I’m a spinner, a speeder, a thought racer. (Yes, I know it doesn’t help. I know rocking chairs and hamster wheels go nowhere. I know worrying is pointless.) Under the right conditions, the inside of my brain is like a dusty attic filled with hysterical cats zooming in all directions, climbing the walls, knocking over piles of junk, filling the air with dust and yowls. Chaos. Destruction. I call it speeding. I call it anxiety. The world calls it racing thoughts.
Whatever we call it, it’s a miserable state of mind, and a common one.
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Herding cats, as any cat lover will tell you, never works. Sheep, maybe. Cows. But not cats.
However, at times familiar life goes off the rails in such varied, complex, and unforeseen ways I find myself once again herding cats, usually during the hours I need to be sleeping, though sometimes those hours bleed over into days when I’m supposed to be focusing. On something productive or something relaxing or something. But all I’ve got are catapulting (pun intended) thoughts and emotions racing around in my brain.
Not long ago, before the start of my current cat rodeo, I read somewhere (probably Substack) about The Rule of 9s. I’ve since gone back to look for it, but I can’t find the original source. Anyway, I didn’t come up with it myself. I wish I had.
The Rule of 9s is a tool used to identify what really matters. Or, if you like to look at things bass-ackwards, like me, what really doesn’t matter.
This morning, for example. I could garden, work on business at my desk, write, or make a Spotify playlist. I have just under two hours at my disposal before I head off to work.
I have a lot of desk business just now as my brother and I (mostly my brother) wind up my recently deceased mother’s estate and deal with our inheritance. By inheritance, I mean not just assets, but the inevitable emotional inheritance we all receive from our families of origin. What I’ve heard is true. When a parent dies, we cannot be prepared for the ways it changes us and how uncomfortable some of that change is.
My metaphorical cats – these mixed up thoughts and feelings — pull me in different directions at the same time. Everything feels overwhelming right now. It’s irritating. Two items on my grocery list and I’m overwhelmed. Now and then I have a few minutes free from the inundation, but I get a call, a text, another document to sign, and I’m overwhelmed again.
Fortunately, I just learned The Rule of 9s.
So, the option of gardening. It’s hot outside. Really, really hot and humid. Just when the weather should be getting crisper and cooler, a heat wave has arrived. It will ease in the next couple of days, but it’s brought a resurgence of mosquitoes and it’s not fun to be outside. So, no garden this morning. I’ll wait for cooler weather. Is that a crisis?
Photo by Morgan Sessions on Unsplash
Will gardening or not gardening matter in 9 seconds? In 9 minutes? In 9 hours? In 9 days? In 9 months? It might start to matter then, because I’ll be making spring plans and whatever progress I make this fall will affect those plans. But it’s clearly not urgent. I won’t remember choosing or not choosing gardening today.
Business at my desk. I’ve already done some of that this morning. Balanced the checkbook. Looked for a document I’m waiting on from my bank (not there yet). Made some notes. Did some planning. Considered options. I have money in my account. All the bills are paid. I don’t need to spend anything today. Will taking care of more business or not taking care of more business matter in 9 seconds? Nine minutes? Nine hours? Nine days? It might start to matter at that point, as one thing leads to another as we wade through this process. If I stay on top of tasks, step by step, I know I’ll eventually come out of the tunnel with effective systems in place that work for me and respect my goals and values. Tempting to start herding the cats quivering on my desk, but I only have two hours and nothing is urgent.
Make a Spotify playlist. I may shortly have an opportunity to bring a dance program to the community. I’ve tried several times in years past without success, but I haven’t given up hope. Now that I’m on Spotify (though I have misgivings about how platforms like this fail to support artists), I wanted to get a few of my dance playlists put together. I have them burned onto CDs and in iTunes, but not on Spotify. However, I don’t have any solid dates for dance now. It’s all in the planning stages. At some point it will matter, but not right now.
Writing. It’s my weekend to publish on Harvesting Stones. I don’t have to. It’s not required. But I’d like to, if for no other reason than it’s my usual routine, a stepping stone in the current chaos, and it comforts me to be doing something normal. Not to mention how much I enjoy it. Hard to think about focusing on it, though. All those cats whizzing around …
Will writing or not writing matter in 9 seconds? Nine minutes? Nine hours? Nine days? It won’t matter to the world, but it matters to me. It will matter to me in two days, when Saturday morning comes and I either do or do not have a rough draft I’m happy with.
