One of my biggest tricks that changed my ability to get through times of emotional distress wasn’t anything that you’d think. It wasn’t meditation or getting all zen or praying. I mean, all three of those are tools in my arsenal. But I had to start at a more preschool level than that.
Specifically, it was some comment on the show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which I really loved in the first couple seasons especially (after which I think it seems like they’re trying too hard, not that my opinions matter.) For those who don’t know the story, Kimmy was trapped in a bunker with three other women for like 15 years, held captive by some guy (hilariously played by Jon Hamm, one of my favorite actors) who was trying to create his own doomsday cult. The women in the bunker had to turn this crank to create power. Kimmy said the way she got through the time in the bunker was focusing on turning that crank, because you can handle anything for 10 seconds at a time.
It actually works. She teaches it as a technique to someone else going through a divorce. It’s really an excellent way to get through moments where your feelings are too intense to handle. Just focus on getting through the next ten seconds, even if it’s just counting to ten and then starting over.
The biggest part of the way I’ve changed in the past year is realizing that my reactions are under my control. I still have a ways to go because it’s a learning process, not something where it’s instantly all better. While I was never the kind of person who threw dishes when I was angry or actually resorted to self-harm, I had a tendency to go from totally calm to “omg we’re totally screwed” in about five seconds, before I even had all the details.
Mostly what I’m learning is that slowing my reactions to events is the bridge until everything becomes okay. Because eventually, everything is always okay in the end. You usually can’t predict exactly how things will work out, which is the maddening part (especially if you have the illusion that controlling every detail will make you feel safe from your anxiety, which I do.)
Yet even in some of the scariest times in my life, when I had the most potential to lose everything, I still made it through. When my husband was unemployed for 10 months, I was in school and only had a couple small freelance gigs, there was NO WAY we were surviving that if you looked at the numbers on paper. Not with three kids to feed and a house to pay for and high utilities. I still don’t know how we made it. And even though that caused me a lot of anxiety that created some pretty deep scars, we still got through it.
Now I can go through some really scary things (like my MS getting much worse and not being able to work full-time) and my anxiety is much lower. I do find that if I’m around people who are griping a lot about their problems, I am not yet strong enough not to join in. I will still fall back into that anxiety trap if I’m not vigilant, and anxiety tends to be self-perpetuating. The more you let yourself feel it, the easier it is to go there again.
But what I’ve realized about that is that control isn’t what makes your anxiety go away. What makes your anxiety go away is the confidence that you’ll get through whatever comes up, that it really will all be okay. I think that’s what they mean by the phrase “walking by faith, not by sight.” You’re stepping forward even though you can’t see what’s ahead of you, knowing that a path will appear where there seems to be none.
The trick is to calm yourself when you can’t see what’s ahead. You just have to get through the fear and uncertainty, ten seconds at a time.