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Calm the F*ck Down
How to Control What You Can and Accept What You Can't So You Can Stop Freaking Out and Get On With Your Life
By Sarah Knight
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Do you spend more time worrying about problems than solving them? Do you let unexpected difficulties ruin your day and do "what ifs" keep you up at night? Sounds like you need to Calm the F*ck Down.
Just because things are falling apart doesn't mean YOU can't pull it together. Whether you're stressed about sh*t that hasn't happened yet or freaked out about sh*t that already has, the NoWorries method from "anti-guru" Sarah Knight helps you curb the anxiety and overthinking that's making everything worse. Calm the F*ck Down explains:
- The Four Faces of Freaking Out—and their Flipsides
- How to accept what you can't control
- Productive Helpful Effective Worrying (PHEW)
- The Three Principles of Dealing With It
- And much more!
Find even more calm with the Calm the F*ck Down Journal.
Discover More! Including giveaways, contests, and more.Tap here to get started.
A note on the title
This is a book about anxiety—from the white noise of what-ifs to the white-hot terror of a full-blown crisis. As such, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m the world’s biggest asshole for titling it as I have, since everyone knows that the first entry on a long list of Unhelpful Things to Say to a Person Experiencing Anxiety is “Calm the fuck down.”
Indeed, when I’m upset and somebody tells me to calm down, I want to murder them in swift and decisive fashion. So I see where you’d be coming from.
But this is also a book about problems—we’ve all got ’em—and calming down is exactly what you need to do if you want to solve those problems. It is what it is. So if it keeps you from wanting to murder the messenger, know that in these pages I’m saying “Calm the fuck down” the same way I said “Get your shit together” in the <cough> New York Times bestseller of the same name—not to shame or criticize you, but to offer motivation and encouragement.
I promise that’s all I’m going for. (And that I’m not the world’s biggest asshole; that honor belongs to whoever invented the vuvuzela.)
We cool? Excellent.
One more thing before we dive into all of that anxiety-reducing, problem-solving goodness: I understand the difference between anxiety, the mental illness, and anxiety, the temporary state of mind. I understand it because I myself happen to possess a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety and Panic Disorder. (Write what you know, folks!)
So although a profanity-riddled self-help book is no substitute for professional medical care, if you picked up Calm the Fuck Down because you’re perennially, clinically anxious like me, in it you will find plenty of tips, tricks, and techniques to help you manage that shit, which will allow you to move on to the business of solving the problems that are feeding your anxiety in the first place.
But maybe you don’t have—or don’t realize you have, or aren’t ready to admit you have—anxiety, the mental illness. Maybe you just get temporarily anxious when the situation demands it (see: the white-hot terror of a full-blown crisis). Never fear! Calm the Fuck Down will provide you with ample calamity management tools for stressful times.
Plus maybe some tips, tricks, and techniques for dealing with that thing you don’t realize or aren’t ready to admit you have.
I’d like to kick things off with a few questions:
• How many times a day do you ask yourself What if? As in: What if X happens? What if Y goes wrong? What if Z doesn’t turn out like I want/need/expect it to?
• How much time do you spend worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet? Or about something that not only hasn’t happened, but probably won’t?
• And how many hours have you wasted freaking out about something that has already happened (or avoiding it, as a quiet panic infests your soul) instead of just dealing with it?
It’s okay to be honest—I’m not trying to shame you. In fact, I’ll go first!
My answer is: Too many, too much, and a LOT. I assume yours is too, because if the answer is Never, none, and ZERO, then you have no reason to be reading this book (nor, I might add, the hard-won qualifications to have written it).
Well, I come bearing good news.
When we’re finished, the next time you come down with a case of the what-ifs—and whether they remain theoretical anxieties or turn into real, live problems that need solvin’—instead of worrying yourself into a panic attack, crying the day away, punching a wall, or avoiding things until they get even worse, you’ll have learned to replace the open-ended nature of that unproductive question with one that’s much more logical, realistic, and actionable:
Then, you’ll deal with it, whatever it is.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves—for now, we start with the basics.
