Before you assume I am a biased, raging sexist, I am directing this post toward women as opposed to men for three reasons:
1) Of the six people who told me their 2015 New Year’s resolution was some version of “learn to chill the f@&* out,” exactly zero of them were male. (And interestingly, nearly all have young children. Coincidence?)
2) If I had a dollar for every time a husband’s presenting problem in couples therapy was “being too tightly wound,” I’d probably be able to treat my all-male family to a stress-reducing round of laser tag. If I had a dollar for every time this was the case for a wife in therapy, I’d build a women’s tranquility spa behind our YMCA….And I’d equip it with well-paid daycare staff and frequent it myself.
Many women have a cute pet-phrase for a mindset that I generally refer-to as “anxiety.” Sharon may start picking lint off the sweaters of her party guests while dismissively joking about her “touch of OCD. Hahaha.” Joanne may preface her catastrophic statements (“Oh my god! You’re boss didn’t sent you a Christmas card!? You’re getting fired!”) with, “Maybe I’m a bit paranoid; Hahaha;” Maryanne might couch her critical statements (“I’m the only one who can do anything right around here,”) with, “I’m a little type-A. Hahaha.” (I personally like to lovingly refer to my anxious, tightly-wound side as: “For-the-love-of-god-leave-me-the-hell-alone-and-let-me-relax-in-silence-for-20-minutes-or-I-will-start-obsessing-about-how-I-am-so-overwhelmed-and-you-never-help-out-even-though-you-help-a-lot-in-an-irrational-outburst-that-I-will-later-regret.” Notice there is no “hahaha” attached to the end. And no; I’m not kidding. See the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain.)
First of all, besides obtaining a little something called “personal sanity,” let’s explore why “the ability to chillax” is indeed such an important skill to acquire:
1) Managing stress and anxiety in a healthy way teaches our kids, by example, arguably the most important life skill ever: emotional regulation .
2) The well-being of our relationships depend on acquiring this habit (often the significant others of people-unable-to-chillax feel like they have to walk on eggshells, feel inadequate and controlled, and/or as if they can never do anything right. Booo.), our own happiness depends on learning to do it, and our kids’ happiness depend enormously on our personal and relationship happiness.
So clearly the ability to chillax is important. But (of course other than medication and talk-therapy for clinical anxiety), how the heck does one accomplish such a feat, especially in such a demanding and stressful culture? I wish it were as simple as reading that adorable little book that husbands everywhere
passive-aggressively sweetly drop into their wive’s Christmas stockings each December. Here are some good places to start:
1) Know and challenge some of the real reasons you are at times just a tad high-strung. Allow me to go a little therapy-ninja on you and suggest that you start with thinking about the behaviors and fears that may have been engrained in you from your family of origin: Was your mom the do-it-all-and-then-criticize-and-complain martyr in her relationship(s), and you therefore have fallen into the “I’m overburdened but would rather complain than constructively ask for help” trap? Do you fear relinquishing some control to your significant other (or anyone else) because to do so would be to engage in a type if intimacy (vulnerability, healthy mutual dependency) that triggers your fear of abandonment/rejection? Were you otherwise brainwashed- by traumatic life experiences or early examples- to never ever ever ever stop sweating the small stuff for fear that certain catastrophic consequence is sure to ensue? Have you been trained by early experiences that human protocol is to shut up and deal with everything with a plastic smile on your face; but alas, because you are human and not a robot and you never take a break or ask for help, you just explode from time to time? These scenarios and more are all things to ponder and challenge with your own thoughts, in a handy dandy journal, or in the comfort of your therapist’s sofa.
2) Get used to practicing appropriately assertive communication. Learn how to constructively assert some power and control in your life instead of being overly passive or overly aggressive/controlling in response to stress and anxiety. And, of course, when this “constructive communication” thing doesn’t solve all your problems (Alas, there are some circumstances and people that are subject to shocking disobedience and uncertainty. And there are some party guest’s sweaters that should remain un-picked.), remind yourself over and over that “I don’t always have to have control, and that’s okay.”
3) Attend to your emotions and inner experiences with intentional awareness. In the moment (or as soon as you are able. At first this awareness usually comes after-the-fact), observe the tightness in your chest, heart palpitations, catastrophic thoughts, angry thoughts, or any other cue that your stress level, anger level, or need-to-control is increasing. You may not be able to “think” yourself out of your anxiety in the moment (reminding yourself that the world is not going to end after your kid spills grape juice on the couch or your husband puts the knives in the dishwasher upside-down might not be immediately possible.) BUT the old-fashioned anger management technique of walking AWAY, taking some deep breaths, and THEN considering some rational perspective IS possible. The deep breaths are easy. The catching yourself is hard.
