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The Richness of Real Life

I’m learning to live outside my head, but it’s a very slow process. It’s also the exact opposite of what I’ve done throughout my 70-year life. Since I was old enough to perseverate over every little thing, I’ve been doing it. Granted, I came by it honestly, given the level of nervous energy and chaos in my family, but it became a way of life before I’d seriously tried any other approach. Fretting has always been such a way of life for me that I just saw it as how humans function. When I’ve encountered easy-going people—like Jodi—I’ve always just thought that it’s a lot easier to be them than it is to be me.

All of this was before I realized that a lot of my angst and worry is habit and defense, and that it isn’t the only method available to me for navigating the world. Even writing that sentence scares me a little, given the steadfast way I’ve held onto worrying as my primary life tool. But, I’m a person who has quit both smoking (nearly 50 years ago) and drinking (10 years ago). If I can change those habits, I’m relatively sure I can figure out an easier way to manage my anxiety than constant torment.

Overall, I feel calmer, less exhausted, and more connected to the real, simple things in my life.

So, I’ve been trying a few techniques I learned in those earlier habit-changing efforts. When I quit smoking, I did it by going to a smoking cessation class for five evenings in a row. During those meetings, they gave us all kinds of techniques and ideas, but the one that stuck with me was to “give it a minute.” Literally, they suggested looking at the clock and waiting a full minute when we felt like having a cigarette. If that didn’t work, they said, wait one more minute. It turns out the first minute was so effective, I never had to get to the second one. By the time the initial 60 seconds had passed, so had my desire for a cigarette. It wasn’t the only way I was able to quit, but it helped tremendously, one cigarette at a time.

Almost 40 years later, in the year I turned 60, I figured I’d spent plenty of years negotiating with myself about drinking, so I decided to quit that, too. Someone I knew who had also stopped drinking suggested creating a ritual to replace the one that involved a glass of chardonnay (or three) after work. I switched to Fresca in a wine glass and it actually helped to soften the process. Now, a decade later, I’m thinking about what those two pieces of advice have in common and why they helped me kick those two habits. The most obvious behavior in both is being conscious and paying attention. Instead of just plowing forward with long-held routines, I practiced being aware of what was going on and consciously trying something else.

Lately, I’ve been practicing doing the same thing with my busy brain. When I start down the road of, “Oh my gosh, what if ...?" as much as I am leaning toward going all the way there, I've been intentionally stopping myself and doing something else instead. Rather than getting on the speeding train to Anxiety Land, I’m paying attention to real things that are right in front of me—Jodi, the dogs, my writing, the soft light in my backyard on these late summer afternoons. The fact that I have to willfully invoke this new behavior at least 46 times a day reminds me of how much of a habit this is, but it’s actually working. Overall, I feel calmer, less exhausted, and more connected to the real, simple things in my life.

But just like when I was stopping smoking and drinking, I have to remind myself every day that this is something I want and that I am choosing. At three days short of 70, I really don’t want to spend the rest of my life worrying about things that may or may not ever occur. I’d rather feel more at peace inside myself and stronger in my resolve to be present in the moment. I’m grateful to be finding that the rewards are rich and promising, and that real life is about 80 times more interesting than any hackneyed drama I can create in my mind.


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