So I’m writing. And while I’m doing that, miraculously, the other cats settle down. Tired, I guess. Maybe they’ll curl up in the chaos they’ve wrought and sleep a while. Sleep is good.
As I live my life and listen to the inside of my head, especially the anxiety, the fear, the resistance, the catastrophizing, I pull out The Rule of 9s and apply it. Will this matter in 9 seconds? In other words, will I die in 9 seconds if I don’t do whatever-it-is or figure it out, completely and perfectly? How about in 9 hours? (Have you ever noticed how crazy your nighttime I-can’t-sleep thoughts are in the light of day?) In 9 days will I even remember whatever feels stressful this minute? Will the fearful thing I can imagine happening be important in 9 weeks? In 9 months? In 9 years?
The Rule of 9s requires I slow down and think. The questions give me perspective, help me with a reality check. I stop reacting and remember my power to choose. I decide what’s more important than my peace of mind (not much). Hysteria is contagious; so is calm.
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Applying The Rule of 9s settles the cats right down. One or two may still zoom, because cats are contrary like that, but the chaos diminishes as I become intentional and mindful. I can find some focus, at least for a few minutes. I know what to do next, in the next 9 seconds, anyway. The next 9 years can take care of themselves.
What are your strategies for pulling yourself out of racing thoughts and anxiety loops?
How do you choose priorities?
Is your experience one of choice in life, or one of reaction and compulsion?
Share something ridiculous that’s kept you up at night.
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I’m continuing to play with blind journaling. It’s most useful when I notice physical and emotional signs of anxiety and speeding but am not sure what’s triggered them. Taking off my glasses, turning off the light (I journal early in the morning while it’s still dark), and concentrating on feeling out the roots of my symptoms leads me to the source of my distress. Doing this when I first notice symptoms interrupts the spiral of anxiety that might otherwise follow and increase during the day.
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It works much better than distraction, like playing solitaire, which I’m still refraining from doing.
I think it will also be a great tool for concentrated writing time when I want to explore a prompt or address a specific scene or exchange of dialog.
I’ve been wondering this week how things might change if we were blind. All of us. A blind world.
A significant part of our brain is tied to interpreting the endless barrage of information coming through our eyes. Not only does life spool before us every waking hour, we add unmeasurable visual information as we look at our screens and consume media.
I notice how much simpler, less stimulating, and less distracting life is when I shut my eyes. There is a cool, spacious space between sleep and eyes open. It’s quiet in that space. I’ve written about visual noise before, which I’m particularly sensitive to. When I close my eyes, I immediately feel quieter. My attention is not demanded by visual input. I can come into presence with myself more easily. No surprise we meditate with our eyes closed.
My favorite sense is touch. Vision can lie, as can words we hear, but touch is honest. I can read pain in the way a friend holds her body, in her skin color, in a thousand subtle nonverbal visual signs if I pay attention, but touch, oh, touch gives me a flood of information that cannot be faked or hidden. When I practice healing touch, I often do it with my eyes closed. As a lover, I prefer no visual input, not because I’m hiding or uncomfortable with intimacy, but because touch is for me the most powerful and ecstatic love language. Readers of my fiction will see that reflected clearly in my writing.
It is through touch I have communicated my love and affection for animals; for children, lovers, and friends; for the natural world. My empathy and compassion flower with touch, as do tolerance and respect. In touch, in breath, in heartbeat, we are all connected. Flesh over bone. Hair. The landscape of a living body. Texture of stone, wood, water, earth, ice, plant.
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash
Though blind, we would still hear. We could speak and listen. How uncluttered would our hearing be if we couldn’t see who we were speaking to, and if they couldn’t see us? No more written social media. No more selfies and digitally altered pics. No more dating profiles with pics. We’d be forced to actually speak to one another, whether on the phone or face to face. I suppose speech recognition AI would immediately fill this gap, though. No emojis – we’d have to communicate our feelings in real words. Barring AI, our jokes would sound like jokes. Our scorn would sound like scorn. Our sympathy would sound like sympathy. Our speech patterns and intonation would convey meaning in a way words on a screen never can.
