In his book Atomic Habits, An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, author James Clear provides a great analogy for the habit-changing process:
“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.”
Let me share a personal story that illustrates this in action.
Our nine-year old granddaughter experiences high sensitivity along with a good portion of the anxiety that it can create. Part of this discomfort “in her stomach” makes it difficult for her to actually feel like she wants to go to school on many mornings.
Along with family support, she spends some time with three important people to talk about her anxiety: the school counselor, a children’s psychologist, and her Grade 3 school teacher. All three people have been absolutely amazing in working with her in a coordinated fashion to teach her tools to re-direct her anxieties into a more positive energy - to start creating a new, more positive way to respond.
Here’s an example.
One day, both the counsellor and our granddaughter could see a young coyote outside the school window. It was just sitting there with its head hanging slightly down. Every now and then, something would catch its attention. Its ears would perk up and it would look from side to side trying to find the source of the noise.
They noticed it was shivering even though the temperature was slightly above zero and it was protected by a wall from the strong chinook winds blowing around the building.
But . . . it was trapped and couldn’t get out! There was construction fencing around that part of the school. The coyote had found its way into the enclosure but couldn’t find its way out.
They both watched it for several minutes. During that time, animal control people came to the rescue! They walked calmly and slowly towards the coyote, talking softly. It didn’t move but it was focused on their movements and its shivering had noticeably increased. Obviously it was scared.
Using a long pole, they slipped a noose gently over the coyote’s head and led it calmly out of the fenced-in area and into their trailer. Once inside, they released the noose from its neck. The coyote just sat there, calmly looking out of the cage as it was driven away.
The counsellor instantly turned this into a teaching moment for my granddaughter. She asked her if she sometimes felt like the coyote, a bit trapped and afraid of coming to school. The response – a quiet yes.
Could she see that the animal control people were there to actually help the young coyote get back to its natural home without harming it? Another soft yes.
The counselor explained that that was the same for our granddaughter. Her teachers and the students around her were there to help her feel welcome, safe, and secure. She nodded and a light must have gone on at that point.
After school, she was excited to tell us her coyote story and how it made her feel. Her teacher helped her cut out a picture of a coyote and tape it just inside her desk where she could easily see it. She told us that, whenever she feels her stomach getting uneasy, she looks at the picture to remind her of the story and she starts to feel a bit better.
I asked her if I could tell her story to other people who might be feeling something similar. A big nod, a smile, and an enthusiastic yes! She went home and told her mother that Grandpa was going to share her coyote story with other people J
That was four days ago. The last three mornings have shown small, but increasing, improvements in getting to school. That is a good sign!
This is a small example of how to turn the negative energy of stress into a positive energy. Feeling motivated to go to school. . . .happy to see her classmates and friends. . . .excited to learn! Although she is too young to realize it, she is taking small steps in learning how to make stress her ally!
How about you? Do you have too many days where you feel overwhelmed? Out-of-focus? Off- purpose? Highly stressed? Anxious?
Are you sometimes feeling trapped like the coyote in the enclosure? At times, does it seem like your future is dull and bleak and not bright and enjoyable?
Ever feel like your living your version of Bill Murray’s life, “trapped” in the movie Groundhog Day?
We aren’t born with anxiety or stress. We learn how to respond to different stimuli as we grow. And over time, these responses become strong habits (oak trees). We have many such habits to make our lives easier. But some of these habitual responses can become outdated or not as useful as they once were. They can actually become mental or emotional barriers.
Our anxiety response to certain stimuli can be one such barrier. It is a “learned” response or habit that may be causing us emotional and physical discomfort. The work of many neuroscientists has shown us that, through learning and practice, we can replace old negative responses with more positive, desirable ones.
What they have also taught us is that this relearning takes time and requires our attention. It takes time to relearn how to respond to certain stress triggers in our environment but it can absolutely be done!
It is in the powerful gap between any stimulus and our response where each of us has the freedom to choose the response we want. It is in this gap that we can begin to make stress our ally!
Our granddaughter is starting to learn these techniques. She is learning how to build a new response, a new habit by “cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.”
How about you?