Into Every Life a Little Rain Must Fall
Most families experience some drama from time to time, and ours is no exception. The family dog eats a prescription pill bottle, pills and all; the plumbing fails; a fence falls down; termites swarm in the living room. A sudden financial reversal, a serious health issue, an emotional crisis — we’ve experienced all of these, and that was just in the last six months.
I have a dear friend that calls these dramatic interludes, even when they are fairly significant life-changing events, “bumps in the road.” So let me be frank: our family is facing a fairly bumpy bump in the road right now.
I usually write in this space about being a grandmother, but today I write as a parent. And as a parent, I worry a lot. All the time. With four grown children, each with their own household, I can always find something to worry about, even when there is nothing to worry about, or even when I am not the person responsible for dealing with the issue, which is usually the case.
I worry a lot, and I lose sleep. And I’ve been doing lots of both lately.
Stop What You’re Doing and Breathe
In spite of that, however, or perhaps because of it, on Thursday I packed my car full of camping equipment and food and drove 150 miles to spend the Memorial Day weekend at the Strawberry Music Festival. This festival is a family-friendly event featuring a wide range of musical acts representing all different kinds of music, including Americana, bluegrass, folk, world, and occasionally even rock. Over the many years I have spent traveling to this festival which, until a forest fire forced its relocation, was held at Camp Mather, near Yosemite, I have learned that it is a fine and mellow space in which to be. The festival organizers create a safe environment in which you can spend quality time with friends and family, enjoy delicious food (purchased or cooked by your group in your camp), listen to nearly nonstop music on the stages and in the campsites, participate in art and instrumental lessons, storytelling, games, theatricals . . . all kinds of distractions and engagements.
So there I was, sitting in a lawn chair surrounded by friendly people and tall evergreen trees, sort of listening to music but mostly listening to the worries inside my head, when the lyrics Dan Bern was singing on the stage broke through my self indulgence. They were simple enough: “Stop what you’re doing and breathe.” He repeated that line several more times until I did what he said — and for just a moment I left off worrying and took a deep breath. Then I took a second, then a third. After that, I just breathed, listening to the music, to the people around me singing along, and eventually to my own heart beating. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
There are at least three good reasons not to worry about the future. First, you can’t predict the future. Second, you can’t control the future. And, finally, even if your worst fears come to pass, the situation may not be as bad as you imagined. I know all these things, and I suspect you do too. But knowing them doesn’t keep me from staying awake long into the night, trying to work out the solution to whatever problem is troubling someone I love.
However, what I learned through that musical experience at Strawberry, and during the days that followed, was that I have more control than I thought over how and when I allow myself to fret, and I can break the cycle in several different ways.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
One way to stop worrying is to follow Dan Bern’s musical recommendation: “Just stop what you’re doing and breathe.” Breathe consciously and intentionally, paying attention to your diaphragm, your stomach, and your chest as they rise and fall. It seems very simple, but it works. Yoga breathing is good too, if you are familiar with that.
Another method is to replace the worrying with a different activity, one that uses your brain so completely that there isn’t enough brain left over to worry with. During my weekend at Strawberry I attended two watercolor workshops, and two fiddle lessons (don’t laugh). Both activities engaged my cognitive processes so effectively that for the duration of the activity and for several hours later I didn’t even think about what was bothering me. While I was painting I was looking at the sky and the trees and trying to capture what I saw on my canvas. When I was playing the fiddle, I was listening to the sound of my bow on the string and trying to match the teacher. Later in the weekend I listened to different kinds of music, spent time talking with friends, and attended a compelling storytelling session. Each of these activities halted my worrying for far longer than the duration of the activities themselves. A woman sitting next to me one evening was crocheting a blanket; I’ll bet that would work too.
What techniques have you used to break the cycle of anxiety that develops when you have a personal or family crisis? I’d love you to try some of the ideas I’ve suggested, but I’d also like to know what other methods you have used that work. If you’d be willing to share, you can do that by leaving a comment below.
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And remember to breathe!