Let’s face it. The demands of fast-paced modern life make busyness, burn-out and that faceless feeling of “being behind” an all too common triage. Deadlines, to-do lists, stuff to get done! And this is especially true this time of year leading into the holidays.
Oftentimes a busy schedule and towering to-do list comes with the price of sacrificing self-care, relationship time, and quality presence with the things that really matter.
But here’s the thing: the danger of allowing ourselves to buy into the “I’m so busy” stress story and fall victim to a nameless state of overwhelm is that we become disempowered and disembodied. When our mind weaves the story that it can’t stop or slow down, we internalize the false impression that we don’t have the power to change our circumstances.
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
In each moment, each of us has the ability to change our feeling state, and therefore our reality, based on the thoughts we tell ourselves and the actions we take based on those thoughts.
If you are finding yourself stressed out just thinking about rounding the corner into November, consider it a sign that it’s time to recalibrate. Follow these simple steps in the coming weeks to bring yourself back into balance when you feel stress arising.
1) Pay attention to what you feel.
Awareness is the first step to shifting your feeling state. You can’t shift out of a circumstance if you don’t recognize that you’re in it in the first place!
Bring your attention to your physical body, your emotions and your thoughts when you find yourself in a stressful situation. What thoughts are you telling yourself? Are you holding your breath? Clenching your jaw? Racing through your entire day in your mind over and over again?
Through learning to bring your awareness to the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations you experience when you’re under stress, you can begin to take these cues as signals that it is time to slow down.
This act of mindfulness builds space between you and the stress state itself. As the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said, “Between the stimulus and the response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
2) Come back to your breath.
If you’ve noticed yourself starting into a tailspin, come back to your breath. Close your eyes if you need to. Focus on breathing deep inhales and generous exhales, dropping into the present moment.
A word for all my people out there skeptical about breathing deeply. When I first started using mindfulness to lessen my anxiety, the instruction to “breathe deeply” made me want to punch someone in the face. Didn’t they get that I still had SO. MUCH. STUFF. to deal with?
The purpose of coming back to your breath is not to escape your situation or bypass the thing that is overwhelming you in the first place. It’s to calm your nervous system enough so that you can meet the world, and whatever challenges you have before you, with more skillfulness and embodiment.
You don’t need to be an expert meditator or levitating guru to do this. You don’t need to quiet all thoughts in your head before you start. All you need to do is be willing to allow whatever thoughts to be present, and CHOOSE to send your awareness elsewhere. Simply focusing on breathing in and out in the present moment.
3) Visualize something you’re grateful for.
Once you’ve dropped into your breath and begun to return to present moment awareness, bring your thoughts to something you’re grateful for. Visualize this thing in your mind’s eye as you continue to breathe. It can be something tiny, mundane, or profound.
The amazing salad you just scarfed down for lunch without hardly realizing.
Someone you love.
Nutritional yeast on popcorn.
Off street parking.
It doesn’t matter what it is. What matters is that you allow yourself to feel the sensation of gratitude – the softening, opening sense of okayness it creates.
While consciously calling in the feeling of gratitude doesn’t magically eliminate the items on your to-list, it does profoundly reframe the stress story and puts it into a large context of your life.
Using mindfulness to slow down and come home to our center during times of stress isn’t indulgent or bypassing. It is essential if we want to meet our lives, no matter how chaotic they may seem, with greater clarity and calm.