Boy, does it. And when I think about all the shit that could or probably will happen to me on any given day, I’m reminded of a lyric from departed musical genius and spiritual gangsta, the one, the only, Prince (RIP):
“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”
The Purple One had suspect opinions about a lot of things—among them religion, tasteful fabrics, and age-appropriate relationships—but in this regard he was spot-on. Each morning that we wake up and lurch across this rotating time bomb called Earth, our baseline goal is to get through the day. Some of us are angling for more—like success, a bit of relaxation, or a kind word from a loved one. Others are just hoping not to get arrested for treason. (While every day, some of us are hoping someone else gets arrested for treason!)
And though each twenty-four-hour cycle brings the potential for good things to happen—your loan gets approved, your girlfriend proposes, your socks match—there’s also the chance that a big steaming pile of shit will land in your lap. Your house could get repossessed, your girlfriend might break up with you, your socks may become wooly receptacles for cat vomit. Not to mention the potential for earthquakes, tornados, military coups, nuclear accidents, the world wine output falling to record lows, and all manner of disasters that could strike at any time and really fuck up your shit. Especially the wine thing.
That’s just how life works. Prince knew it. You know it. And that is literally all you and Prince have in common.
So here’s another question for you: When shit happens, how do you react? Do you freeze or do you freak out? Do you lock the bathroom door and cry or do you howl at the sky with rage? Personally, I’ve been known to pretend shit is not happening, bury my head in a pillow, and stick my ass in the air in a move I call “ostriching.”
Unfortunately, while these coping mechanisms can be comforting, none are especially productive (and I say that having invented one of them). Eventually you have to stop freaking out and start dealing with your shit, and—shocker—it’s hard to make decisions and solve problems when you’re panicking or sobbing or shouting, or when all the blood is rushing to your head.
Which is why what you really need to do, first and foremost, is calm the fuck down.
We’ve all been there. I simply maintain that most of us could learn how to handle it better. Related: most of us also have a friend, relative, or partner whose inevitable reaction to our every crisis is “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay.” Or worse: “Aw, it’s not so bad.”
On that, I call bullshit. Well-meaning platitudes are easy to offer for someone with no skin in the game. In this book, we’ll be dealing in reality, not nicety.
The truth is:
Yes, sometimes things will be okay. You pass the test, the tumor comes back benign, Linda returns your text.
But sometimes they won’t. Investments go south, friendships fall away, in an election of monumental consequence millions of people cast their vote for an ingrown toenail in a cheap red hat.
In some cases, it’s really not so bad, and you are overreacting. You’ve built an imagined crisis up in your head and let it feed your anxiety like a mogwai after dark. If you’ve seen Gremlins, you know how this ends.
But in other cases IT’S REAL BAD BRO, and you? You’re underreacting. You’re like that cartoon dog who sits at a table drinking coffee while the house burns down around him thinking It’s fine. This is fine.
And sure, by saying “everything’s going to be okay,” your friend/relative/partner is probably just trying to help you. But whether you’re making a Taj Mahal out of a teepee, or ignoring a problem for so long that it sets your metaphorical house on fire, I’m actually going to help you. That’s just how I roll.
Thus begins your education in calming the fuck down:
Lesson #1: Merely believing that things will be okay or aren’t so bad may make you feel better in the moment, but it won’t solve the problem. (And a lot of times it doesn’t even feel good in the moment—it feels like you’re being condescended to by the Happy Industrial Complex. Don’t get me started.)
Either way, it doesn’t change a goddamn thing!
Lesson #2: When shit happens, circumstances are what they are: tires are flat, wrists are broken, files are deleted, hamsters are dead. You may be frustrated, anxious, hurt, angry, or sad—but you are right there in the thick of it and the only thing you can control in this equation is YOU, and your reaction.
Lesson #3: To survive and thrive in these moments, you need to ACKNOWLEDGE what’s happened, ACCEPT the parts you can’t control, and ADDRESS the parts you can.
Per that last one, have you heard of the Serenity Prayer—you know, the one about accepting the things you cannot change and having the wisdom to know the difference? Calm the Fuck Down is essentially a blasphemous, long-form version of that, with flowcharts ’n’ stuff.
If you’re into that sort of thing, we’re going to get along just fine.
What, me worry?
