If you’re feeling stressed you’re not alone. Last year a Gallup survey noted that people in the US are among the most stressed individuals worldwide. “55% reported experiencing stress during the day, 45% felt worried a lot, and more than one in five (22%) said they felt anger a lot.” Getting stressed isn’t anything any of us sets out to do; we just arrive there – all too often.
A little anxiety can help us reach peak performance. Yet, it is nonetheless a delicate scale. Making yourself aware of what energy you are feeling at a given moment and whether it matches with what you are attempting to do (your goal) can help you find the balance. For a sense of measurement, you might consider your energy sweet spot that mind-state where you feel balanced between relaxed and alert.
For example, if you were any mellower – for a specific task – you wouldn’t have enough energy to hit your peak performance. On the other hand if you were any more activated, you’d feel too “jumpy,” to perform your best.
Enter stressors. You need a certain amount of energy to attend to things smoothly. Stress consumes the physical and mental energy you need to manage your day in a flowing state. It depletes your resources for staying on course with a bright attentional beam and focusing on what matters. Stress can leave you fatigued and vulnerable to shaky thinking, feelings and decision making. It can additionally take your attention off the positive energy influencers around you that you could use to replenish your coping mechanisms. Cutting these off makes it more difficult to navigate smoothly within your daily grit and grind. You wind up meeting grind with more grind. You walk away fatigued with less resource energy. This becomes a formula for other problems, be they workplace, academic, social or familial. It’s difficult to keep this pattern up without burning out. So what to do?
One possible way to achieve some relief is to change your modus operandi from an energy consumption mind-state to an energy enhancing one. The techniques below can help you do that.
Clear the Slate
Use exercise to segue. There’s a reason why so many discussions on stress include using some physical activity for relief. Exercise can energize your body and mind. But it also can quickly shift you from one mindset to another. So I want to emphasize this latter function. I like shifting mind-states at various points of the day, even for a short while, by doing something physical – just to get out of your head for a while. Even a short walk at the beginning of your day can, for instance, start you off in a more balanced alternate state than where we, left to our usual devices, would have automatically headed like a moth to a flame. Try to identify the patterns (the variables) that guide you into your stress zones during such time-frames. The point is to substitute an energy building activity for an energy consuming one. But perform your activity mindfully. What I mean is this: If you are walking, tell yourself you are there to walk – so you are literally discarding everything else, ruminations, feelings, all, as you walk out the door. In the next section, you will learn about empty mind, a skill to enhance this ability. But for now, don’t put too much emphasis on this aspect. Just know that it’s not impossible. It takes a little practice to get competent with that. Yet athletes, performers, public speakers and the like learn how to do this rather quickly as a sort of survival technique that goes with the turf. And we can do it too, just a matter of practice. Martial arts, for instance, are so attractive to many people because these disciplines won’t allow you to stay “upstairs” with your invading stressors. Temporary relief is built right into their practice. You have to “let go” or you will get tagged or wind up pinned to the mats.
If you’re walking, one thing that can be done to help clear your slate is increase your focus on technique. You can put your attention on posture, speed, or breath – breathe mindfully, smoothly and relaxed, letting yourself feel and enjoy the rewards of good breathing. You can scan your natural environment looking for pleasing and calming detail there. Most physical activity will work to help shift you from the unwanted mindset that is gnawing at you. You may like to practice yoga, dance, tai chi, chi kung, jogging, swimming or gardening to name just a few. If you like and are motivated to do so you may want to try expand your comfort zones with rock climbing or parasailing or any number of other activities. Any of these can, if right for you, be a great way to increase the confidence and quality energy reserves we all need to deal with daily stressors. Any of these activities can be effective. It all depends on your personal likes and available resources. Of course, when considering any physical exercise plans, you should first consult with your physician to identify which is right for you.
Exercise is not a necessarily a miracle cure. The idea is to get out of your head, loosen stress’s grip, and boost your positive energy. You don’t have to completely change your mindset either. All we are looking for is a quarter turn. This may be all you need to get you refreshed enough to start weakening the old negative pattern(s) and head on a more positive path.
Empty mind is a holistic technique used to quickly re-set your mind-state. It is traditionally used to help bypass stress, attachments, and other negative feelings on the fly. As a result you can operate more fluidly. The idea is that a mind empty of preset thoughts, feelings, and action patterns can catch more of the positive variables in a developing situation. What’s more, negativity makes you rigid and you lose flexibility as a situation develops, adding to potential stress and eating up your capability to cope. The famous Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi taught that when the swordsman stands before an opponent he is not to think about the enemy, himself or the movement of swords. His job is to enter the flow of the experience without the interference of thought. This lesson of empty mind is learned by Tom Cruise’s character, Nathan Algren, in the film, The Last Samurai. Algren’s sparring partner explains it to Alfren in the movie: “Please forgive,” he says. “You have too many mind…mind sword, mind people watch, mind enemy. Too many mind. Must have no mind.” Algren has difficulty at first, but eventually, when he learns to stop thinking, so much, and empty his mind as his partner implores, he wins.
Beginner’s mind is another tool used for generating a balanced more stress-free mindset. It can be construed as heading into a task with the positive excitement of something you have really wanted to do for some time or for the first time. In holistic terms it is more traditionally understood as a mindset that is as devoid of prejudices as possible and is calm, yet excitedly charged and fluid. Beginner’s mind is simultaneously alert and relaxed. Cruise’s character, Algren, exhibits this mindset when he opens to the idea of mushin. As alien as the concept is to him, he doesn’t stop entertaining it. And he eventually “gets it.” You can think of beginner’s mind as high definition presence. Mushin is a tool to rinse your slate clean so that you can flow into beginner’s mind when necessary.
In an earlier post titled Boosting Mindfulness we discussed Buddhist monk and philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh’s definition of mindfulness as the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. Referring to mindfulness this way can help generate a solid base you can go back to for understanding what mindfulness is, how it effects you, as well as how to regulate it. You might like to check out my earlier post for a variety of techniques that will help you turn up the crispness of this tool. Improving the quality and intensity of energy in this practice will help your regulation of both empty and beginner’s mind. Additionally, increasing your mental currency with mindfulness will help you capture and use to your best advantage the more important details that unfold in a developing experience. On the other hand, it will help you disengage detail that isn’t advantageous to your goal.
Each of the skills discussed here can help back off daily stressors. They can help even out your mental and physical energy and temporarily reset a negative state of mind with a more positive one. They create opportunities for you to identify and disengage from situationally stress producing variables to which we easily attach without much thought. Again, no one sets out to get stressed, you just arrive there.
Solutions to increase your coping resources can be nearby. Although we can’t stop stress from entering our lives, we can re-consider our response to it.