I once heard George Carlin the comedian address the topic of vacations, and how people handle their “stuff.” People usually take a smaller version of their stuff on vacation and sequentially smaller versions to their hotel room, or to the beach etc. He was hysterical; resonating with the need we have for the familiar in order to feel more comfortable. Reflecting on this I wondered if it is the same with our stress level? Do we take a smaller version of our stress with us on vacation? Are we such creatures of habit that we unconsciously take along some stress to stay in our comfort zone? Sometimes we go into the habit of stress automatically, not giving any thought as to how we might change our lives to have smaller and smaller versions of it. On vacation for instance do we mindlessly fill up “down time?” Can you intentionally practice doing nothing? Are you tempted to fill the space?
Over the years people have said such things to me as, “my life is out of control,” “you might as well tell me to be a surgeon as to tell me to relax,” “I have no time to learn how to de-stress,” “I don’t know where to begin.” When people are at this anxiety level, any talk of de-stressing is hard for them to hear. If I told them to get more exercise, eat healthy, work less etc., it would be stressful for them in and of itself, although these things help.
There is an “I Love Lucy” episode whereby Lucy and her friend Ethel got a job wrapping candy in a factory. At first they went at their own pace, pleased with themselves until the manager speeded up the conveyor belt and they were not able to keep up. They began stuffing candy everywhere possible, even down their shirts, hoping the manager wouldn’t notice. Soon everything was out of control, chaotic and hilariously funny as only Lucy and Ethel could make it. This show was years ago when our activities were more in step with the cycles of the natural world and their behavior seemed to be an extreme exaggeration. That imagery however does not seem so exaggerated today does it? America in particular is on a fast clock that we allow to rule us to the point whereby we are stressed beyond limits. So how do we free ourselves from the tyranny of time? How can we make vacation time a slower elongated sense of time without pressure?
Stress is a natural part of living from which there is no escape, and does not respond to simpleminded solutions or quick fixes. Certainly if we have a choice it is only practical to avoid unnecessary misery. It is important to become aware of our “stress signature”, that which we do when there is an accumulation of stressors. Do we avoid, procrastinate, lash out, wall off, use drugs or get busier? It helps to know.
Stress however is so accumulative and insidious that many people are choosing to become aware, while attempting to acquire the tools to better manage the level of life’s stressors. If what you do over and over does not bring you positive results, more of the same won’t work. Taking a cue from the sailor who positions a sail to make the best use of the wind to propel the boat, nobody controls the weather, but good sailors learn to read it carefully and respect its power. If they sail with wind at their backs they go only where the wind blows them. Like the sailor, we can learn how to tackle life’s stressful situations with some basic tools, in order to avoid being overwhelmed. Knowing how to use wind energy, sailors will avoid storms if possible but when caught in one, they know when to take down the sails, drop anchor, ride things out. They control what is controllable and let go of the rest. What a concept!
Basic strategy in having less stress is to become aware, be mindful of what one is doing, how often, and when. No article or book will help if you do not make time to reflect and examine where you are now, not where you want to be.
Here are some steps to become mindful and less stressed:
First: If you are overwhelmed with stress. Stop! Breathe slowly, gently, with eyes closed. Becoming aware of breath and slowing it down is a major precursor to change. If our breath is shallow and we are unaware of it, we remain unfocused, tense and distracted. So without forcing, practice deep slow gentle breaths. Using the analogy of a bicycle, if one has never learned to ride it is of no use in an emergency. Our breath is like the bicycle. It has the power to calm us in the stressful situation on a day to day basis, if we practice.
Second: Look at your life as you are presently living it. Now look at your life as you would like it to be.
Third: Draw a circle, include segments representing the time you spend on major areas as family finances, leisure, health, career, sleep etc. Where are you overdoing, under doing? Where is your energy going? Where are you in this pie of your life? (For example I saw an overstressed banker whose wife was on the verge of leaving because he never had time for the family. After assessing his situation it became evident that in addition to overworking, he was reading four newspapers a day plus listening to local and national news. He reduced reading to one newspaper with a nightly scan of news, gaining roughly two hours a day, thus being more available to his family.
Fourth: Breathe, review and redraw your circle into a more balanced possibility. Doing less in some areas in order to be more available to life in others, is a beginning. Reevaluate your priorities. Pay attention to how you feel, become mindful. In our society busyness is quite addictive, condoned and valued. What I’m suggesting to create change in your life may run counter to your comfort level, and that itself being a clue.
Fifth: How to start being mindful: Do you have 1 minute or10 minutes a day. 30 minutes would be better, however start where you can and will. Place one hand where your breath is moving usually the chest area and one hand below your navel so you can feel the rise and fall of your belly breathing. Breathe in slowly, pause without forcing, and on the out breath make an “aaah” sound. Remember how it feels to come home exhausted to flop on the couch saying aaah! Continue to breathe gently, slowly and deeply pausing after each inhalation and exhalation. Thoughts may come, just note them and let them go. Thoughts are like clouds, they always change. So go back to breath and relax. Do this exercise for one minute and add to it as you can. Becoming aware, mindful and breathing properly are basic underpinnings for managing stress, and changing your life. Let go and relax.