I’m guessing that if you came to this book for guidance, then worrying about shit—either before or after it happens—is a problem for you. So here’s a mini-lesson: “worrying” has two separate but related meanings. In addition to the act of anxiously fretting about one’s problems, “worrying” also means constantly fiddling with something, rubbing at it, tearing it open, and making it worse.
It’s like noticing that your sweater has a dangling thread, maybe the beginnings of a hole. And it’s natural to want to pull on it. You’re getting a feel for the problem, measuring its potential impact. How bad is it already? What can I do about it?
But if you keep pulling—and then tugging, yanking, and fiddling instead of taking action to fix it—suddenly you’re down a whole sleeve, you’re freaking out, and both your state of mind and your sweater are in tatters. I’ve seen smaller piles of yarn at a cat café.
When you get into this state of mind, you’re not just worried about something; you’re actually worrying it. And in both senses, worrying makes the problem worse.
This series of unfortunate events applies across the board, from worries that bring on low-level anxiety to those that precede full-bore freakouts. Some of that anxiety and freaking out is warranted—like What if my car runs out of gas in the middle of a dark desert highway? But some of it isn’t—like What if Linda is mad at me? I know she saw that text I sent yesterday and she hasn’t replied. WHY HAVEN’T YOU REPLIED, LINDA???
Luckily, I’m going to show you how to get a handle on ALL of your worries—how to accept the ones you can’t control, and how to act in a productive way on the ones you can.
I call it the NoWorries Method. It’s based on the same concept that anchors all of my work—“ mental decluttering”—and it has two steps:
Step 1: Calm the fuck down
Step 2: Deal with it
Sounds promising, no?
Or does it sound overly reductive and like it couldn’t possibly help you in any way? I hear that, but “overly reductive yet extremely helpful” is kind of my thing, so maybe give it another page or two before you decide.
For now, let’s circle back to those questions you already admitted you can’t stop asking yourself:
What if X happens?
What if Y goes wrong?
What if Z doesn’t turn out like I want/need/expect it to?
The “X” you’re worried about could be anything from getting your period on a first date to the untimely death of a loved one. “Y” could be your dissertation defense or the landing gear on your connecting flight to Milwaukee. “Z” might be a job interview, a driving test, or the rather large wager you placed on the latest Royal baby name. (It’s a four-thousand-pound shame they didn’t go with Gary, I know.)
In the end, it doesn’t matter precisely what your what-ifs are—only that they exist and they’re occupying some/a lot/too much of your mental space on any given day, unraveling your metaphorical sweater bit by bit. You would therefore do well to note the following:
Lesson #4: A bunch of this shit is unlikely to happen at all.
Lesson #5: You can prevent some of it and mitigate the effects of some of the rest.
Lesson #6: Some of it is and has always been completely out of your hands and locked in the steely grip of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. You need to take your licks, learn the lesson, and let this one go.
And hey, no judgments. I’m right there with you (hence the hard-won qualifications to have written this book).
For most of my life, I’ve been a champion worrier. What-ifs swirl inside my skull like minnows on a meth bender. I fret about shit that hasn’t happened. I obsess over shit that may or may not happen. And when shit does happen, I possess an astounding capacity for freaking out about it.
But over the last few years I’ve found ways to keep that stuff to a minimum. I’m not completely worry-free, but I have become less anxious and am no longer, shall we say, paralyzed by dread and/or driven to the brink of madness by unmet expectations and a boiling sense of injustice. It’s an improvement.
I’m amazed at how good it feels and how much I’ve been able to accomplish with a relatively simple change in mind-set—accepting the shit I can’t control—which allows me to focus on dealing with the shit I can control, leaving me better equipped to make decisions and solve problems both in the moment and after the fact.
And even to prevent some of them from happening in the first place. Nifty!
I’ve learned how to stop dwelling on unlikely outcomes in favor of acting to create more likely ones. How to plow forward rather than agonize backward. And crucially, how to separate my anxiety about what might occur from the act of handling it when it does occur.
You can learn to do all of that too. Calm the Fuck Down will help you—
Stop freaking out about shit you can’t control.
Enable yourself to make rational decisions.
SO YOU CAN
Solve problems instead of making them worse.
Here’s what that process looked like for me during the last few years, and a little taste of how it can work for you.
I can’t deal with this shit. (Or can I?)
