We often find ourselves so consumed with life’s demands that we fail to step back, ground ourselves, and keep everything in perspective. Like a computer, the failure to reboot our perceptual systems can leave us functioning less than optimally and enduring unwanted and unnecessary stress.
We endure our share of appropriate stress as the journey of life unfolds. From birth to death, we encounter circumstances that exceed our current capacities. As the invitation to expand and elevate beyond the limits of the current self is presented, the shift from mastery to novice awakens insecurities.
Mastery in any aspect of life offers an element of certainty. With certainty comes security and with security comes comfort. Where mastery is absent, we are left with the humility of our limitations and the discomfort of undiscovered, or underdeveloped, capacities within the self for which life’s growth opportunities demand. Being challenged in such ways naturally results in stress.
At the intersection of appropriate stress and unnecessary stress is the loss of perspective. When confronted with circumstances where solutions are not readily accessible, the presence and severity of the challenge intensifies. Our focus narrows and we become increasingly problem-focused, inhibiting the creativity required for brainstorming solutions or finding a path toward resolution. The result is the syndrome of mental, emotional, and physiological experiences we call stress.
We cannot eliminate stress but it can be minimized substantially by engaging, consistently, in certain psycho-spiritual practices. Loss of perspective most commonly occurs when we find ourselves consumed with the immediacy of the seemingly 10,000 tasks we must attend to with regularity.
Consider diving off a 10-meter diving board. The perspective is much different standing on the platform than it is once engulfed by the waters below. We are engulfed in life’s responsibilities and need to surface and exit the pool frequently. Perspective and perception differs greatly from a place of detachment vs. immersion.
The following strategies are effective tools that allow us to regain and maintain perspective. They serve to reduce stress and aid in the maintenance of our overall psycho-spiritual functioning and well-being.
One of the most effective forms of detachment is meditation. I have been an on/off practitioner of meditation for almost 20 years. Life always works better when I am engaged in this practice. Things seem to magically fall into place and there is an effortless ease to life that does not exist when I do not consistently meditate.
While there are many styles of meditation, I engage in hybrid form of prayer and meditation. I sit quietly for a period of time and simply observe my breath. Then, I focus my attention on various affirmations that are personal to my experience, followed by a return to observing my breath and any sensations my body experiences. Sitting periods are anywhere from 15-30 minutes. Expect your mind to wander, often quite a distance from your breath. When this occurs, simply return your focus to the breath.
One of the benefits of this process is developing the muscle of detachment and observation. It is the practice of separating self from experience, which allows the self to be centered and grounded in the midst of experience. The effect is the development of increasing capacity to remain calm during the storms life brings.
Meditation, various forms of breath work, and practices such as progressive muscle relaxation affect our physiology. When under stress, the fight, flight, freeze response is activated. Certain hormones are released resulting in various sensations experienced in the body- jitteriness, tightness, heart palpitations, increased heart rate, or feeling like you are going to jump out of your own skin. Such practices help us decrease physiological arousal more efficiently and maintain longer and more consistent states of equanimity.
Conscious Control of Thoughts and Beliefs
We engage in practices such as meditation with intention. The same intentionality can be used to direct, redirect, and challenge thoughts and beliefs that lead to needless suffering.
When asked, “how are you?” I often respond by saying, “I could complain but it wouldn’t change anything.” That’s not completely true because complaining makes things worse. If I am complaining, my thoughts are focused on what I do not want. What I focus on, I attract. So, I attract more to complain about and it becomes a vicious cycle that leaves me in a persistent state of disharmony.
When stressed, or anxious, we tend to assume a problem-focused orientation, instead of a solution-focused orientation. We go into impossibility thinking or entertain worst case scenarios. As these thoughts circulate through consciousness, they intensify the fight, flight, freeze response moving us further from the front part of the brain where problem-solving capacities exist. Reducing physiological arousal through practices such as meditation assists in bringing the prefrontal cortex back online enhancing the capacity to take our thought process off auto-pilot and direct its course.
A useful strategy when anxious or stressed is to take whatever worst case scenario you may be imagining and exaggerate it. Once we arrive at the conclusion that no one will die, it helps to recalibrate our perception.
Exaggerating worst case scenarios places our inner experience of a situation, which can often be at the level of life and death, in its proper perspective. So, in the words of one of my former teachers, “Relax. The earth won’t stop spinning and we all won’t go flying off into space.”
Think for a moment. Has anything you have every worried yourself to madness about ever not worked out in the end? Reflecting on this question is useful in fostering perspective. Granted, we do not always get the outcome we desire and painful emotions are an inescapable reality of lived experience, but we make it through and move forward with our lives.
Think, for a moment, about one or two really stressful circumstances from two or three years ago that have been resolved. Now reflect on how you felt and what you thought about those circumstances prior to its resolution. Compare that to how you think and feel about those experiences now…if you think about them at all.
It is instructive on multiple levels to remain mindful that, if you are still breathing, you have weathered every storm. More are on the horizon, so trust that you have the capacity to weather the next.
As we explore the strategy of conscious control over thoughts and beliefs, the underlying principle of faith cannot be excluded. It can be faith born of history, belief in a higher power, or both. If the best predictor of the future is the past, our past dictates that this, too, shall pass. We will move beyond the current circumstance to resolution or adaptation.
If we believe in a higher power that serves our best interest, then all that life brings is understood at a core fundamental level as a gift and blessing despite any accompanying undesirable emotions. Affirmative prayer is a useful tool to reinforce faith and decrease the emotional impact of any stressful scenario. It involves connecting with the spirit of God within and asserting positive beliefs about a desired outcome. It reflects the certainty that we are each being led to our highest good, despite any temporary appearances.
The Present Moment
Take a few seconds to stop reading and focus on the present moment. Right now, not the past or the future; right now. Is anything wrong right now, in this moment? Likely, the answer is, no. Inner disturbance is often a function of lamenting the past or worrying about the future. In the present, there is peace. This exercise connects us to a sense of being in the present but life is also about doing.
Instead of lamenting the past, learn from it. Instead of needless worrying about the future, create a plan. Define goals, determine and prioritize action steps, then execute the plan one step at a time.
It is essential to approach our various obligations and responsibilities by attending to the needs of the present moment. What can be done right now is all that we can do. You can worry but it won’t change anything. It will only make things worse. So, relax, focus your energies and attention on what can be done right now, then, move to the next task.
I often return to the wisdom of a former college professor who once stated that perspective is everything. The depth of my understanding of these three simple words grows with each passing year. The practices described above help to create the necessary detachment that allows perspective to properly align with experience, reduce stress, and enhance well-being.
The next time you find yourself stressed or panicked, relax, and remind yourself that the earth won’t stop spinning and we all won’t go flying off into space.