Happy Thursday, all! Anybody else had a week?! Long about Tuesday morning my head was already reeling. By that evening I was having a hard time thinking straight. I know I’m not alone when I say that being a working adult, in a fast-paced society that elevates self above the whole, where self-care is a new concept, and health and wellbeing are scarily neglected, basic tasks of daily life can start to feel overwhelming. We deal with stress on a daily basis, whether you work from home or commute, work with people or computers, work full-time, part time, no time, you know that life is so hectic that even our free time can be stressful!
Most infuriatingly, we don’t just stick to relevant, recent things to worry about. Oh no, failures from childhood, possible futures that are drifting away, friends who once wronged you, the things you’ll never do; it’s all material that might trip you up as you go about your life. It’s hard to move forward when the present situation feels gross, the goal you imagine seems impossible to achieve, and the mind has a wealth of past attempts to prove you can’t. Nothing like finishing your stressful day with a smattering of past guilt and a side dish of hopelessness about the future.
So what do we do when life gets overwhelming? When we’ve had a long and hard day where do we turn as soon as we have free time? For the majority of the population, the majority of the time, the answer is not inward. We look for outward stimuli to take our minds off of the problems. We want to dive into a good show, game, or app, the more enthralling and removed from our current situation the better. Some people drink, going for the slight buzz that helps to make the problems a bit hazier, a bit farther away. We blare music, watch sappy movies about people who have it worse than we do, and accompany our mental numbing with a deep dish pizza and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
Our go-to methods to tackle our stress usually only serve to compound it. I don’t need to tell you how pounding the carbs and hitting the bar while stressed out of your mind are detrimental in the long run. We don’t need a break down on the fact that living your after work hours in a video game isn’t an effective long-term solution for your problems. We know these things, and yet alternatives are a bit thin on the ground at times.
I’d like to propose a new stress management tool. As much as “get in a sweat inducing workout” and “talk it out with an understanding friend” are great suggestions, they’re not always feasible. “Stress prevention” is a nice idea, but any articles I’ve read on the subject would require you to quit your job, hire a personal chef, move to a warmer climate, and spend two hours every morning meditating. Seeing as most of us aren’t going to commit to all of these steps, let’s try another option.
You know I’ve always advocated for a “Stop. And breathe.” approach. Let’s take that a bit further. Sometimes pausing for a breath is all you have time or mental capacity to do, and that’s great. If taking a deep breath can help you to center again and keep you from deep diving into one of your more negative coping strategies, good for you. If you have a few minutes, or can make yourself a few minutes, try starting with a breath and then let your mind wander. I’ve talked in the past about focusing our mental power on our problems to create solutions, but even that isn’t necessary. Simply by limiting the things your brain is trying to process to things that are already in there, you are minimizing the stress you feel. Let your mind ponder sweet memories from your past. Walk through the things of the day and why in particular they were challenging. Think about the future you are creating or what you’ll do next time you’re faced with a similar situation. Just think!
I know it sounds simple, a bit boring, sort of ridiculous even, depending who you are. That’s ok. Sitting around thinking only sounds strange because honestly, it doesn’t seem to happen very often these days.
I started this talk focusing on thought as a method to alleviate stress, but taking a good mental break is so much more. Spending time in thought used to be a daily occurrence when you were younger, as a kid and in school. Creative writing assignments, time before the next class, and pop quizzes were all opportunities to look out the window and ponder. Now that we’re grown up, busy with responsibilities and a handheld attention vacuum, moments to daydream, cogitate and work out the mental muscle take a conscious effort to create. But that time is vital to our mental health and overall wellbeing. When we sit without external mental occupation, the mind does incredible things. The moments you are reminded of, the new ideas that flow through, the special people you think about, and the impressive speed and volume of the thoughts produced, are incredibly powerful. Grab a notebook and write down your thoughts. You can let your mind wander and still keep track of the ideas that came to you. Give yourself five minutes, or as long as it takes for your mind to slow. Resolution comes when we allow our minds to process without distracting them with Candy Crush. Think of this as a good “defrag” for your internal hard drive.
Who knows what plans you may make, what things you’ll learn about yourself, the delights you’ll remember. I do hope you’ll give it a try.