“A mind that is racing over worries about the future or recycling resentments from the past is ill equipped to handle the challenges of the moment. By slowing down, we can train the mind to focus completely in the present. Then we will find that we can function well whatever the difficulties. That is what it means to be stress-proof: not avoiding stress but being at our best under pressure, calm, cool, and creative in the midst of the storm.”
― Eknath Easwaran, Take Your Time: The Wisdom of Slowing Down
Since reading Slowing Down to the Speed of Life: How to create a more peaceful, simpler life from the inside out, I have a different perspective on stress and mental health. As I explained in a previous post, Richard Carlson and Joseph Baily define true mental health as the ability to engage in free-flow thinking. They reason that we all have the capacity for positive mental health, but that as adults we are socialised into the busy mindsets of Western culture and then we become serious, analytical, stressed, depressed and unimaginative. Beginning at age five or six, and then steadily progressing into adulthood, our mental health keeps declining.
However, we have a natural ability to recover our mental health. It’s only because we lack the understanding of how our thinking works, that we feel unable to recover our mental health. Slowing down to the speed of life allows us to notice aspects of life that were previously hidden in the frenzy of a busy mind. Beneath the vicissitudes of thought, lies a spaciousness, a peacefulness of being that is incomprehensible to a mind caught in analytical thinking. When our minds aren’t racing from one thing to the next, we can gain access to our innate mental health. It’s always there. We can’t actually lose it. We just need to be willing to let go of our insistence on spinning our wheels in analytical thinking mode.
Now, granted there are many times in life, when it feels unrealistic or even impossible to reach a peaceful state of mind. In times of distress, it can feel as if life is throwing you with too much and like speeding up is the only answer to reducing the stress. But this is counter-intuitive. Speeding up, amplifies the distress you are experiencing and results in more spinning in one place without a way out. So, how can you slow down to the speed of life, even in stressful or chaotic times?
The first step is understanding where stress actually comes from. You might assume that stress comes from the environment – from other people or stressful and challenging situations. However, Carlson and Baily believe that we create our own stress – sometimes quiet innocently – by how we are thinking about our experiences. This doesn’t mean that life doesn’t present us with situations that could be perceived as stressful – illness, pressing deadlines, rush-hour traffic, financial or relationship problems. All these situations could evoke a certain way of thinking within us. The degree of distress we experience is directly related to our perception of the situation and our thinking in the moment.
Seven essential steps for reducing mental distress
According to Carlson and Baily, there are seven essential steps to reducing mental distress:
- Knowing that inner peace is possible, even amidst stressful situations.
- Having the humility to admit that “getting what you want” isn’t always the answer.
- Letting go of the idea of “dealing head-on” with or “struggling with” your problems.
- Understanding that distress originates in our minds and our specific way of thinking about the situation, and not getting caught up in it.
- Learning how not to let “passing thoughts” turn into “thought attacks”.
- Avoiding the temptation of getting caught up in the details.
- Lowering your tolerance for stress.
These steps might sound simpler than they are. Let’s look at each one separately.
Knowing that inner peace is possible
Although we can easily superimpose fearful, worried, negative, hurried or insecure thoughts on our minds, our innate potential for inner calm is always there. We are born with it and growing up simply means we forget how to access it. However, we can relearn how to access it at any time.
All of us experience stress in our lives, but the extent to which we experience stress greatly varies. It depends on our thinking in a specific moment or the mindset we find ourselves in when faced with a specific situation. Something that might be highly stressful to one person, might be perceived as a delightful adventure for another person – think about bungee jumping or public speaking. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Hope is a powerful force. If you know in your heart that something is possible, it provides you with the inner mental strength to remain open and look for an opportunity to slow down your thinking. Remaining open to slowing down does not mean that you resist stressful thoughts or urges. In fact, allowing them to come and recognising them for what they are, opens the window of opportunity to slow down your thinking.