It would be a world in which guns were useless.
We would be unable to see clothing, MAGA hats, skin color, tattoos, piercings, or anything else to which we attach sweeping generalizations or bigotry. We could assess only voice, touch, scent.
Scent is so much subtler than vision we often ignore it, but this sense can give us lots of information. We might smell of food, alcohol, cigarettes, cannabis, unwashed skin and clothes, urine or feces, sweat, sex. Sometimes sickness has a smell. Poor dental hygiene has a smell. A clean, healthy, vigorous person smells different than a dirty, ailing person. Smell, like touch, doesn’t lie. A closet drinker or smoker would be obvious, in spite of their words of denial. Ironically, without vision much of our cover would be blown.
If the whole of humanity was struck blind, capitalism as we practice it would come to an end. We would no longer be bombarded with images of products or people (or people as products). We would no longer compare houses, cars, things, body shapes, eye colors, hair colors. Most of the ways we proclaim our identity to the world would be swept away. Many of our perceived differences would literally vanish. We would no longer be burdened with visual standards of ugliness or beauty. In one stroke we would be pared down to our shared humanity: our choices, our behavior, our ability to cooperate and socialize with others, our skills, our integrity, our feelings. Visual pretense and presentation would no longer shield us; we would cease to be manipulated and our power to manipulate others would diminish significantly.
Photo by Frank Okay on Unsplash
No more NFT trading cards.
What a shame.
As I work with this exercise of imagination, I feel sad. Vision is such a miraculous gift, and beauty so nourishing. But we don’t always use it as a gift. We use it as a tool with which to make money, with which to hurt others, and with which to hurt ourselves. Most of us take our visual-oriented culture for granted and never give it a thought at all.
I also feel afraid. Our visual sense is so chaotic, so inexorable and powerful; we rely on it for most of our choices and beliefs. But vision lies. Increasingly, it misleads. AI is becoming more effective. Deep fakes are harder to spot. Advertising is ever-more powerful. And we nestle more and more deeply into the matrix, seduced and shackled to the surface of things, the presentation.
What would it be like if the world was blind? Would we then access deeper levels of our shared humanity and connection to one another?
Imagine My Surprise
Imagine my surprise,
sitting a full hour
in silent and irremediable
fear of the world,
to find the body
its own fear the instant
it opened and placed
those unassuming hands
on life’s enduring pain,
and the world for one
closed its terrifying eyes
“This is my body, I am found.”
On a personal note, I’ve decided to transition to posting on Harvesting Stones biweekly rather than weekly going forward. I’ll continue to serial publish on Substack weekly.
What is your favorite sense? Why?
What sensory input do you trust the most?
How would you feel about your body if you had never seen yourself?
How would you feel about your body if you had never seen another’s?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
Last week I wrote about the traumatic response of fawn, as described by Pete Walker, author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. This week I’m tackling another of my strongest trauma responses, that of flight.
Flight, or fleeing, is a natural response to threat or danger. It’s an instinctive life-saving behavior. However, we’re not physiologically made to live in a constant state of flight. It exhausts our adrenal glands, our immune systems, and our psyches. I believe it’s at the root of much disease and chronic pain. Sadly, we reward people for operating out of this particular trauma response by calling them “productive,” by which we mean “making money” or “benefitting me in some way with their work.”
Flight, like fawning, encompasses several behaviors I’ve struggled with all my life and already written about in this blog.
Flight becomes a trauma response when we are unable to flee from chronic threat. If we cannot physically escape, we default to mental and emotional escape by dissociating or distracting ourselves with activity. We push ourselves without mercy into workaholism, extreme stimulation, and chronic anxiety. We micromanage everyone around us, trying to maintain some sense of safety and control. We cannot sit still or relax without feeling panicked. We produce, and produce, and produce. If we’re not producing we feel empty, worthless, and scared.
We lose our ability to be. All we know is how to do.
There’s nothing wrong with achievement, but we need more than that to be healthy and happy. Of course, capitalism depends on achievement, and as consumers we are romanced with uncountable ways to be more productive, better at multitasking, and faster workers, not so we have more time to relax, rest, and play, but so we have more time to produce, multitask, and work!
