Last week's blog, Hustle and Go - Our Glorification of Busy-ness and Anti-Rest, we talked about our culture and its creation, reinforcement, and systemic-rewarding of keeping us in a near-constant state of stress and anxiety. We acknowledged the toll that such a persistent state of dis-ease can take, and saw that the work to get out of that place may sound simple, but will definitely not be easy. This week, we will delve into some practical tips to manage and maybe even permanently alter our relationship to stress, anxiety, busy-ness, and the hustle.
We will discover techniques to re-align ourselves with a more peaceful state of being by first noticing all the myriad things that happen to us physically, cognitively, emotionally, behaviorally, and energetically when we are under stress. You'll notice that these areas overlap. We are indeed not separate parts - this breakdown just helps us see the same whole of ourselves from different vantage points.
Our bodies. Most of us are disconnected from our bodies. In fact, we are so disconnected from our bodies that we do not even realize our disconnection. Have you ever been so caught up in your day that suddenly it's four in the afternoon and you realize you haven't eaten since that rushed bagel this morning? Don't notice that you have to pee until you really have to pee? Feel fine and full of energy until you sit still for five minutes and fall right to sleep? This says to me that we can miss signals from our bodies about even our most basic of needs. Food, elimination, rest. If these messages can be lost in transit, then certainly we can miss messages about stress. Strategy: Reconnect to your body. Pay attention to it. Take a moment a couple of times a day to breathe deeply. Simply breathing deeply counteracts so many of the physical things happening in our bodies that we feel as anxiety: it slows and deepens our shallow and fast breathing, it calms our increased heart rate, it lowers our raising blood pressure, it relaxes our tensing muscles. If we are disconnected enough from our bodies, we may not even be noticing those very physical effects. The faster, tenser pace of our bodies may have become our new baseline, and so we experience it as "normal." Scan your body and ask yourself what you notice. Stretch your body and mindfully see how it feels. Maybe practice yoga. But definitely rebuild your relationship with your body by listening to what it has to say. When you're hungry, eat. When it wants to use the restroom, go pee. Don't finish that email first, go now. You haven't listened to your body in a while. It might seem to be giving you the silent treatment. Make the effort to take 3 minutes to breathe, turn towards it, ask it what it wants, and then respond lovingly.
Our minds. Our minds are always moving. And they are generally moving in one of two ways: focused on a particular task or all of the things that it does when its left to its own devices. Certain regions of our brain are engaged when our brains are left on their own, when we aren't consciously and steadily directing them towards an action. Those regions collectively are referred to as our Default Mode Network, or DMN. When the DMN is lit up, we experience this as three basic types of thoughts: ruminating about the past, judging the present moment, or worrying about the future. At this point in the discussion, folks are often like, "eff you, brain." It does kinda suck that these are our brain's natural tendencies. But it's also for great purpose. Evolutionarily speaking, we need our brains to be doing all of this in order to keep us alive. And today, this kind of brain activity is still super helpful in figuring out how the world works, and how to be successful. So it's also kind of amazing that our brain is just doing this on its own, by default. Sometimes our DMN stays too activated and is just too damn loud. That type of increased activity is associated with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Strategy: Turn down the volume of the Default Mode Network. This is one reason that we turn to unhealthy coping strategies - especially drugs and alcohol. They turn the DMN way down. But they bring a host of consequences of their own, and as soon as their effects are gone, the DMN is right back to work, sometimes even louder than before. Luckily, there are healthier and longer lasting options. Meditation not only decreases all of that DMN activity, but its effects continue even after the meditative practice is over. In fact, folks who participated in an 8-week daily meditation program still exhibit positive benefits one year later, even if they had not continued to meditate. Trouble meditating? Aside from my first line advice (get a teacher), you can achieve some level of these benefits by getting into a flow state. A flow state is any kind of task that we get lost in. Usually something that doesn't require a lot of brain power, but still task oriented enough to keep the DMN from taking over. For me, it's playing guitar. For some folks, it's running. If you sit down to do an activity you enjoy, and suddenly realize that a couple of hours have passed, you can be pretty sure you've been in a flow state.
Our behavior. We are doing way too much. Our schedules are jam-packed, sometimes even overlapping and double-booked. We over-estimate how much we can achieve and underestimate how much time it will take to do it. This leaves us rushing around from one thing to the next. Strategy: Self-care. When I teach about self-care, I get one of two reactions: "Yay! Massages!" or "I don't have time for self-care!" My answer to both is that self-care includes (of course) massages, but more than that, self-care is self-parenting. It's making sure that we make time for the things that are necessary to our health and wellness. Self-care is going to bed on time, waking up on time, eating your vegetables, getting some exercise, and speaking kindly to ourselves. It's making time - managing our time wisely to truly be able to give 100% to the present moment, and giving ourselves time to breathe. Self-care can sometimes feel like more to-dos to tack onto our list. And there are definitely things to do that need to be prioritized. But mostly, I find, self-care is about doing less.
Our energy. When we are moving fast, disconnected from our bodies, and multi-tasking, our energy is a very up-in-the-air feeling energy. The image comes to mind of someone in a business suit and flung open briefcase all blown about by a storm. Everything disheveled: papers, clothes, hair, energy. Strategy: get grounded. Put your feet on the earth. Weigh yourself down - cover up in a big heavy blanket. Eat heavy, warm comfort foods, like a potato that grew in the dirt. Get out in nature. Touch something real and not man-made. Take a hot bath. When we talk about energy, the strategies are intuitive. Don't do the things that make you feel blown around. Do the things that feel earthy.
Our emotional experience. What we experience as emotions is really a synthesis of our perceptions of all of the above, mixed with our values and ideas of meaning. When our bodies, thoughts, behaviors, and energies are under stress, we feel powerless and our lives can feel out of control. When we get into this space, it can be very easy to focus on all of the ways we are indeed powerless, and the many things out of our control. This line of thinking can cause even more physical reactions to stress, tacking on more and more appointments in our schedules and items on our to-do lists. A cycle forms where our attempts to manage our anxiety actually cause more anxiety. Strategy: Create a sense of stability. Focus on what you do have control over. (Hint: your own thoughts, behaviors, and energy). The things you can control, do those things. For the things you can't control: reframe the thought: "I have no control over what happens" or "nothing I do matters" to "everything I can do, I am doing." When things feel out of control, routine and structure are your new best friends. They allow you to build into your life more things that are within your control. Create a morning and/or evening routine (bonus if it includes self-care!). Have a schedule (bonus if it's not an overwhelming one!) and stick to it. Try to wake up, eat, and go to bed at the same times each day. Stability and predictability are inversely proportionate to stress and anxiety - as one goes up, the other comes down.
Next week's blog post will continue this theme of coping with stress and anxiety. We will look at some of the habitual thought-patterns and core beliefs that we have that keep our anxiety stirred, and talk about how we can begin to change some of those more deep-seated factors.
Melanie Storrusten. Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Owner of Align Wellness Solutions.