I’ve started the practice of an “urge jar”. It’s a simple, but powerful practice. You keep a mason jar. Every time you have the urge to stress, worry, get angry, get upset or whatever other emotion you feel the urge to feel, you allow the feeling to come and you be with it. You ask yourself where it comes from and why the urge is there. Then you drop a pebble or a marble or a coin or whatever in the urge jar for that specific urge. Every time there is an urge to experience a strong and overwhelming emotion, allow it and be with it in curiosity. Then let it go. Drop the pebble in the jar and return to a more peaceful mindset. The aim is to collect as many “urges” as possible. Fill your jar and see how quickly you can do it. This practice enhances your self-awareness and believe it or not, but it will allow space for you to access the free-flow mode of thinking and your innate mental health faster.
Admitting that “getting what you want” might not be the answer
I struggled a lot with this idea. And then of course I realised that I was stuck in analytical thinking. To make sense of this step, it is important to distinguish between happiness and contentment. Most people equate happiness with getting what they want and avoiding the things they don’t want. The result is that life becomes a sort of ping-pong game. We chase what we think we want and dart away from what we think we don’t want.
At a deeper level, most of us understand that this is not the path to happiness, because we are trying to control something that we can’t control. And yet, we keep trying. We try to convince ourselves that we will be happy once we get that promotion, or drive the car we want, or buy that house in the suburbs, or land that dream job, or marry the one, or if only our spouse would treat us better, or once we have kids, or once our kids leave home. We could spend our lives chasing this ever-elusive thing called happiness, without noticing that we are missing out on our lives in the process. We miss the precious moments in between. We don’t pay attention to the things that bring real joy, because we are chasing a dream or goal that we believe is the ultimate answer. Each time a desire is fulfilled, we replace it with another, believing that the next thing will finally bring us the peace we crave. Can you see the madness in this?
According to Carlson and Baily, there is a direct link to our wish list and our level of stress and unhappiness. The more we want something we can’t have – or the more we have something we don’t want – the greater our feeling of distress. For example, if you believe you are currently earning less than you need to feel secure, you will feel unhappy every time you are reminded of the discrepancy between what you are currently earning and what you believe you should be earning. Or if you believe that meeting “the one” will finally bring you ever-lasting happiness, you will remain unhappy for as long as you are single or every time you meet someone that you decide is “not the one”. If you believe that your stress is caused by a lack of time, you will feel stressed every time you think about how little time you have.
Unfortunately, most often when your dream does finally come true, the joy you feel is short-lived. Soon after, the same mindset you were in while chasing the dream sets back in and the chase starts all over again. If you manage to make more money, you will soon find a way to spend it. Soon, you will need even more money. When you manage to meet the one, soon, you will notice their human flaws and become disillusioned. Or you might start to worry that they will let you down or leave you. Or you manage to fit in two extra hours of work, only to realise that you are still behind schedule.
So, in order to feel less stress in your life, you must realise that getting what you want, might no be the answer. Additionally, sometimes life brings us challenges that we don’t want but that turn out to be the biggest blessings. No real personal growth happens in times of complacency. They happen during times of challenge, when we are stretched beyond what we thought we were capable of. Our greatest challenges often bring us life’s greatest gifts. It all depends on whether we are willing to notice them and embrace them for what they are.
What is the alternative to chasing what you want? Or should I say, what you think will bring you happiness? It’s noticing the gift in every moment and every situation as your life unfolds. When you slow down to the speed of life, you notice what is in the moment that could prove to be a source of joy. That is what contentment is; finding the joy in the moment or in what is, instead of chasing what could be.
Letting go of the idea of “dealing head-on” or “struggling with” your problems
We are conditioned to deal with problems as they arise and to tackle the issues in our lives in silos. If you are unhappy with your marriage, you think of a strategy to make the relationship more nourishing. If you are unhappy with your work, you start looking for alternative employment. So, in effect you try to think your way through the problem to a satisfactory solution. However, thinking about your stress in this way leads you stuck, spinning your wheels in analytical thinking mode.