Hard workers and super achievers are rewarded in the workplace with paychecks, promotions, bonuses, good references, and recognition. We are not culturally rewarded for taking sabbaticals, sick days, disability leave, family leave, or vacation days.
Here are some of the ways flight behavior shows up in me:
Chronic physical tension and pain.
Working without pausing for rest or food.
Refusing to accept physical limitations of pain or illness, thereby ensuring more pain and illness.
Remember that trauma response behaviors are on a continuum. Every day I look at a graphic from Pete Walker’s website depicting the four trauma responses at their most polarized and destructive as well as healthier, less extreme options.
For example, fleeing in blind panic has become a deeply ingrained behavior pattern for me. I feel panicked, but there is no threat, not here, not now. I’m safe. I don’t need to run away from anything. Yet the smallest trigger produces a flood of adrenaline that demands I flee. If I don’t obey the compulsion, I have a panic attack, which is extremely mortifying when I’m in public.
I counteract this old trauma response by practicing disengagement and healthy retreat. Disengagement means, instead of running like a panicked rabbit, I excuse myself with dignity from situations in which I feel uncomfortable and walk (not run!) away. I don’t pick up poisoned bait. I don’t accept an invitation to have conflict. I create some distance between myself and the trigger. I lay down a boundary. I say no.
I’ve written about healthy retreat in my post on quitting. Sometimes a healthy retreat is the best choice we can make for ourselves, no matter how uncomfortable, frightening, or even devastating it can be. Unfortunately, we are often unsupported in this choice. When we understand we’re in the wrong job, the wrong relationship, or the wrong place, we have a right to choose a healthy retreat. We don’t need to drop an atomic bomb as we leave, but it’s okay to change our mind, make a mistake, outgrow a situation, or simply realize things aren’t working out for us where we are.
I’ve been challenging what I now identify as my flight response for some time. I developed a meditation practice. I developed an exercise practice and then began working with a personal trainer to ensure I wasn’t pushing myself too hard (I was). I get regular dental care and wear a mouth guard at night. I eat regularly, no matter how busy or stressed I feel. I’ve slowed down. I no longer strive for perfection. I make it a point to relax, laugh, play, and take breaks. I do creative work every day. Because I’ve learned to relax during the day, I sleep much better at night, and I’m careful about my sleep hygiene. I stopped making to-do lists and no longer engage in schedule shaming myself or anyone else. If I feel tired, ill, or just plain uninspired, I rest.
The funny thing is, I’m more productive now than I’ve ever been in my life before. I’m also far less exhausted, much healthier, and happier. These trauma responses have had enormous power over me, but recognizing them, naming them, and understanding where they come from have reduced them to habits I can break. And I’m breaking them.
When we teach Parent and Child swim classes, most of what we teach is for the parents. Holds, encouragement, how to demonstrate skills, the importance of trust, safety, and initiating lots of play are among the highlights. One of the things we talk about is the “Terrible Toos.” Too far. Too many repetitions. Too tired. Too scared. Too hot or cold. Too hungry. Too thirsty. Too much sun. All of these impact a child’s ability to learn.
I begin lessons with a lesson plan, but I’ve worked with children all my life, and I know one never knows how a session will go. Every time is different. One day they’ve napped, and another day they haven’t. One day they have a tooth coming in, or they’ve just had a doctor’s appointment, or they’ve been to school. Sometimes they’re getting sick. Sometimes they’ve just gotten a new puppy.
Sometimes they’re up for learning, and sometimes they’re not. When they’re not, I need to set aside my agenda and work with where the child is. It’s surprising, how many skills we can practice during 30 minutes of “play!”
Recently I read this article about figuring out what is enough from Becoming Minimalist, and it made me think about the “Terrible Toos.” We know so much about more, and so little about too much and enough.
Enough. As much or as many as required for satisfaction.
There’s a problematic definition! Satisfaction is entirely subjective. We are taught from babyhood to consume, to want, to desire more. Our culture is structured around appeals to our longing for belonging, connection, and more than we have. More clothes. More food. More friends. More tech. More money.
I wonder how many people know what enduring satisfaction feels like.
Enough is a boundary. It’s a destination. It’s power.
Unlimited More is a black hole.