The beginnings of my change in mind-set happened to coincide with a change of location when my husband and I moved from bustling Brooklyn, New York, to a tranquil fishing village on the north coast of the Dominican Republic.
I know, shut the fuck up, right? But I swear this isn’t a story about idyllic, sun-drenched days full of coco locos and aquamarine vistas. I do enjoy those, but the primary benefit of living where I do is that it has forced me—like, aquamarine waterboarded me—to calm down.
During the previous sixteen years in New York, I’d had a lot going on: I climbed the corporate ladder; planned and executed a wedding; bought real estate; and orchestrated the aforementioned move to the Dominican Republic. I was always good at getting shit done, yes, but I was not especially calm while doing it.*
And when anything happened to alter the course of my carefully cultivated expectations—well, fughetaboutit.
You might think that a high-functioning, high-achieving, highly organized person would be able to adjust if the situation demanded it. But back then, I couldn’t deviate from the plan without experiencing a major freakout—such as when a downpour on the day of my husband’s thirtieth-birthday picnic sent me into a fit of Goodbye, cruel world!
In those days I had a tendency to melt down faster than a half pound of raclette at a bougie Brooklyn dinner party—making all of the shit I had to do far more difficult and anxiety-inducing than it needed to be. Two steps forward, one step back. All. The. Damn. Time.
Something had to give; but I didn’t know what, or how to give it.
Which brings us to that tranquil fishing village on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Three years ago I moved to a place where you might as well abandon planning altogether. Here, the tropical weather shifts faster than the Real Housewives’ loyalties; stores close for unspecified periods of time on random days of the week; and the guy who is due to fix the roof “mañana” is just as likely to arrive “a week from mañana”—possibly because of thunderstorms, or because he couldn’t buy the materials he needed from the hardware store that is only periodically and inconsistently open.
Or both. Or neither. Who knows?
Caribbean life may look seductively slow-paced and groovy when you’ve called in sick from your demanding job to lie on the couch bingeing on chicken soup and HGTV—and in lots of ways it is; I AM NOT COMPLAINING—but it can also be frustrating for those of us who thrive on reliability and structure, or who don’t deal particularly well with the unexpected.
After a few weeks of hanging out in Hispaniola, I began to realize that if I clung to my old ways in our new life, I would wind up in a perpetual panic about something, because nothing goes according to plan around here. And THAT would negate the entire purpose of having gotten the hell out of New York in the first place.
So for me, landing in the DR was a shot of exposure therapy with a coconut rum chaser. I’ve been forced to relax and go with the flow, which has done wonders for my attitude and my Xanax supply.
AGAIN, NOT COMPLAINING.
But through observation and practice, I’ve also determined that one doesn’t need to uproot to an island in the middle of the Atlantic to calm the fuck down.
Anyone can do it—including you.
You just need to shift your mind-set, like I did, to react to problems in a different way. In doing so, you’ll also learn that you actually can prepare for the unexpected, which helps a lot with that whole “one step back” thing.
How is that possible? Wouldn’t preparing for every potential outcome drive you crazy in a totally different way?
Well yes, yes it would. But I’m not talking about securing multiple locations for your husband’s thirtieth-birthday party because “what if” it rains; or preparing three different versions of a presentation because “what if” the client seems to be in less of a pie chart and more of a bar graph mood that day; or erecting a complicated system of moats around your property because “what if” your neighbor’s frisky cows get loose someday. That could definitely drive you crazy in a different way. And possibly to bankruptcy.
I’m talking about preparing mentally.
That’s what this book helps you do, so that when shit happens, you’ll have the tools to handle it—whoever you are, wherever you live, and whenever things get hairy.
(Pssst: that’s what we in the biz call “foreshadowing.”)
A few months ago after a pleasant night out at a local tiki bar, my husband and I arrived home to an unexpected visitor.
I had opened our gate and was slowly picking my way across the flagstone path to our deck (it was dark, I was tipsy) when a larger-than-usual leaf caught my eye. It seemed to be not so much fluttering on the breeze as… scuttling on it. A quick beam of my iPhone flashlight confirmed that the presumptive almond leaf was in fact a tarantula the size of a honeydew melon.
Yup. I’ll give you a moment to recover. Lord knows I needed one.
