I focused on all these indicators the more certain I became that my life, or at least my life as I knew it, was at risk. I was dreading what the ER docs might find.
In my case, fortunately, the deeper data, that I was not paying attention to, led to a different conclusion: I was suffering from an overactive nervous system rather than a cardiac event. Ironically, the more I focused on my symptoms the worse they became. It was a classic case of a downward spiral, a negative feedback loop, and a vicious cycle. The symptoms became the cause of more symptoms until, before I knew what was happening, my health and well-being was seriously compromised. It was not an experience I want to repeat.
Since that time, I’ve learned a lot about calming my nerves and staying focused on the deeper data. Although my doctor suggested that this was a chemical problem, easily solved by taking medication, I have come to manage the condition primarily by shifting perspective, seeking connection, and studying meditation. Having tried the medication for a while, especially early on, I am definitely more pleased with the results of lifestyle management. Since much of the world has been recently going through a collective panic attack, you may find my experience both relevant and useful to managing your own emotions at this time.
Shifting Perspective. Let’s start with a refrain that grows out of Appreciative Inquiry:
The optimist looks at the glass and calls it half full.
The pessimist looks at the glass and calls it half empty.
The appreciative person looks at the glass and calls it beautiful, just the way it is.
That’s the shift I am learning to make when it comes to my overactive nervous system. It does not help to either romanticize or catastrophize the data. To pretend that I have no symptoms, my doctor reminds me, can lead to real trouble were I to actually be having a cardiac event. Half full is not the whole story. So take an aspirin and have things checked out, my doctor advises, without overreacting.
To imagine that I know all the symptoms, my experience confirms, can also lead to real trouble. Half empty is not the whole story. We may think the sky is falling when it’s not. As a homeless woman with a happy countenance once told me, “When things get bad, I’ve learned to wait three days before reacting. By then things usually look different.” So take stock and go deep, my experience suggests, without overreacting.
The notion that experience is a many-layered thing assists us to look for and appreciate the beauty in things, just the way they are. When my nervous system kicks up, I find myself reframing the uncomfortable externalities as expressions of more intriguing internalities. “What is really going on here?” I’ve learned to ask myself, “and how can I best value the experience?” Such questions take us beyond the daily roller-coaster to the deeper truth of life: win or lose there is much to appreciate in the moment. It’s important to consistently grasp and cherish that deeper data.
Seeking Connection. I don’t know about you, but I am never more engaged than when I have a strong sense of purpose and connection in life and work. This past week, for example, I had little time for panic • albeit the market tremors — because I was connecting with my daughter as well as with her friends and colleagues in Los Angeles. So, too, with my run this morning. In a few weeks, I will again be leading the 4:45 pace team at the Baltimore marathon. This morning was my final tune up, running 20 miles at my Baltimore pace. I had little time for panic • given the pacing requirements • because I was focused on my purpose and connection with the people in Baltimore.
Full engagement will do that. It calms the nervous system by connecting us with people and projects that are important. They may not be important to others, but if they are important to us (like my daughter and the 4:45 pace team) they have the capacity to work miracles when it comes to our emotions.
The key, in my experience, is to seek connection rather than control. The more we try to control people and projects, the more agitation we experience. That’s as true for global markets as it is for personal mastery. The secret is embedded in now-famous Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Now here’s the kicker: the only thing that I can ever really change is myself. We cannot change other people and we cannot change projects; we can only ourselves in relation to other people and projects. So that suggests the following revision of the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change about myself,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Once we get to that place, we can seek connection with people and projects in ways that lead to full engagement rather than to frustration. Take note that “seeking connection” is a behavior, not a state of mind. It is something we must do actively if we hope to experience it at all.
Studying Meditation. Although shifting perspective and seeking connection are necessary to managing our emotions, they are not sufficient. That’s because it’s easy to fall back into old patterns of thinking and relating. Just when we think we got it, we lose it.
The Buddhist’s refer to such distractions and delusions as the Monkey mind: being “unsettled, restless, capricious, whimsical, fanciful, inconstant, confused, indecisive, and uncontrollable”. In the West it’s called being scatter brained. And the antidote is always the same: slow, deep, rhythmic breaths. It takes the wisdom of the body to counterbalance the distortions of the mind.
I like the following description of a Taoist breath meditation technique:
“When one breathes in and out, one’s concentration causes the generative force to rise and fall (in the microcosmic orbit) thus slowly turning the wheel of the law. Count from one to ten and then keep counting, up to one hundred breaths, with the heart (mind) following the counting to prevent it from wandering outside. When the heart and breathing are in unison, this is called locking up the monkey heart and tying up the running horse of intellect.”
So simple and yet so challenging. I am not master of the practice, and I do not do it often enough, but I have learned that whenever I take the time to breath slowly, deeply, and rhythmically my mind calms and my emotions settle. It is an essential practice when it comes to lifestyle management of anxiety, panic, and other negative emotions.
I have written before about numerous biofeedback devices that support the development of a meditation practice. I encourage to read my most writing on the subject by visitingCelebrateWellness.com.
These three, then • shifting perspective, seeking connection, and studying meditation • commend themselves to all who would look for the deeper truth in life and work. Forget, as David Whyte urges, “the news and the radio and the blurred screen.” Instead, look for that “one good word” that is “bread for a thousand.” It’s there to be found; we need only to look in all the right places and all the right ways.
Coaching Inquiries: What practices assist you to calm your nerves? How do you step back and stay centered when life is swirling and twirling? Who can you connect with for comfort and encouragement? How can you take the time to make it so?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
Like all of your Provisions, I really “appreciated” your notes on outside-in. Sometimes it’s a good reminder to remember who we connect with best and those who are most important to us in our lives. These truly are our life-giving relationships. Your writing prompted me to write down who is loving and trusting in my life and to make a point to connect with them more often! I do think there is a dearth of life promoting relationships in our lives today. Perhaps more importantly, to show up with respect and love for those who we don’t know as well or are getting to know better. Keep up the great work.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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