Worry dies hard–for worry die-hards

One of my all-time favorite movies, Defending Your Life, features Albert Brooks in “Judgment City” after his untimely death, defending his behavior during his just-ended life. A central tenet of the film is that anxiety is a given in human beings which we must all struggle to overcome. In the film, Brooks’ character will either ‘move on’ to the next level or get sent back to tackle his anxiety one more time.

Examining my own life and watching the lives of others unfold has convinced me that this is an innate truth.  Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, who I heard speak in January, talked about how our brains are conditioned in this way for survival. A prehistoric human, obliviously waltzing through the meadow picking flowers, was likely to be the victim of a sabre-toothed tiger. Snap, crack, crunch–end of that lineage. Only those worriers who were constantly wary, watching for danger around every bush, survived to reproduce. This means most of us have the worry habit pretty well locked in, after eons of reinforcement.

Face it: this habit is no longer necessary for survival. Worriers often argue that point, feeling that the energy invested in worrying does somehow protect us. We think that if we relax our brains, and don’t tune into all the negative, we may miss a chance to protect ourselves, to react in time. Proponents of positive thinking insist the opposite is true. The more we invest in looking for negative, the more it’s what we see. This is what Hanson said, too: each time we fuel that habitual worry with attention, the related brain connections are strengthened.

Time to banish this energy-draining habit–or at least reduce it’s hold. Anxiety need not be the basic human condition. My favorite tools to reduce anxiety are:

1) labeling the anxiety as just that. “It’s anxiety–it’s not real.” This is powerful for me, leading to a deep breath and letting go. Just because the habit has kicked in and the brain circuits are activated, doesn’t mean that’s TRUTH.

2) Mantras: mind vehicles. These are phrases I repeat to make NEW brain connections that eventually will override the old habits. You may have your own; here’s the latest that’s really speaking to me:

Fear is a down payment on a debt you may not owe.

I detest paying good money for something I’ve not yet received and that may never even be delivered. These words have been a great reminder, as a way to activate the idea behind that little charm on my key ring to “free your mind from worries.”

A daily injection of levity

I’ve been driving around town with the biggest smile on my face, often laughing out loud. Given recent and ongoing stresses (in spite of my training, I’m not immune), it suddenly dawned on me how funny–and surprising–this was. The secret? I have a new car, a pleasant boost in itself. But the icing on the VW cake is satellite radio–and I’ve just discovered the comedy channels. Truly fun and funny stuff, easing the cruising (or inching) through traffic. My passenger and I were both doubled over the other day, tears streaming down our faces.

Most of us know that laughter does indeed make us feel better. Laughing may help the pituitary gland release its version of endorphins, much like a runner’s high. For all the multi-taskers reading this, however, here’s another fact to motivate you. Recent research by Lee Berk and colleagues showed that laughing affected hormones which regulate appetite. Study participants who watched a serious film clip had no change in these hormones, while those who watched a funny film clip had an increase in leptin, the hormone that signals the body that hunger is satisfied. The researchers concluded that laughter may regulate hunger as well as exercise.

So laughing is good for us–and sharing it with others is even better, allowing us to connect emotionally. No need to go buy yourself a new car, or even purchase/subscribe to satellite radio. Comedy routines can be downloaded from iTunes and/or listened to on CD. Libraries have comedy CDs for check-out, so toss a few into the pile of books next time you’re at story hour. No need to worry about the language with the little ones in the car, either–plenty of G-rated offerings, including “Laugh USA” if you do have satellite radio.

Have favorite jokes or websites, comedy routines or films you want to share? My favorite online sites are the LOLcats and SomeEcards–especially the parenting category. I’d love to have you share yoursere!

Time magazine says: over-parenting has run its course. Hallelujah.

There’s tyranny in 21st century parenthood. It begins with a mandate to sing, talk, rattle and roll with your new baby in every waking moment –at least if you want your baby to achieve her full potential. Read one article in any glossy magazine for moms, and you’re fully tuned into how your shoulders bear the responsibility (and imbedded anxiety) for that product, your child.

For two decades, I’ve watched earnest new moms agonize about missing even one teensy teachable moment, one drop of quality time. We fear we’re dropping the brain development ball if we go to the bathroom alone. I see the relief on tired faces when I explain that babies are little scientists. Everything in an infant’s world is stimulating. Babies need to learn to amuse themselves–by exploring a rattle in hand or staring at dark fan blades against white ceiling. To be constantly in a child’s face talking, playing, teaching deprives the child of exploring the world at his own pace. With mommy, nanny, or grandma always there to amuse, what happens when the child gets to school? The kindergarten teacher despises her.

Extend this push for over-the-top parenting –designed to enhance development, ensure safety, engineer kids’ happiness –to childhood overall? Birthday party limousines for six year olds, tag banned in schoolyards, mothers who drive two hours to campus for laundry duty have been the result. Extreme parenting has become the cultural standard and morphed into a lava flow of expectations on moms (and dads).

Finally, enough really seems to be enough.

 

When Time says it’s so, it must be so. (http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1940395,00.html) Back-up for what I’ve been preaching for years. This is a call for sanity. This is recognition that, while this nation was founded upon the concept of a continually better life, the endless quest for “more, better, all” is not sustainable. The current recession may have been the unfortunate impetus — dollars for Russian lessons and bounce house birthday parties evaporate in the face of record unemployment rates. A silver lining for families is the permission to drop the parental overdoing.

Time’s article offered this concrete remedy: “let it go.” Over-parenting is driven by anxiety: Will my child turn out okay? Can my child compete? Will my child grow up safely? Until women learn to tackle the underlying absolute thinking that fuels this anxiety, it’s hard, as Gibbs’ article says, to shut off our inner helicopter parent and simply let go. We need new thinking habits. Forget the all-or-nothing thinking, e.g. that our kids will be stellar performers — or flop as quickly as Jay Leno in prime time. Hardly any single advantage or activity will make or break your child’s success in life.

The goal of this blog is to call attention to the unrealistic expectations –in our heads, in society — for mothers, and beyond that for women, And offer tools that make letting go possible. We can critically evaluate the news stories, scary reports, and competitive pull of “everyone is doing it.” We can stop the madness, practice straight thinking, compare notes and know we’re not alone. We can ask “who says” when expectations ignite the stress in us like so much gasoline on the fire.

Let’s start a conversation. I want your questions, comments, news about the pressures on women. We can design our lives in ways that work for us, rather than getting caught in a tangle of societal shoulds.