C is for Calm

I lay on a beach towel on the warm, white sand and let the sun glaze my skin. Waves wash ashore gently, and I am in a state between waking and sleeping—totally serene, totally at ease. Nothing in my body is activated and ready to defend because THERE IS NO DANGER, real or perceived. This is a state of calm.

I remember these few moments while traveling to Panama. We had taken a side trip to one of the Bocas del Toro islands and I was committed to total relaxation for a few days.  That moment on the beach when, surrounded by nothing but warm air and the sound of palm tree leaves rustling and ocean waves lapping, is the safe place I go in my mind after my therapist and I do deep work to heal painful memories.

The opposite of calm is where I’ve lived most of my life. Oh, I know how to look centered (another “C” word) on the outside, but much of the time I am fighting to keep my equilibrium. Don’t get me wrong, my inner life isn’t utter turmoil and writhing, but my set point has been a certain amount of constant vigilance. Why? Well, not to blame my parents, but the truth is that I was born into a very, very, very activated context. I can imagine how scary life must have been for two teenagers foisted into parenthood before their brains were even fully developed.

My earliest memories were of screaming matches between my parents. Father drinking, mother flailing her arms and throwing things across the room in desperate anger. Chaos. In one fight, my mother threw a full glass of milk at my dad’s head. He ducked, but was doused by the splatter when the glass hit the wall. Then, my usually passive father came after her with a whole carton, set on dumping it over her head. My mother screamed at all of us to run into the laundry room, where we huddled, holding the door shut by shoving the massive piles of dirty laundry up against it until my dad calmed down.

Moments like that—especially when many such moments are strung together over a childhood—change a child’s brain, you know? Her emotional thermometer will be set for “watch for anger, stay out of the way of danger.” And CALM becomes illusive.

Since my first foray into a therapist’s office thirty years ago, I came to understand that my neuropathways were formed around fear. Never mind blame, okay? I don’t blame either of my parents for their unskillful approach to childrearing, and I know they did the best they could, but that does not change what happened to the brain. The brain doesn’t calm down just because we forgive. The parasympathetic nervous system learns its lessons young and, though we consciously make efforts to gain insight into the past, insight does not change the body’s clenching when someone throws something or when an angry face scowls at you.

What then? How to gain calm?

Picture yourself on a beach with the sun glazing your skin. Nothing to be afraid of. No place to go. See the serenity of your surroundings and direct the shoulders, chest, forehead to relax.

Calm, I am FINALLY finding out (bummer I didn’t learn this in therapy school), comes through the body, not the mind. Polyvagal theory explains this: that perceived danger first activates fight/flight, then shutdown. But if we can regulate the response of the nervous system through self-soothing or what is called “co-regulation” with a trusted other person who is present to support, then calm is the result.

Nowadays, I am regularly taking time away from everything (even if it means some things don’t get done) and regulating my breathing, relaxing my muscles, and lying on the beach.

Try it. Can you feel the calm?