When telling yourself to “stay calm” isn’t helping

By June 16, 2016Uncategorized
stay calm

There was a lot of silence in my childhood.

From the parents that didn’t communicate with each other.

The sibling I didn’t spend much time playing with.

To the clock ticking in the background as the four of us sat, not saying a word, for no identifiable reason.

When I reached adulthood, I made up for this silence by playing music.

Everywhere I went.

Using headphones on my Walkman, which was replaced by a Discman, then an iPod and eventually a smartphone.

I had radios in the kitchen and bathroom. Speakers in different rooms, and invested in music like my life depended on it.

My voice was loud (once being compared to a fog horn – I didn’t argue with it). I communicated my opinions unapologetically, and was happiest when everyone around me was laughing along to whatever thing we collectively found hilarious.

But the one thing that stuck with me more than anything was the memory of receiving silent treatment.

As well as not communicating well with each other, my parents were the reigning champions of Silent Treatment.

Why bother talking through what’s on your mind when you can remain quiet, give monosyllabic answers to questions, and make everyone involved feel more uncomfortable than having a mosquito in your straight jacket?

Why indeed.

So as I grew older, anything that remotely resembled silent treatment affected me.

When someone was avoiding telling me what they were really thinking, unreturned phone calls, and the daddy of ‘em all:

We need to have a word


I know we’re not just going to have one word. It’ll be a series of words strung together where you’re having a go at me and I’m sat here like a lemon feeling incredibly anxious.

Or we need to have a word was replaced with: Can we talk? and I’d still envisage that anxiety.

It happened to me recently. And took me directly back to childhood.

An acquaintance of mine sent me an email saying: Do you have five minutes to talk tomorrow?

The backstory with this acquaintance is that he reminds me a tiny bit of my dad. The harsh words. The direct responses that tiptoe to the edge of insensitivity that I now try and avoid at all costs.

Anyone else could have sent me that email and I would’ve been fine with it – but this guy? Forget it.

I had instant knots in my stomach and a slight onset of ulcers.

It wasn’t pretty.

And all because it felt like he wanted to have a word.

The conversation was eventually a pleasant one. But it did leave me with one question that reigns supreme:

What makes childhood traumas repetitive?

Even when you’ve had the therapy, and the coaching, and have closed the door to them?

When you’ve processed why they appear and what you can do to manage them better?

Why do they still affect you?

They catch you off guard.

You’re not fresh out of a discussion when you’ve dissected the last time you experienced them. You’re likely thinking about other things and aren’t armed with defence mechanisms to deal with them.

You’re vulnerable.

And so your reaction comes straight from your subconscious – your limbic brain – that urges you to either run, or stay and fight.

Since you’re vulnerable and more concerned with safety at this point, you run.

Or in my case, get knots in my stomach and wonder how I’m going to make it through the call.

Your logical brain is likely advising you to stay calm and it’ll be OK.

But the chemicals in your body are doing anything but.

Adrenalin makes you heart beat faster. It makes your hands shake. And gives you those stomach knots.

So, what does one do in a situation like this?

**pushes classes up nose and taps on clipboard**

Telling yourself to stay calm isn’t going to help.

The chemicals in your body have taken over.

You’ve been emotionally hijacked.

No amount of rational thinking will change what needs changing.

So rather than focusing on your mind, focus on your body.

Do something that pushes your body so that you literally have no energy to think about anything other than what you’re doing.

Things like:

    • Hold The Plank for five minutes
    • Do a handstand and hold it
    • Hold yourself in a squat for 20 minutes
    • Run on the spot for 20 minutes
    • Do 50 push ups

Pick one thing and commit to it. Don’t stop half way through because your mind tells you you’ve forgotten about the thing that was causing anxiety.

See the task through to the end.

And for the love of all things holy, don’t do something that’ll cause you physical harm.

The idea’s to take your mind away from the anxiety, not injure yourself.

This works because it takes the additional energy you have from the adrenaline and uses it.

The less of it you have, the fewer anxiety symptoms you have.

It’s science.

And when you’re done, you’re left with a body that feels its heartbeat and attributes it to the physical exercise you’ve just experienced, not the panic attack you were previously having.

It then allows your rational mind to look at the facts in front of you and make sense of them.

Like perhaps do you have five minutes to talk? is literally asking a question.

That is isn’t loaded with unspoken accusations or a potential onslaught of insults.

And that silence? Doesn’t always have to be filled.