Here’s what I’ve learned this week: mindfulness is all well and good, unless you’re 11, 14, or 16, and your amygdala is (age-appropriately) on the fritz. Don’t get me wrong: I love that my kids have even been introduced to the idea of mindfulness, especially since when I was their age, the closest thing we got to mental health awareness came in the form of gymnasium assemblies featuring pre-packaged “Just Say No” programs. And After School Specials. Oh, the After School Specials…
Anyway, as thrilled as I am that we live in a world where the mental health conversation is finally beginning to see the light of day, most of us who’ve already been fighting the good fight for our sanity for, oh, I don’t know, three decades or so, can tell you that it’s one thing to know how to stay on an even keel; it’s another thing entirely to convince your mind to release its death grip on its favorite slobbery, grisly chew toys.
I bring all this up in the context writing work because most of the time when I luck into being able to actually give my kids some good advice in the moment, I simultaneously realize that I could use the advice myself. Take my 11-year-old as an example. He’s in this terrible loop of having let a few tears fall at school, which led him to naturally believe that EVERYBODY noticed and EVERYBODY thinks he’s a baby, which makes him anxious about crying at school, which makes him start crying at school. Oof.
Let me just pause to say right here and now that I couldn’t be prouder that I’m raising a white male to be vulnerable and willing to articulate some of his more difficult feelings. Still, as those of us who were born ever-so-slightly-nervous and might have had a life experience or two that launched those nervous tendencies into the stratosphere, I know that ongoing anxiety is no picnic. What’s more, I also know that anxiety is a self-enforcing behavior; the more anxious we tend to be, the more likely we will react anxiously, and so the vicious circle chases its own tail.
But thanks to the fact that my 11-year-old is my third child, I remembered something that eventually worked for my first. Here’s what I told him: For most of human history, our anxiety has learned to command our attention because it usually arose when our lives were actually in danger. So while anxiety can feel like a shouty, inescapable mental bully, it evolved to assert itself that way because the messages our minds needed to give us to run when a lion appeared had to be much more urgent than the ones it gave us when a lovely field of clover might have presented itself as a nice place to lie down and take a nap. So while it may feel like your anxiety is the most important thing in the world to listen to, it’s actually just speaking in the voice it was given. And just as we know that people who are shouty bullies have nothing more important to say than people who aren’t, anxiety doesn’t actually need as much of your attention as it demands. You can turn the volume down on it.
Now my kid is pretty smart, and he’s been around the block more than once with his mother’s analogies. “I can’t turn the volume down,” he insisted right away, “that’s impossible.”
Yes, it can feel that way. But his mistake lies in thinking that he needs to know how to turn the volume down all the way, when life has taught me that even being able to turn the volume down a little can shift the balance away from being ruled by anxiety to learning how to live with it.
This has been so true in my work. When I sit down to write, I necessarily have to open the floodgates to the less tame aspects of my mind. And when I do, LOTS of beasties want to come walking through. This can be enormously defeating, but it doesn’t have to be. The trick, I find, is not to expect them to go away. You just do what you can to work around them. Throw them a steak or two while you sneak around behind their backs. Find some music that puts them to sleep, or white noise. For some reason, mine hate recordings of nature sounds, particularly rain. They must be tropical beasties. The point is that even if you light on a way to get them to roar at your knees instead of straight into your ear, you might just free yourself up enough to shift your focus toward something you care about. And even if you can only steal a few minutes to tend to the voices in your head that really matter to you, you will strengthen them. And their strength, being substantive and meaningful and sustaining, is all you need to move forward, with or without the shouting matches in the background.
Art: The Beast of Hollow Mountain, photographer unknown