Interrupting Anxiety, and Finding the point of Peace

In Zen there is an adage that says to do one thing at a time. Finish what you are doing before starting the next thing.  

I learned the true power of this, once, during a particularly stressful time. It was a time of emotional crisis, when I found myself operating from a place of fear and worry, unlike anything I had known before.  I found myself jumping from one worrisome thought to another, before any single thought could be adequately processed by my mind-body system. Each new thought would ramp up the tension in my body, and, instead of taking the time to slow down and feel it, and allow that tension a natural release, I found myself spinning off into the next worrisome thought before the first one was even truly complete. 

This destructive thought pattern had all of my intuitive health alarms going off. Stacking tension, on top of tension, on top of tension, I knew this pattern could cause me serious harm if I allowed it to continue.

Thankfully, interrupting the cycle was actually quite straight forward. It involved slowing down, enough to allow the feelings and physical sensations that were in my body, at that moment, to be recognized and given the space needed to settle.  The technique I used, based in yoga, is also validated by modern understanding of the nervous system as well as some types of trauma work.*  It wasn't hard, and who among us can't use another tool for an emotional and spiritual reset during a time of stress? 

What was this magic cure? I simply retreated to a quiet area, and lay down in Shavasana, the rest one takes at the end of a Yoga class. (See below for full instructions.**)  By bringing my attention to any physical sensations, and allowing them to be what they were, I could begin to relax. I could begin to sink into the support of the floor beneath me. As I lay there, in a growing sense of allowing, I was allowing my nervous system to drain out the stress that it had accumulated. (I was also allowing myself to enter into a growing sense of wholeness, more on that in a bit.)

It is well understood in exercise science, that the nervous system requires ample time to de-activate. It is also well understood by yogis that taking Shavasana works, in this regard, reliably. 

What is less understood, is that emotional strain, stress, even joyful excitement, also activate the nervous system, and, just as you would after exercise, a period of well timed and sufficient rest is required to allow the system to de-activate and return to balance. We can't get our system all worked up, and then just tell ourselves, "I'm relaxed!," before running off to do the next thing, if we want to operate from a place of balance. It simply doesn't work that way. We have to actually provide the space for the deactivation to be allowed to happen.

A bicycling accident I had in college illustrates this point well.  I had been riding my bike up to a stop light, when the passenger door of a car unexpectedly flew open, caught the handlebar of my bike,  and caused me to wipe out.  It wasn't a bad accident; I might have had a single bruise as a result. But the surprise of wiping out onto the pavement naturally caused a strong activation of my nervous system. I told the people I was fine, and as the light changed to green, we all went on our way... but I soon realized that saying I was fine, and actually being fine were two different things;  I really just needed to give myself a minute! (Or ten, or twenty! Whatever it takes.) So I pulled over to a patch of green and sat in the shade. I felt my body shaking. I allowed some tears to come and go.  I took the time I needed to simply be, in my body and in my experience.  And then I was fine!

This is about finishing the process. Allowing the completion of our cycle of getting worked up.  Physically, it is a deactivation of the nervous system. To the spirit, it is far more.

For, shavasana also provides (and here's a bit of Psychosynthesis theory), a chance to come into balance with all 6 of our psychological functions. By being caught up in my thoughts, I was in crisis not because thinking is inherently bad, but because I was cut off from the spectrum of wisdom that is my fully functioning psyche. For we know ourselves not just through thinking, but through the body, through the emotions, through the guiding pull of desire, through the imagery of imagination...and, ultimately, by really clearing the slate so that the insight of intuition has a chance to be heard through any of these functions.

Bringing attention to the sensations of the body during Shavasana is almost always the easiest first step out of the gravitational-like pull of an overactive thinking function. Or, perhaps the grip of another function; in grief, for instance, our emotions can really dominate. When we bring out attention to noticing, and fully allowing, our physical sensations to be what they are, we are taking a step out of any overactive function, and we can then enter a more receptive state, guided by intuition, which will naturally lead our attention through any neglected psychological functions. Whatever is waiting for your attention, a new insight, an emotional awareness, a growing sense of purpose...these have the opportunity to arise, as we step out of the dominant function, and simply enter our wholeness through  the grounded awareness of our bodies. We don't need to try, this is just what happens. After exertion, whether physical, mental, emotional, we simply "take rest." By doing so, we come into our wholeness.

That difficult day of thinking anxious thoughts was a great blessing for me, because I learned so much, not just about how to handle my stress, but about cycles of activity, taking rest at the end of any cycle, and by doing so, finding the point of peace amidst the activity.

By bringing awareness, to body, mind, and emotions, as sensations arise, and by allowing time for the full integration and completion of the cycles of activity, we can not only stop anxiety and stress, but we can enter our true wisdom. We become like a mountain. Rooted enough to be able to handle life's storms. And also elevated enough to enjoy the heights at the same time. 

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*Special thanks to Sara Vatore, who has generously shared with me, based on her years of training in Somatic Experiencing, insights into how the nervous system works, and how the body processes trauma. This article is inspired by my conversations with her.  I believe she would want me to note that, as effective as focusing on the body's sensations can be for releasing trauma/nervous-system-activation, it is not recommended for all kinds of trauma. 

**Instructions for Shavasana
Lay down in a dim, quiet place. Bring your shoulders up to your ears, back toward the floor, then lock them down once again. (This will bring a protective arch into the lower back, to allow one to comfortably extend the legs and arms.)  Lay with your  legs slightly opened, and your arms as well. Feel the support of the floor, and let your body begin to sink into that support. Notice the sensations in your body. Allow them to be what they are.  Breath deeply, allowing the belly to rise and fall. Stay here for ten minutes, or until you feel rested.  