Now, assuming you haven’t thrown the book across the room in disgust (or that you have at least picked it back up), may I continue?
Having previously declared my intention to BURN THE MOTHERFUCKER DOWN if we ever spotted such a creature in our house, I was faced with a quandary. By this time, I had grown fond of my house. And technically, the creature was not in it. Just near it.
What to do? Stand frozen in place until the thing wandered back to the unknowable depths from whence it came? Sleep with one eye open for eternity? Politely ask the tarantula to skedaddle?
None of those were realistic options. As it turned out, apart from shouting at my husband to “Pleasecomedealwiththetarantula!” there wasn’t much I could do. We live in the jungle, baby. And no matter how many real estate agents and fellow expats had told us “those guys stay up in the mountains—you’ll never see one,” there was no denying the seven-legged fact that one had found its way to our humble sea-level abode.
(You read that correctly. This gent was missing one of his furry little limbs—a fact that will become important later in this story.)
What we did do was this: my husband grabbed a broom and used it to guide the uninvited guest off our property and into the neighbors’ bushes, and I fled into the house muttering “Everything is a tarantula” under my breath until I was safely upstairs and sufficiently drugged to sleep.
It wasn’t totally calming the fuck down, but it was a step in the right direction.
The next morning we got up early to go on an all-day, rum-guzzling boat trip with some friends. (I know, I know, shut the fuck up.) I staggered downstairs in a pre-8:00-a.m. haze and as I turned at the landing toward the bottom of the stairs, I saw it.
Hiding behind the floor-length curtain in the living room was the very same tarantula that had previously been shooed a good hundred feet away from its current position. I knew it was the same one because it had only seven legs. And lest you think I got close enough to count them, I will remind you that this spider was so fucking big you did not have to get close to it to count its legs—with which it had, overnight, crossed an expanse of grass, climbed back up onto the deck, and then CLIMBED AGAIN UP TO THE TERRACE AND SQUEEZED IN BETWEEN THE CRACKS OF OUR SLIDING DOORS TO GET INSIDE THE HOUSE.
I know what you’re thinking. THIS is when you burn the motherfucker down, right?
And yes, my instinctive reaction was I can’t deal with this shit.
But you know what? Upon second viewing, the tarantula was not so bad. Or rather, it was still bad, but I was better.
If we’d found a spider like that inside our Brooklyn apartment, I would have lit a match right then and there. But now it seemed I’d been trained by all those unpredictable monsoon rains and unreliable roof guys: Expect the unexpected! Nothing goes according to plan! SURPRIIIISE!!!
From our practice run the night before, I knew it wasn’t going to move very fast or, like, start growling at me. And I had to admit that a honeydew-sized spider operating one leg short was a lot smaller and less nimble than a five-foot-tall person with both her legs intact. (It turns out that exposure therapy is clinically sanctioned for a reason.)
By activating the logical part of my brain, I was able to one-up that instinctive I can’t deal with this shit with a more productive Okay, well, what are we going to do about this because I have a boat to catch and vast quantities of rum to imbibe. This was no time for hysterics; freaking out was not going to solve the problem.
Recall, if you would, my jacked-up version of the Serenity Prayer:
ACKNOWLEDGE what has happened (a tarantula is in my house)
ACCEPT what you can’t control (tarantulas can get into my house?!?)
ADDRESS what you can control (get the tarantula out of my house)
I had officially calmed the fuck down—now it was time to deal with it.
Fine, it was time for my husband to deal with it. I helped.
Using an empty plastic pitcher, a broom, a piece of cardboard, and nerves of steel, he trapped the thing humanely and secured it on the dining table while I rounded up sunscreen, towels, portable speakers, and an extra pint of Barceló because last time the boat captain underestimated and really, who wants to hang out on a deserted beach with an infinite supply of coconuts and a finite supply of rum? YOU CAN CONTROL THE RUM.
Then we drove a mile down the road with our new pal Lucky (ensconced in his plastic jug), released the wayward spider into a vacant lot, and boarded the SS Mama Needs Her Juice.
Praise for Sarah Knight:
"Self-help to swear by." —The Boston Globe
"Hilarious . . . truly practical." —Booklist
- On Sale
- Dec 31, 2018
- Hachette Audio