Carlson and Baily believe that this “head-on” approach to dealing with a problem only exacerbates the problem. With each book we read, or each person we speak to about the problem, our belief about how stressful the situation is, is reinforced and validated. The problem with this way of thinking, is that we are putting the problem outside ourselves. We start to think “If only my spouse listened to me, then I would be happier” or if they aren’t engaging with us, we might reason to ourselves “He didn’t care about me in the first place. Perhaps we need to get a divorce”. This kind of thinking keeps you out of the present moment. You keep looking for something or someone outside yourself to blame.
When we look at the problem in this way, we keep trying to change the source of the problem or find ways to cope or “deal with it”, instead of noticing that how we are thinking about the problem is creating the stress we are experiencing.
Noticing our perception about the situation, and how we are getting stuck in repetitive thinking, and thus stepping out of it, brings us back to the present, and brings us closer to mental health. Stress originates from our mindset; not from sources outside of us.
Understanding that distress originates in our minds, and not getting caught up in it
This leads us to step four in the process. If stress is not something that happens outside of us, but rather something that originates within us, then the only way to eliminate or reduce the stress is from the inside out. We decide what is stressful and what is not. There are plenty examples of this. Bungee jumping could be exciting and thrilling to one person and the cause of a nervous breakdown for another. For one person investing in the stock market seems wise and for another it seems foolish. Working the suicide hotline might feel like a calling to purpose for one person and might create a lot of anxiety for another. Becoming an entrepreneur might seem exciting and motivating to one person and daunting and overwhelming to another.
Carlson and Baily emphasise that getting caught up in your thinking is more relevant to how you feel from one situation to the next, than the actual specifics of what you find yourself caught up in. You might be preparing for a dinner party at your house and the thought might strike you that the house isn’t clean. If you let the thought pass, it won’t cause you any distress. However, if you hook onto that idea and start thinking about it, you might add more thoughts, like “My house is never clean” and “What are my guests going to think of me?”. If you are not conscious about what’s happening in your mind at this point, you might get yourself stuck in a thought attack where these thoughts keep multiplying until you start spinning out of control emotionally.
Before you know it, you are spiralling, and it all started with one thought, one idea that took hold of your mind and pulled you out of the present moment. Rather than accepting the moment and slowing down to figure out the best way to deal with the moment, you struggle against it by wishing it were different, or fighting against it until you convince yourself that you will only be happy once your house is clean.
“But what if my house really is a mess?”, you might ask. And you might be correct, but does getting yourself into a flat spin really solve the problem? If you were able to remain calm however, you would figure out what the best thing to do is in that moment. Being in the moment helps you gain clarity about how much time is available, and what could be reasonably cleaned or sorted out or not. Or it might bring the realisation that your friends have never noticed how clean or dirty your house is. You might end up cleaning the house. You might not. What’s most important here is how much distress you generated for yourself with the thoughts you entertained in your head.
You’ve probably heard the saying about the best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Something that seems impossible, then becomes possible. Mountaineers might set the goal of climbing a specific mountain, but they cannot focus only on the end result – i.e. getting to the top – they need to focus on the next step in front of them if they are to ascend the whole mountain. You climb the mountain by taking the first step and then the next and then the next. You don’t simply leap to the top of the mountain.
Two things are important about this. First, real transformation is not accomplished in leaps and bounds. It’s accomplished one incremental step at a time. When we try to measure how far we’ve come after one change or one step, we might not see a marked difference. However, when we look back over a series of weeks, or months, or years, we notice how far we’ve come. And it all started with that one focused step in the right direction. Second, when we focus on the one thing right in front of us, we pull our minds back into the present moment and what felt impossible, now feels doable. We empower ourselves to move forward instead of staying stuck in analytical thinking, over-analysing the size and impossibility of the task ahead of us. And what you will notice is suddenly the stress and sense of overwhelm is gone. We are not racing ahead trying to figure out how we are going to do all of it. We are simply focusing on what we can do right now in this moment. And then when the next moment presents itself, we deal with what it brings with it. And then the next until we get where we wanted to go.
Learning how not to let “passing thoughts” turn into “thought attacks”
Every time we notice a thought and stop ourselves from going down the spiral of thinking that gets us stuck, we are retraining our brains to no longer become entangled in thought attacks. A single passing thought can very rarely lower our spirits or create distress. It’s only when they start multiplying and we find ourselves stuck in the middle of a thought attack, that they cause great distress and immobilise us. Minor annoyances can become enormous sources of distress when we fixate on the thought spiral.
