Deciding to STOP…Time for Deep Cleaning or Emotion Febreze?

Driving in the car each day is probably the one point when I am completely alone, without distractions. I consider myself to be an introvert, and I usually enjoy the quiet time in the car at the beginning and end of each work day, or at the beginning and end of any social interactions, to recharge my batteries and let my mind be alone with itself.  I find that during my drive to work in the morning, my mind wanders the most—things to do (planning), things that already happened (remembering), replaying conversations or things that didn’t get done or probably won’t get done (worrying).

At times, the wandering mind is productive, and I remind myself that “healthy minds wander”. Wandering mind can help me to plan my day, make a decision, put my to do list in order, help me to put into words something I want to say to someone, or remind me of something pleasant I hadn’t thought about in years. When not wandering, quiet, uncluttered, undistracted noticing mind can also help me to be more present in the moment, which increases joy in the mundane, and increases my sense of connection. For example, noticing the way the light bounces off the frost on the windshield to better see the pattern in the ice makes getting into a freezing cold car in the morning to warm it up a lot nicer!

Sometimes I will intentionally leave the car radio off during my drives in order to let my mind do its thing for that brief, contained period of time. It can be effective. Sometimes, however, wandering mind takes me to a place I don’t want to be, or that’s not effective in the moment. It can be unexpected, and I have to be vigilant and ready to use other skills at these times.

I recently had a major loss in my family, and in an effort to avoid morning wandering mind for a while, I made the decision to purposely put on the car radio on my drive to work each day and reevaluate periodically whether it’s necessary to keep distracting or if I can return to contained wandering. One morning in particular, a couple of weeks ago, I got into the car, put the radio on, put the iPod on random, and started my drive. I thought I was good. I changed the song a few times. I was tired, and none of the songs were striking my fancy.  My mind started wandering anyway. Maybe the radio volume was too low, maybe I stopped paying attention to the song playing, but WHAM! A memory attached to strong emotion! Instantaneous 10/10 sadness about this loss! Heart pounding, eyes burning, tears coming, mind racing…and 5 minutes away from work!  DANGER! DANGER! INEFFECTIVE!

I immediately looked around. I needed help, but I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think. Emotion mind was too powerful! A light turned red. I said to myself, “stop, stop, stop.” And there it was. STOP. I needed the STOP skill! Stop. Don’t react. “How can I not react?” Freeze. Stay in control! OK. Take a step back, a deep breath. Observe inside. Check. Already did that. Observe outside. “I’m driving. I’m merging onto the highway.” The song in the background—“Dust in the Wind? Seriously, Jess? No wonder.” Proceed mindfully. Consider my thoughts and feelings, and consider the situation. Find Wise Mind. “I’m only a few minutes from work. Now is not a good time. I thought about this yesterday and I can dedicate time to this again later. I need to turn off this song NOW.” Flip, flip, flip. Ani Difranco. I know this one. Turn it up. Fully participate, all the way. Sing along. “I am not a pretty girl. That is not what I doI ain’t no damsel in distress. I don’t need to be rescued.

My mood started to shift. I threw myself into the song. STOP can be godsend. It’s the mindful answer to “How do I remember to use distress tolerance skills?”.  It’s “first, do nothing.” It’s a pause and a set of concrete steps to get ourselves into Wise Mind, to be most effective when emotion mind threatens to make us act without thinking. While my emotions were valid and needed to be soothed, and I identified a clear prompting event, that place and time was not effective for me to feel what I was feeling. I find it difficult not to let whatever emotion arrives to stay and hang out. I find it difficult to set limits with my thoughts and emotions—“Not right now. I’m busy.” The answer I’ve found is to promise to come back to it when I do have time. “Not right now. I’m busy. But you’ll have my full attention at 5:00.” A patient recently told me that Distress Tolerance skills are like using Febreze instead of cleaning something. We discussed how it’s a temporary fix, and eventually you have to actually clean it or it’ll get funky. Letting your emotions out or having a good cry are like cleaning, and if you don’t let them out and keep using emotion Febreze, eventually you get funky!

So that day I made it to work, I contained that big emotion, I focused on one thing in the moment throughout my day, I made it through work, and the time passed. My mood was much different than when I had started my day. And yet at 5:00, as promised, I got back into my car, I turned on my radio, I put my iPod on, and I flip, flip, flipped back. “OK. Dust in the Wind. I’m ready now.” I started to cry. I participated fully. And I let it all out.

Jessica Angley is a Licensed Professional Counselor who practices at 320 Raritan Avenue, Suite 203, in Highland Park, NJ . She is foundationally trained in DBT, and is trained in treatment for trauma. She is accepting new patients, and can be reached at 732-723-8028.

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