"Torture and Reward"

My husband Sheldon, an accomplished man in both business and life, has the best work ethic of anyone I've ever met.  What's his secret? He has a self imposed work system which he (tongue in cheek) refers to as "torture and reward."

Truth be told, he has a greater willingness for hard work and delayed gratification (the "torture" phase) than most people. And that in itself could be its own article and is well worth some deep contemplation.  He's also unwilling to endure torture if there is no sufficient reward in sight. This is the reason he quit the hourly wage work force early on, and started working for himself as soon as he could figure out a path to do so. These are both great things to contemplate, but may not be for everybody.

But there is a universal piece, one that any of us can benefit from, which is this.  Sheldon understands and consistently applies these 6 golden rules of how to use rewards. These are:

  1. Don't enjoy the reward too early
  2. Time big rewards strategically
  3. Do enjoy rewards!
  4. Break Big jobs into smaller goals/milestones/accomplishments
  5. There's a time and a place for everything
  6. Use positive self talk (all the time) 

Don't enjoy the reward too early, means, you don't kick back and take a break first thing in the morning before you've gotten anything done.   It means you apply yourself, you do the work, and then you enjoy an (appropriately scaled) reward. 

It also means you look at the rewards you would like to have in your life, including--actually, especially!--whatever you might already be thinking to do for yourself, and you consider timing them strategically to increase your motivation. For instance, consider saving the expensive purchase of that Nice New Thing you're thinking to buy, for after the successful completion of the thing you are working on, or some milestone point.

Breaking up your big jobs into smaller, manageable chunks is another basic and foundational motivation piece. It makes huge jobs seem more approachable, once they've been broken down into manageable pieces, and, what's more, each of these milestones can, and should, be celebrated! The more accomplishments you make a point to identify and congratulate yourself for, the more you are naturally motivating yourself.

What would it look like to map out some upcoming rewards for yourself around your accomplishments? What could you give yourself, and when would you give it?  See if you can identify three goals, one of which you intend to accomplish within about a month's time, and three ways to celebrate each of these. 

Routine accomplishments can also be played with, and can become a bit of a game.  I used to watch a certain TV show only when I was working out on the elliptical machine. If I wanted to see the next episode, I had to get on the machine!  Here's another one: Sheldon is in the habit of unloading the dishwasher in the morning, while the water for his coffee comes to a boil. It's a fast job, it fills the time he'd just be twiddling his thumbs, and he gets to check off an accomplishment before he's even sat down to his coffee.

Do enjoy rewards!, means that, at the end of the day, you take an hour or two to read or do something else you enjoy, in a clean and intentional atmosphere (maybe light some candles, put on some music to enhance your enjoyment). Or whatever floats your boat!  It means at the end of the week, you take a day to devote to something you enjoy--a reward for your hard work of the week. 

If you find yourself working into the wee hours of the night, every night, without a rest, you are missing the reward of your day's work, and your motivation will suffer.  Ditto the end of the week.

Taking stock of and celebrating what you have accomplished-- at the end of the day, at the end of the week, and before a vacation period-- is an important and necessary reward. Resting and enjoying your accomplishment is really how we bring the accomplishment to completion. If we are skipping this, then we are not actually completing the accomplishment. Praise where praise is due--for yourself, for others--and taking a well earned rest (appropriately portioned for the phase of work) goes a long way toward absorbing a reward properly, and, by doing so, preparing yourself to enter the next phase of work.  

The more you start to look at phases of work and rest as a rhythm and a system, the more you realize that, indeed, there's a time and a place for everything.  Hard work in the morning, break for lunch, maybe even a short siesta if you need it to make the most of the afternoon; another cycle of work, ending with rest and enjoyment in the evening.  Working in complete cycles like this, you can get more than one cycle of hard work out of yourself in the day.

Which time of the day will you rest and enjoy? Which day of the week? Which week, or two!, of each season will be devoted to enjoyment and rejuvenating? Plan to pay yourself not just with monetary rewards, but the rewards of healthy rhythms, and a life well lived. 

Positive self talk. Last but not least, this is a constantly available and accessible reward that you can apply liberally, with yourself and others. It's one reward that you can give as early and as often as you like, so it doesn't follow the other rules, except for the Do Enjoy It rule.

Beginning your week having fully appreciated all you did the previous week, you are well set up to feel good about what you will be able to accomplish this coming week.  "I sure did a lot last week! (Nix the critical voice that will insist you could have done more.)  I did this, and that, and that. Good job, me!" It's easy to go from that, to "I can do anything I put my mind to this week. What do I want to accomplish?"  Follow a job with credit where credit is due, even for the small things. "I did that thing I said I would do this morning!!" And if you have a supportive ear, go ahead and support each other with good listening and appreciation. Telling each other about your accomplishments, however humble, and praising each other's efforts, is a magic formula for a great work environment that stays motivating for all.  

While positive self talk sounds rather obvious, many people find it actually quite hard to do, and I can relate. My own social programming was to be modest, to the degree that I used to tease Sheldon for what seemed to me to be exaggerated bragging about the smallest accomplishments. But after twenty years in relationship, I cannot deny that what he does, works!  He knows how to motivate himself! And more and more, I am taking a page out of his motivation book.

By incorporating positive self talk, well timed rest, enjoyment, and strategic rewards, I find I have a much easier time motivating myself, enjoying my accomplishments, and getting myself psyched and feeling confident to take on the next thing. Try them, and let me know how they work!