Someone says something mean to you. Your first thought is “She shouldn’t have said that to me”. You now have one of two choices. You can let this thought pass and disregard it. Or you can focus on it and make it grow. If you choose to dismiss it, it’s over and you can then decide whether it’s worth it to bring it up with this person again, or rather let it go. By recognising that it is simply a passing thought, you keep yourself operating at the speed of life and in free-flow thinking.
If you choose to focus on the thought it will begin to grow and with it, your stress levels will start to rise. “That is unfair… How could she say that to me?! … She is so annoying… That was passive aggressive… Why does she always have to be so passive aggressive? … She is such an irritating person…” Before you know it, you will be analysing the person’s character and finding reasons to justify the anger and indignation you are feeling. Fully engaged in a thought attack now, you feel angry and stressed. Ironically, you will think that it was the inconsiderate comment that caused the distress and anger you are feeling right now. But was it really? Or was it the spiral of thoughts that grabbed hold of your mind and pulled you out of the present moment?
Not getting caught up in the details
For this reason, it’s important to avoid getting caught up in the details of a thought attack. It can wreak havoc with your inner peace and mental health. Especially if you carry it with you throughout your day. Say for example a disgruntled customer yells at you in the parking lot at the grocery store to move your car. Later that night when you are having dinner with your spouse, you retell the story and then fixate on how unfair and unreasonable this person was. You go into the details. The anger on her face. The sound of her voice. How angry you felt. The more specific the story gets, the more you feel yourself getting worked up all over again and before you know it, you are in a foul mood and your dinner is ruined. Because you’re are caught up in the details, you now find it imperative to keep discussing it. You can’t stop.
However, the truth is that the person who yelled at you earlier in the day has nothing to do with how you feel right now. She may have acted inappropriately, but the entire incident lasted a few seconds. Yet, hours later, you are keeping it alive by reliving the details of the story. And the only person who suffers in this moment, is you. Speculating about her motives and what kind of person she is, won’t change what happened. All it does, is keep you locked into analytical thinking mode and not present to your life. Your mindset is robbing you of joy or contentment in this moment.
Can you imagine how different your life could be if instead of allowing negative thoughts to multiply and spiral out of control, you simply notice them and then let them go? Would you still feel stressed, harassed and frustrated? Probably not. Thoughts are just thoughts. They cannot harm you if you don’t let them.
Lowering your tolerance for stress
Putting these ideas into practice ultimately lowers your tolerance for stress and allows you to access your innate mental health. When we recognise our thoughts for what they are, we slip into a more reflective mode of thinking and thus stay in the flow of life.
People often mistakenly think that if they can “handle” more stress, they build resilience. But the reality is, if you can handle more stress, guess what? You will always feel stressed.
Stress is actually a signal that we have fallen into an unhealthy thought process and that we are moving away from mental health. Stress should be the signal that helps us move out of analytical thinking and back into free-flow thinking. See stress like the warning light in the car that warns that the engine is overheating. Without this warning light, we might damage the engine. Not paying attention to our feelings of stress might lead us to a heart attack, stroke or some other major medical emergency. Catching yourself when you are spiralling, allows you to move out of the spiral, and back into reflective thinking before there is an adverse effect on your overall health and wellbeing.
With enough practice you will find yourself in a calm state of mind, where the same things that used to feel really stressful, now seem like mere blips on the radar. You have slowed down to the speed of life. You are noticing life right in front of you. The gift of this moment and what it could offer you if you open yourself up to it. Life then will no longer feel like an endless race to some impossible goal. Life starts to flow, and every moment holds the promise of happiness, joy, beauty, serenity and abundance.
- Carlson, R. & Baily. J. (1997). Slowing down to the speed of life: How to create a more peaceful, simpler life from the inside out. New York: HarperCollins.
- Easwaran, E. (2012). Take your time: The wisdom of slowing down. Canada: Nilgiri Press.