Enough is reality.
Unlimited More is addiction, or perfectionism, or pleasing. It never ends. It never stops. It’s never satisfied. It’s based on the fantasy that if only we had more _______, our lives would be better. If we were only more ________, we would be loved.
Enough is a choice to say yes or no. No, I don’t need that. No, I don’t want that. No, I have enough.
Unlimited More is not a choice. It’s yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes, I need more.
My first post on this blog was about pleasing people. It surprised me, how easy it was to break that habit, once I made up my mind. I still slip into the old pattern of pleasing when I’m not paying attention, but I can even smile now (sometimes) when people express outrage because I Failed To Please. It’s not my job to live up to any expectations but my own.
Ah, there’s the rub. My own expectations, internalized from years of external expectations, can be crippling.
Along with the rest of the country, we are sweltering here in Maine, with heat indices over 100 degrees and the big three H’s: haze, heat, and humidity. Relief is on the way, but right now the only sensible thing to do is hole up with my window AC unit rattling and clunking, shut the blinds, and stay quiet.
Impossible to sleep without AC in my attic, with the temperature and humidity running neck-in-neck. I’m grateful for the cooling unit, and it’s noisy. I learned when I moved to Maine from Colorado the combination of cooled air and high humidity confuse the body. I need a sheet to protect myself from the blowing cool air. But the instant I pull up the sheet, I start gently steaming in my damp bed. Sheet on. Sheet off. Sheet on. Sheet off. Whirr … clunk … whirr … roar … clunk … whirr … goes the cycling air conditioner.
I lay awake during the night, tossing and turning and thinking about all the things I needed to do today, all the things I didn’t do yesterday, and how, and why, and how quickly, and in what order. I thought about carrying dishwater to the garden and prepping for this week’s swim lessons. I thought about the books I’m writing, my new website, this week’s blog post, and housework. I thought about the gardening I’m not finding time to do, switching from 5-lb to 3-lb hand weights and doing more reps, and the challenges my friends face in their private lives.
I felt fear, and I thought fearful thoughts.
I know much of what drives me is fear. It occurred to me my response to fear feels exactly like my cringing, cowering, I’ll-show-you-my-belly-and-be-a-good-dog-if-you’ll-only-love-me people pleasing.
I’ve never noticed that before.
Much of my behavior is unconsciously driven by a desire to propitiate fear. Speeding, perfectionism, toxic positivity, trying well past the point I should have turned away, finishing tasks quickly rather than well, judging my worth in terms of doing rather than being, the list goes on. Some part of me believes if I do it right, find a way to work harder or be a better person, fear will go away and I’ll be secure, happy, beloved.
I recognize the taste and smell of that belief. It’s the same one I thought I’d discarded when I wrote my first blog post.
I’m still pleasing, but now I’m pleasing fear rather than people.
Maybe the desperate people pleasing I’ve engaged in has really been about fear all along. If I don’t please you, you won’t love me. If I don’t please you, you won’t take care of me. If I don’t please you, you won’t be proud of me. If I don’t please you, you’ll leave me.
What I absolutely know about trying to please is it doesn’t work. People pleasing increased my fear and insecurity rather than diminishing it. It kept me squarely where the blows landed … and landed … and landed.
Pleasing fear. Not gonna happen. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I “succeed,” it will want more, or different. Fear will never be satisfied. Ever.
Fear. Danger. Pain. Threat. The specifics of our fear are unimportant. What keeps me awake Monday night might be a different list than what keeps me awake Friday night. It all boils down to danger, pain, threat. What I fear now, in my 50s, is different than the nameless fears of my childhood.
But the fear itself is the same, the same feeling, the same texture, the same merciless driver.
I need to find a different way to manage it than trying to please.
I can’t hide under the bed and freeze or flee from internalized fear. Fawning is people pleasing. What’s left? Fight.
Here’s something I can do!
The first step in fighting is to know one’s adversary, and emotional intelligence has taught me fear can be an advantage, a friend. I don’t want to eradicate my ability to feel fear. My fear, though, has grown into a monster, distorted, invasive, choking.
All that gardening I can’t get to? Maybe I need to do some internal weeding, pruning, and clearing this summer.
Is fear going to continue to use me, or am I going to master it?