4) Since we’re on the subject of observing your own thoughts, it is also helpful to get used to noticing when you are criticizing, either yourself, a situation, or others. Criticism has no place in a healthy psyche (okay, this is controversial, though I strongly stand by this assertion.) as it contributes to anger and stress and resolves nothing. If you catch yourself criticizing yourself, a situation, or another person, consider reframing your criticism to a realistic and specific request for change instead. And, if you are somewhat of a Negative Nancy or a Controlling Connie, challenge yourself to bite your tongue and ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and “Is there anything to appreciate in this scenario?” (As in, instead of criticizing husband’s lack of attention to detail with the fridge-cleaning, say, “The worst that could happen is my hand will get sticky when I take the mustard out; and I appreciate that he’s cleaning the fridge.” Also, when tempted to criticize something inconsequential, say “BUZZZZZ” really loudly as if you said a no-no word in the game of Taboo. Errrr…worked for me anyway.
5) Prepare yourself mentally for “crunch time.” Take a couple minutes to think about your days/week ahead. Think specifically about what the most stressful aspects of your days will be, and creatively prepare. For example, I noticed that I feel my jaw clench and my heart start to race at two particular points in each day: when getting in the car to do the double-school drop-off in the morning, and getting back in the car after the gym at night. Why? Because I have a two-year-old who squirms and climbs over the car seat into the unreachable trunk every time we get in the car, so much so that I break a sweat trying to wrangle him. So what I do is I keep a stash of bribery m&m’s in the car, to be offered only to boys who sit still and let Mommy buckle them in. Also, there is no way in hell that I will go to the gym at night even if I am only a little bit crabby. If I feel stressed at night, I set the kids up with a TV show and use the treadmill at home. Yes, I unapologetically endorse using TV as a babysitter from time to time in the event that it saves your sanity. Now your anticipated “crunch time” might be anything from the big work presentation you have on Wednesday or the 5:00 witching hour your baby experiences each evening– Regardless of what you anticipate, think of some creative ways to, ahead of time, establish a plan to alleviate some of the stress of the experience.
6) Take inventory and simplify. Does each activity that you have chosen to prioritize in your life actually increase your (and your family’s) quality of life? Weigh out the stress vs. benefit to each aspect of your life, without subscribing to any arbitrary “shoulds.” While you may think you should cook elaborate meals every night, weigh out the cost/benefit of throwing together some grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup or ordering pizza from time to time. While you may think you should make a certain amount of money or send the kids to a certain school 30 miles away, or volunteer to lead the garden club to state championships, or stay up late hand-sewing your kid’s Christmas pageant costume, weigh out the cost/benefit of downsizing, simplifying, or just saying no. While you may think you should have the toys and dishes put away every night or have all the books on the shelf alphabetized by author, and never ever let your child have screen-time, consider whether or not these behaviors add or detract from your (and your family’s) quality of life. Are any of your expectations and choices in your life adding more stress than they are worth? We all know how important sleep and exercise are to one’s emotional well-being, but is it necessary to rearrange, delegate, simplify, or downsize so that you can fit in more zzzz’s and go for a walk once in a while? And, by the way, don’t compare your choices and lifestyle to anyone else’s, including your neighbor who mows the lawn while simultaneously wearing a baby and conducting a business conference call to Asia. Give yourself the gift of making flexible decisions in your life based on what specifically makes sense for you and your family, not based on any “shoulds” or comparisons.
7). Be kind to yourself. Notice when you need to say “no” to obligations, curl up and watch your favorite movie, do something fun for yourself in the name of self-care, or
demand constructively ask for help from others. And do it unapologetically without condemning yourself. It does not mean inferiority if, from time to time, you skip home-made and buy the birthday cupcakes from Sam’s Club; it doesn’t mean weakness if you step down from co-leader of the neighborhood garden club; It doesn’t mean certain ant-infestation if you leave the dishes in the sink from time just because you don’t feel like chiseling crust off a pan after a long day. Because after-all, the alternative is a whole bunch of stress and unnecessary unhappiness for you and your spouse and your kids, and ain’t nobody got time for that.
Do you have any suggestions for practicing and mastering the ancient art of the “chillax”? Please leave your ideas in the comments!
And I am officially off to bed… Leaving a sink that is not quite as full as it could be since we do paper plates much of the time. Yup; that’s right. Paper plates. Because took inventory and simplified..