Staying calm in the midst of absolute chaos

By Barbara Pierce

mindfulness“Our minds are so powerful! What we can do for ourselves is so magnificent!” said Julie Potiker of La Jolla, California.

According to the attorney-turned-mindfulness expert, we can learn to stay calm amidst the chaos that is life.

Life is full of potential stressors, from those at home, like strained communication with family members, to those in the world that sometimes catch us off guard, like an unhappy boss or a traffic jam that makes us late.

We can’t control what other people bring to the table or what the world throws at us on any given day. But we can control what we can do, Potiker explained. Her book, “Life Falls Apart, but You Don’t Have To: Mindful Methods for Staying Calm In the Midst of Chaos,” explains how we can do this.

How did an attorney become a mindfulness expert? “Parenting made me turn to this,” Potiker says. “I had three difficult kids. There was a period where they were all teenagers and they all had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder). I was a bit of a train wreck, and needed to learn tools to manage my stress. I saw a neurologist who suggested I investigate mindfulness.”

As a result, she dove head first into full-blown mindfulness training, exploring multiple avenues of study. She is eager to share what helped her.

“I was shocked when I first started doing this,” she says about what she learned. “The idea that we can rewire our brains for happiness and resilience sounds like science fiction, but it does work.”

“Our brains are wired to worry, to ruminate, to go over things in our mind in an endless loop. We make our own hell!” she said. “We cause ourselves to experience negative emotions like anxiety, fear and sadness.”

You can break that loop of negative thoughts and emotions. You can stop it and take charge. Break it with mindfulness.

Being right here, right now — mindfulness — breaks that loop. It gives your brain a break to shift into a more comfortable state of being. “Change the channel in your mind,” as Potiker describes it.

“There are many definitions of mindfulness,” she added. “To me, it’s being in the moment without judgment. Noticing what you doing when you’re doing it.”

Absorb the R.A.I.N.

To break the loop of negative emotions with mindfulness, Potiker teaches the R.A.I.N. process:

— R: Recognize that I have the emotion is the first step. Slow down and become an observer, observing your thoughts and emotions with curiosity. Notice what comes up for you. For example, “I have to give a report at work and I’m worried about it and scared.” Oh, that’s anxiety I’m feeling.” The minute you label it, you’re calming your brain.

This is the heart of what mindfulness is all about. It takes practice, but pretty soon you will be able to tune into your body and notice what’s happening inside you.

— A: Allow that emotion to be there. Not all day, just for now. Don’t judge or criticize yourself for it.

— I: Investigate gently what is going on. “Of course, I’m nervous; I’m giving a talk.”

— N: Nourish yourself. Ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” Tell yourself what you would tell a friend: “You know this stuff! You’ve got this! If you screw up, so what, everybody screws up now and then!” Be your own best friend.

— Consider offering yourself a gentle soothing touch: “Place your hands where you find them most soothing. This regulates the stress hormones that flood us when we are upset. We do this to others; we hug our kids, hold our partner’s hand, and pet our dog. My soothing touch is to put my hand on my heart. Try different spots on yourself and see what works best for you,” said Potiker.

Other suggestions from Potiker on staying calm:

• Ground yourself. Slow everything down by dropping your attention to the soles of your feet. Whether you’re sitting at your desk, or standing, concentrate on the soles of your feet, just for several seconds. It sounds simplistic, she added, but it does work to calm you down.

• Or, concentrate on your breathing. Breathe in for four counts and exhale for six or eight. If your exhale is longer than your inhale, your blood pressure goes down, and you relax.

These things may not work so well when you first try them. All you have to do is practice and do it until it becomes the default.

And Potiker reminds us that when you’re having a positive experience, don’t let it go by too quickly. Take time to absorb it. For example, you see a beautiful sunset. Don’t just note it and quickly pass on to the next thing, but take a few minutes to let it enrich you. Say, “Wow, look at all those beautiful colors.” Stretch out the positive experience.

All it takes is practice.