Friday, September 17, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 18, 2021 - The Exit Ramp

When stuck in a cycle of rumination, how do we find an exit ramp? Sometimes I get really stuck in my thoughts. I, like many people, have a tendency to trap myself in little emotional spin cycles that feel as long to end as if I were standing in front of the washing machine willing it to finish spinning already. 

Knowing that I’m not alone, I ask the question on behalf of us all: How the heck do we manage to just chill out once in a while instead of letting things get to us? Where is the peace? And why isn't it available on demand?

Those of us who make a point to study spiritual practices have a tendency to get even more frustrated with ourselves, thinking we should be better at this kind of thing than we are. But added perspective doesn’t always mean added results. 

It’s a source of frustration for me because when something gets under my skin, I have a tendency to talk to myself a lot. I continually refine my arguments against the person who miffed me. Out loud. I do it for several sentences before I realize I’m doing it and I’ve always wondered just how many people out there have seen me talking to myself. 

The advent of speakerphone technology in cars has made this somewhat less of a concern. Hopefully, it makes me appear as if I’m having an actual conversation with a real person. Unfortunately, I’m not always in my car when I’m doing it. 

If I’m going to be dispensing advice here on how to achieve an exit ramp, I have to recognize that I’m asking this advice for myself as well. And that it will be just as difficult for me to follow as anyone else. But humans are always meta-aspirational, even without merit or precedent. Hope springs eternal.

The first bit of armchair advice that pops into my head is that if we want to change our feelings, we need to change our thoughts. Which of course is very easy to say at this moment when I’m not actively making mashed potatoes in my head. But I have a suspicion that the advice is true nonetheless.

I’m sure there are all kinds of suggestions about how to constantly remind ourselves that we are responsible for the thoughts we’re having. From yellow sticky paper to strings on fingers, and even apps on our phones, there are myriad ways of tapping ourselves a reminder. I wouldn’t know if they actually work, because even though I’ve recommended them, even in this very column, I’ve never successfully managed to do it myself. 

Is good advice still good advice even if we who shell it are bad at following it? Every medical professional I know is very challenged when being asked to follow the same medical advice for themselves that they give to others. Religious professionals are no different.

Another idea which comes to me is about building resilience in the first place. And this I manage to actually do on occasion. I go to the woods. I find other ways to spend time alone and recharge. I have always liked my reflective time, so it’s easy for me to not forget it. 

But clearly, building resilience isn’t quite enough or else I wouldn’t ruminate so much, right? I suppose I can hear an answer that says, “But how do you know it wouldn’t be worse if not for your time spent in nature?” Since that’s impossible to know, I will optimistically assume it to be the case.

I’m quite scientifically certain, however, that regular exercise also builds emotional resiliency. It’s that I don’t appear to be emotionally certain which makes exercise a struggle. The science is there, but it’s not always good at motivating me.

My husband has an excellent tactic that has actually changed how his brain is wired around a subject. 

He used to have pronounced road rage. Not to the point of physical altercation, but definitely on the level of screaming and colorful gesticulations. 

A therapist one suggested to him that he humble and ground himself away from his reflexive rage thinking by subtly asking himself “who do you think you are anyway?” At that point, he flashes back to the old Imperial Margarine commercials from decades ago where just tasting their product would make you feel like a crowned emperor. The thought of a crown popping onto his head and scepter into his hand along with the little trumpet fanfare which accompanied it would make him laugh. It changed his mind, literally. 

He never feels road rage now. He found an exit ramp. And now that I think about it, I realize his exit ramp also built resiliency at the same time.

So it’s definitely possible. Some have managed to crack the code. Jamie can’t be the only one. 

I think it’s interesting that the secret might be in the fact that his mental trick helped more permanently rewire his brain at the same time as it calmed down the immediate reaction. Are there other exit ramps out there for us that manage to do these both at the same time? Is that the real way out?

My time spent forest-bathing definitely builds resilience. But am I not taking advantage of the possibility that I could use the forest as a way of reducing my knee-jerk reactions and hours-long ruminations over hurt feelings as well?

Perhaps the forest works better if I not just observe it, but memorize it? Maybe I can store it for later when I can’t manage to derail my mind from something. I’m going to try it tomorrow. I might let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, consider finding little mental tricks that accomplish both the building of resilience (meaning actually rewire your brain through regular new ways of thinking) and calming ourselves down at the same time. 

If anything, spend more time thinking. Let thoughts just come to you. Put your phone down. Shut the TV off. We often prefer they remain on so that we don’t have to listen to our thoughts. But as Confucius said, “If you do not change the direction in which you are going, you will end up where you are headed.”

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