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Help in the Moment: A Quick Tip for Overwhelmed Parents

Dropping anchor is a quick tip for moments of emotional overwhelm. Applications for the Christian parent are included.

We all like a quick tip – something we can put into practice without a lot of background information and with a high success rate. While this tip (called “dropping anchor”) fits that descriptor, please note that quick fixes are not a solution to a chronic sense of overwhelm. Sometimes deeper changes are necessary. This post will explore this quick tip as well as some ideas for how to make those deeper changes.

The drop anchor skill

Let’s say that you are trying to make dinner, the kids are acting wild, you are worried about your presentation tomorrow and realize you sent an email earlier in the day to the wrong person. You are feeling overwhelmed and completely stressed out. What can you do?

This technique is a three step process from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) called “dropping anchor.” The idea behind this metaphor is that anchors don’t change stormy weather but they keep boats from being swept away by it.

In our day to day lives, the “stormy weather” is our moods, our emotions, thoughts, memories, and internal sensations. It’s very easy to get swept up by all of that internal distress. But we don’t to let them carry us away. We can safely connect to what we are experiencing rather than seeking to flee from it. When we allow ourselves to feel and experience our internal distress the intensity diminishes.

This technique was first introduced by Russ Harris and I have modified the language to be helpful for those whose faith is important to them. You can adjust the language to fit your preferences. Just keep the three steps in mind.

I often tell my clients to think of this tool using an image of a Russian nesting doll set – there are three layers to pay attention to: your internal experience, your body which holds those experiences and your environment. Let’s look at each layer a bit closer.

Step 1: Notice and name (be specific!)

When we are all caught up in our internal experiences it can feel like a non-descript storm, swirling around us. This step helps us to pause, notice, and identify exactly what we are feeling. We have to name it to tame it.

Using the situation above, our internal or external dialogue might sound like:

“Lord, here I am noticing some tension in my chest. It feels like a tight ball that is pulsing and hot. Here I am noticing I am having the thought that I will never be ready in time for tomorrow’s presentation…. I am also noticing that the “never good enough” theme is running through my head again. This is uncomfortable… and You see me.”

Don’t rush through this step. It’s important to really identify what feelings and thoughts have gotten you hooked and are creating this internal storm. If interoception (noticing what is going on inside of you) is a new skill for you, you might need some practice just noticing your feelings and thoughts (the How We Feel app is a great tool for helping you learn to do just that).

Step 2: Connect to your body

The second step is to move out one layer to the body that holds all those internal experiences. When we can realize that uncomfortable feelings and thoughts do not control us, the struggle diminishes. We can feel distress and still have a choice.

You may have heard it said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space.” Choice is in that space. We see this idea reflected in Scripture when Paul talks about God providing a way out of temptation in 1 Corinthians 10:13. This step is so important so we can realize that even though we are struggling, we still have a body that can move and make choices.

It might sound a bit like this:

“And at the same time, I have this body that You gave me. It is a body that can move. I can push my feet into the floor. I can stand up a bit taller. I can press my palms together. I can feel the breath going in and out of my lungs. So even though I am having all of these thoughts and feelings, I also have a body that I can move, stretch and have control over.”

Step 3: Engage with the world around you

This can look like noticing what you see around you and connecting to the here and now. It might look like an intentional shift from the content of what your mind is sharing with you towards what is really important to you and gives your life meaning. Or you might stop to pause and smile at your kids, give your spouse a squeeze on the shoulder or simply get back to the task you were engaged in before the storm took over.

Here’s an example of this third step:

“And around this body Lord there is this (home, world, room, space) that you have given me. I can see the flowers in the garden out the window. I can smell the chicken cooking in the oven. I can hear the tap of the branch against the window. Thank you for this (family, home, world, space).”

Additional tips

Run through these steps two or three times – keep in mind the feelings and thoughts may not go away completely, that isn’t the goal. Bodies feel and minds think. The goal is for you to drop the struggle with them and get back to what you really care about.

As with any new skill you are trying to learn that you practice – particularly with less overwhelming situations. So let’s say you are sitting in the car at a traffic light that is taking forever, you could simply notice the internal sensations you are experiencing, any thoughts that might go along with that and then pull your attention to your body – your hands on the wheel, the pressure of your foot on the brake. Then take one more step out and notice the color of the sky, any movement of the trees or the color of the car in front of you.

How to have fewer emotional storms

Dropping anchor is a very effective technique when you are feeling overwhelmed. Jesus said that in this world we would have trouble and Peter tells us in 1 Peter 4:12 that we shouldn’t be surprised at the ordeals that life brings. Life is hard and this skill can help us not get swept away by the emotional storms that are an inevitable part of life.

That being said, there are some ways that we might contribute to the intensity and frequency of these storms. Here are some things that can make us more vulnerable to emotional storms:

  • lack of restorative sleep
  • poor diet
  • lack of exercise
  • lack of connection with loved ones
  • over-scheduling
  • too much time on social media
  • perfectionsim/self-criticism
  • limited time with the Lord or in His word
  • persistent avoidance of internal experiences
  • unforgiveness/bitterness
  • unresolved trauma

This is a lengthy list and there are many more that could be added. You don’t need to make a clean sweep (and if you mind is telling you you should, drop anchor). Just read the list slowly and see where you might notice a nudge to make a small change. Don’t just make a change for change sake. That won’t last. We are invested in change that brings us toward what we care about.

Maybe you care about being more connected with your kids. Putting down your phone and making eye contact when you are all in the living room together would be a small behavioral change in service of what is important to you.

Did you try the drop anchor skill? Please feel free to share in the comments.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

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About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed clinical social worker who offers individual therapy to women and moms in Connecticut. She is the author of More Than a Conqueror, A Christian Kid's Guide to Winning the War on Worry. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of the things she is most passionate about: God's word, parenting and mental health.

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