Take a Smoke Break
by Sarah Bragg
I never would have described myself as a highly emotional person, yet when I look back over the course of my life, I’ve certainly had my fair share of meltdowns (even as an adult). I can distinctly remember being nineteen and trying on every pair of jeans I owned, then ripping them from my body and throwing them across the room in disgust and anger. And I remember stepping barefoot in a pile of dog poop in the middle of the yard and erupting in anger instantly.
Some of my most intense meltdowns have happened while trying to parent. Nothing pushes me further, faster, than a child who knows how to push all my buttons. A couple of months ago, while in the beginning stages of quarantine due to COVID-19, I had one of my biggest breakdowns to date. I can’t remember how this explosion was ignited, but two parties participated: me and my older daughter. I’m sure our emotions were already on edge because life had been turned upside down, and I was now trying to work and write a book from home while also attempting to homeschool my girls—all while facing the uncertainty of whether we would have enough food or toilet paper to survive another week.
I wish I could say this was a one-time instance, but I can recall several epic meltdowns over the years that weren’t induced by living in quarantine. I can remember losing my mind over potty training, sassy mouths, and standoffs over bedtime.
For so long, I thought I had to avoid feeling the negative emotions—mad, sad, frustrated, discouraged. Maybe if I’d done enough self-care before I reached my pushed-too-far point, I wouldn’t have felt those feelings. And while that may be true to a certain degree—maybe I could have headed off the outburst if I’d taken better care of myself—feeling negative emotions isn’t bad or wrong. It’s human. I’ve learned that when I feel those feelings, I need to pay attention. And paying attention looks like asking questions. Why am I feeling this way? Why are my girls exploding? Why are they feeling this way? And then, What can I do to get my brain back to a thinking brain?
I’ve had so many conversations with my dear friends Sissy Goff and David Thomas about this very thing. They explain that in those moments when we feel out of control, the oxygen moves from the front of the brain to the back, and in order to think clearly, we have to get the oxygen back to the front. Something physiological is happening. In their amazing book Are My Kids on Track? they say, “It makes no sense to engage with kids with discipline or correction when they are experiencing elevated emotions. The brain is flooded. No person (child or adult) is capable of having perspective in those moments. We can’t think rationally. We’re incapable of being our best selves.”i Science accounts for why we can’t think straight when our emotions are skyrocketing. Everything in our bodies is connected—and our bodies are trying to tell us something.
In those instances when either we’re about to explode or we’ve already done so, we need to do something to get our brain back. Do you know what helps? Breathing. Yup, something that simple. I’ve learned that I’m more of a hold-your-breath kind of girl. Guess who else is that way? My older daughter. In fact, when she was an infant, she would get so angry that she would scream at the top of her lungs while holding her breath until she passed out. No kidding—she would scream and then all of a sudden the noise would stop because she passed out from holding her breath. Talk about scary for a new mom (and for every nursery worker she came into contact with)!
When we hold our breath, we refuse to allow oxygen to get to our brain. That’s science, friends. And we need the oxygen to return so that we can think clearly.
Let’s go back to that meltdown I mentioned earlier. Here I was in the middle of a meltdown, holding my breath and wondering why I couldn’t calm down. I had to start thinking about how to get myself to breathe, to take a break from the crazy of the moment. That’s when it hit me.
I needed a smoke break.
Not literally. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life, but it dawned on me one day that people who smoke often get to stop what they are doing, walk outside, and take a break. As they smoke, they breathe in and exhale out. That is exactly what we need to do: stop what we’re doing, walk away, and breathe.
As easy as this sounds, it’s not. It’s not easy for me to walk away from a fight or an opportunity to make sure the other party knows I’m right. And it’s not easy if you have a kid who, as you try to walk away from the crazy, follows you. Walking away feels like giving in, but it also feels like a cop-out. Like you are abandoning the issue or the person. Many of us were taught to come to a resolution right away—don’t let the sun go down on your anger. So we push through with our emotions on high. But what we really need to do is step away and figure out how to breathe.
iSissy Goff, David Thomas, and Melissa Trevathan, Are My Kids on Track? The 12 Emotional, Social, and Spiritual Milestones Your Child Needs to Reach (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2017), 44.
Taken from A Mother’s Guide to Raising Herself: What Parenting Taught Me About Life, Faith, and Myself by Sarah Bragg Copyright © 2021 by Zondervan Used by permission of Zondervan, www.zondervan.com.
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