The end of 2014 was a very productive year for me, perhaps too productive. As a consultant, work can be very “feast or famine,” it seldom comes at a balanced pace, and I had both last year ending in a big feast. Because of this, I was pushed to my limits on stress and anxiety. Needless to say, I began to suffer all the signs of exhaustion including an immune system failure. As I have struggled to recover, I have learned several very important lessons on managing stress I would like to share.
1. Television is NOT Rest
When we are physically sick, many of us have been raised with the habit of snuggling up to a spread of fluids, soup, crackers, tissues and television. It is the traditional American way of nursing a cold or flu. However, when we are emotionally or mentally exhausted there is little worse for us than television. Television is “vicarious living” filling our minds with the thoughts and feelings of others. If we have our own stuff to work through, television can even make it worse.
As I crashed during my holiday break, my first instinct was also to turn on the TV and hope for a bit of a distraction from my stress. After a while I started to realize that it just wasn’t helping. As soon as I turned away from the TV all my anxiety just rushed back, sleeping was almost impossible.
2. Anxiety Builds Upon Our Distractions
In some ways, I feel like anxiety can be entirely defined as a build-up of doubts, fears, deferred decisions, and open questions which build up in our mind. After a while, they build-up like a congested artery until we can’t really feel at peace doing anything. Distracting ourselves from stress with TV, or other means, is like trying to fix an overflowing sink by turning up the radio.
3. Be Still: Old But Good Advice
“Be still, and know that I am God.” - Pslam 46:10
So here is ultimately what I learned and what has become by “New Year’s Resolution:” I have started the habit of ending my day, starting my day, and perhaps even interrupting my day as needed with the intentional habit of being still, silent and undistracted for a period of time. My purpose during this time is to calm myself, identify and address the thoughts in my head, and bring them before the Lord.
But those who wait for the Lord’s help find renewed strength...
- Isaiah 40:31a
4. Sit Up Straight or Walk
You may be thinking, “You’re a self-titled mystic and you don’t already have a habit of meditating?” Well, I have always enjoyed “thinking” and being contemplative. For me, spirituality has often been an active thing. Truth be told, “sitting still” has often been hard for me. for I have learned a few things that have made it easier though.
For those who realize that traditional “kneeling” to pray can lead the mind to wander, or even end in falling asleep, taking some pointers from other cultures is helpful. I have found than sitting with my back straight in a Yoga pose keeps me awake, alert, and able to be still for a long period of time.
If you can’t settle down enough to sit, taking a walk is a great first step. No listening to your music or audiobooks, just walking. Walking provides just enough energy not to “doze off,” yet often enough lack of distractions to start letting your mind unwind.
5. You Have to Face the Voices
Our modern world is rich in distraction, so it is easy for all of us to develop a habit of silencing the unpleasant thoughts and voices in our heads by turning up a volume knob. The reality is that we are often afraid of the silence, afraid of our own inner noise. However, if we don’t take the time to face them, identify them, and work through them, then we are doomed to be governed by them. This downward spiral leads to so much of our worst and most self-destructive behavior.
But, Do I Feel Any Better?
So after saying all that, a good question is to ask me: So do you feel any better? The answer is… only a little. I don’t really feel much better. I am still recovering, physically and mentally, and I still have a lot of challenges in front of me. So, if I don’t feel much better, then what is the point of all this? First, I don’t feel worse either. These new habits have cut off the steady growth of my anxiety. Secondly, I am able to function and be productive. Thirdly...
Sometimes Life Just Hurts
"To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering."
We can be very entitled and do a lot of damage to ourselves and others in a constant pursuit of comfort. Truth be told, life is hard. Sometimes we hurt because we are doing something wrong, and sometimes we hurt because we are doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing. No one changes their life without pain. We cannot follow the teachings of Christ without some willingness to endure suffering with a sense of duty and grace.
"Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars."
Dan Harris, an anchor on ABC, wrote a very bold and honest book about this cycle of anxiety and developing a habit of meditation. He is not a Christian, or religious, but in many ways that is what makes this book so valuable. It is a pure, skeptical look at how stillness can increase our well-being. I recommend giving it a look.