Flying Above the Turbulence

When I was 20 years old, flying to and from college, I was so anxious about the possibility of turbulence that I began driving the 1,000 miles each way to avoid it. It was at that point I decided to get a pilot’s license in an effort to confront my fear head on and learn about what goes on up there. (Of course, this was without my parents’ knowledge. A future blog entitled, “I Thought I Mentioned It!”)

What I found out was that the composition of air is the same whether you’re in turbulent or calm skies. Air molecules are simply air molecules. However, what influences those air molecules – such as fluctuating temperatures or wind directions - is what really affects the movement of the plane.

With this as a backdrop, I learned a wonderful life lesson nearly 30 years ago, on an incredibly turbulent flight high above Texas.

I was flying from Dallas to San Antonio and although it was cloudless in Dallas, I had heard there were strong thunderstorms in our path to San Antonio. Twenty minutes or so into the flight the clear sky turned dark with small patches of sunlight peaking through thunderclouds that suddenly engulfed us 30,000 feet above the ground. The plane bobbed and bounced violently for what felt like an eternity, leaving us all gripping our hand rests in fear.

Likely sensing the anxiety of his passengers, our pilot, Captain Clarke, spoke over the intercom and apologized for the bumpy flight. But instead of making a quick announcement, he began describing why he always enjoyed looking at the shapes of thunderheads and the beauty of flying around them. As we were flying towards our destination, navigating around these sunlit storm clouds, he guided us through the upcoming turns, telling us about what would be coming into view.

Although the turbulence hadn’t eased, we were all noticeably more relaxed. Hell, why not? We had freakin’ Captain Right Stuff in the pilot’s seat so what was there to worry about!

I realized that instead of focusing on the difficulties of the flight, we were now focused on the calm, reassuring voice of our captain, who was in complete control and, frankly, appeared to be enjoying the ride. Captain Clarke helped us emotionally fly above the turbulence.

For 30 minutes we were thrown up and down, left and right, yet all I remember was how beautiful the clouds were and the calming storytelling of Captain Clarke.

I never forgot this experience and what it taught me: where you focus your thoughts and the story you tell yourself can have a huge influence on your emotions and behavior, regardless of the circumstances.

There is no place this lesson has been more valuable than while navigating through my experience as a family caregiver. Let me explain why…

As a family caregiver, turbulence is inevitable, even on days when the skies look clear. And, even though we understand that upset comes with the territory, it is still incredible how unsettling it is when it happens.

I came to realize that flying above the turbulence wasn’t about ascending above the clouds in search of calmer air, it’s about knowing that even when I’m under duress, I can always find calmer air by controlling my thoughts to better navigate my circumstances.

Ok, I can hear you saying, “This all sounds great, but is it really that simple?” Well, yes and no. Yes, I am certain this is a mindset you can achieve but like anything else worthwhile, it takes work and practice. Here are some steps to get you on the right path:

First, let’s acknowledge that family caregivers are in a position where it’s very easy to get bogged down with negative thoughts. Ongoing caregiving demands can create a sense of fear, anxiety, guilt and even anger, which can easily take you out of your comfort zone. When this happens

· Identify thoughts associated with your role as a family caregiver and how these thoughts have evolved into a broader story about how caregiving affects your life.

· Challenge these thoughts. Identify those that are correct and those that are misleading by taking a step back and looking for evidence that questions them. Note the exceptions: when the realities of your experiences were better (or worse) than your thoughts predicted.

· Based on your findings, adjust your thoughts so you can start to reframe your experience.

· Identify new thoughts to help you achieve the life you desire, regardless of your caregiving responsibilities, and begin making the changes necessary to achieve it.

· Imagine making these changes then observe how your thoughts are different than they were before you began this process. How does it make you feel? How does it change the story you have developed about your role as a family caregiver and the relationship you have with your loved one?

· Begin incorporating these new thoughts into your daily routine and…practice, practice, practice.

This is an exciting, ongoing process. After all, these are the thoughts you are creating to help you reach your goals. Grab onto this role and be the author of your story. Your new thoughts are totally yours. Enjoy them and live them!

Help yourself. Help others.

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