Three Habits Calm People Never Practice

Train your brain to do differently next time your mind is hijacked by worry.

Posted Jun 15, 2017

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One of the hardest lessons to master when it comes to your emotions is internalizing the fact that calm is an inside job.

Whether you’re worried about tomorrow’s job interview, or the possibility of an impending break up, channeling calming thoughts is not easy. But before you give up, or tell yourself, “I’m just wired this way,” consider this: It only takes a few minutes a day to get on the right side of calm.

Creating inner peace is similar to following a new dinner recipe. You must gather your ingredients, start from the first step, and build from there. As I say to my therapy clients, “Habits aren’t sexy, but they work.”

Calm people weren’t necessarily born with an even-keeled central nervous system, but they’ve learned what doesn’t work — specifically, three common traps that keep many well-intentioned people stuck on the anxiety treadmill:

1. Calm People Don’t Get Stuck in Rumination.

The word “ruminate” derives from the Latin meaning for chewing cud, a less than appetizing process in which cattle grind up, swallow, then regurgitate and rechew their feed. Similarly, human ruminators mull an issue ad nauseam. Obsessing over every possible scenario not only increases anxiety, but depression as well.

Numerous longitudinal studies point to rumination’s negative effects: For example, research conducted on Bay Area residents who experienced the 1989 San Francisco earthquake found that those who self-identified as ruminators presented with more symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

What to do instead: Stop the mental chatter. When you find yourself at the starting block of the Talking Olympics, take a step back and calm your active mind by exploring your options. This article offers in-depth information on thought-changing.

2. Calm People Don’t Procrastinate.

Nothing compounds anxiety like avoiding the underlying sources of your problems. Scrolling through your partner's social media accounts for proof that he cheated during his business trip, or spying her text messages while she showers, will not get you any closer to having that conversation about trust.

A 2014 multi-university study surveyed nearly 4,000 participants from 19 countries on their mental health and their feelings about action versus inaction. The researchers found that anxious people predominantly expressed negative feelings toward action.

Other studies have focused on chronic procrastination as an emotional strategy for dealing with stress. Contrary to popular belief, chronic procrastination isn’t actually linked to perfectionism, but rather to impulsiveness, according to Piers Steel, researcher and author of The Procrastination Equation.

What to do instead: The best way around anxiety is through action. If you’re unsure how to get unstuck and get moving, here are 22 suggestions to point you in the right direction.

3. Calm People Don’t Get Stuck in Unhealthy Coping Skills.

A stressful event causes worried thoughts, which then activate the amygdala — the area in the brain responsible for the fear response, AKA, fight-flight-freeze — which leads to increased physical arousal, more worrisome thoughts, and more intense physical reactions. Runaway anxiety ensues because each new worry feels like an attack. Internalizing stress, over-reacting, or self-medicating with food, drugs or alcohol are just a few self-destructive behaviors.

What to do instead: Focus on mindfulness. Ancient Buddhist practice teaches us to pay attention to what we pay attention to. Intentional efforts to slow the mind and body create space between our problems and our reactions. When we get comfortable with the here and now, we can begin to see the present with an unobstructed lens, free of past grievances or catastrophic future events.

Anxiety is, above all, over-attention to worries and under-attention to problem-solving. Choose to do differently next time you find yourself falling into habitual practices that leave you stressed out and sleep-deprived.

Copyright 2017 Linda Esposito, LCSW