Most people have a particular relationship with time. If the time available to complete something expands, then we relax or fall asleep. On the contrary, if the time available to complete something contracts, then we tense up and get anxious.
The energy we generate, when time is short, is logical. During our evolution, our ancestors evolved to act quickly when it mattered. We are a legacy of that evolution, and therefore our system speeds up when life puts us under time pressure. Chemicals such as adrenaline predominate, and it becomes harder to relax.
Although this reactivity can makes us more effective, it can also backfire on us in terms of health and relationships. In particular:
- Constantly elevated stress levels can wear out our bodies – including the immune system, digestion, the cardiovascular system, and our reproductive system. Poor sleep, by spoiling our ability to restore ourselves, can multiply this effect.
- Cognitively, our ability to process social and environmental cues suffers. We are therefore more likely to make social mistakes, and to fall out with friends and colleagues. Due to poorer cognitive functioning, we are also less likely to be able to see and correct these social mistakes, creating a downward spiral in relationships.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO REDUCE THE EFFECTS OF STRESS?
It’s hard to counteract this effect, especially if we are intensely interested in both getting things done, and in preventing loss. Doing both involves split attention, and split attention is something the human brain is terrible at. At our busiest times, therefore, we will feel as though we were in some war, one minute trying to charge forward with our plans, and the nexy minute ducking out of our plans to patch up difficulties along the way.
However, there are a few practices which can help us to remain calm and easygoing, even at the busiest of times.
#1 – AFTER EVERY EFFORT, RETURN TO THE ‘CENTRE OF THE COURT’
This technique is borrowed from tennis. A good player, after making a shot, immediately returns towards the centre of the court to be ready for the next shot coming over from the other side. A big mistake we make when we’re ‘stressy’, is that we don’t return to our familiar ‘ready’ position, but keep flapping around at the fringes of the court. This causes us to miss other incoming events, as we are not ready, free and clear of distractions. We need to keep our homes and offices tidy and ready, even when busy, and ourselves in a receptive state. This does mean sacrificing time on projects, so we may feel bad. But it pays off in the long term. No one wants to be tended to by a messy, ill-equipped ambulance. Even urgent services spend time getting ready.
#2 – CONSTANTLY CHECK FOR IMBALANCES
When we are busy, encouraged by adrenaline, we forget our mental and physical state, and just ‘keep going’. This can be lethal unless we learn to interrupt the business process to self-check. A good way to do this is to set a regular alarm. When it goes off, use the reminder to check your state of mind. If you are hyper, then leave your workplace and go for a brief walk, or do whatever calms you down and gives you a break. At some monasteries, this is the function of a regular bell – to keep us mindful.
#3 – DO ONE THING, DIARISE THE REST
Multitasking is fatal. It is better to focus on one task at a time. If we are afraid of forgetting other things, then we can make a diary entry for each thing, telling us when we will next attend to it. Once everything is diarised, we have more resources left for the present moment.
#4 – KNOW WHO AND WHAT LOWER YOUR STRESS LEVELS
Many of us are like moths at a light bulb, constantly burning ourselves on the thing that ‘gets us going’, without spending enough time with what ‘calms us down’. It’s a particularly good idea to choose people and activities that remove us from the ‘busy area’. Visiting a calm friend means that, socially, we are invested in a different location for a while. We can try to organise our days so that they contain long periods of lower stress. For example, we can have an hour-long bedtime routine, rather than a five-minute one. We then teach our body to go through prolonged restfulness.
#5 – MEDITATE
Meditation is one of the single best practices for lowering stress levels. This is because it is designed to help us step away from the endless round of things that never quite make us happy. It centres us. It makes us aware of our own body and mind. It is a single-focus activity. And it trains our thought processes to work for us, not against us. Many of the most effective people incorporate several meditations into their daily routine. It grounds them. It keeps them healthy. And, after meditation, they can return to activity reset like a well-serviced machine. Philosophically, many forms of meditation also remind us of a universal perspective, which reduces the levels of selfish urgency we sometimes feel.
- Return to the centre of the court
- Check for imbalances
- Do one thing, diarise the rest
- Know who and what lowers your stress levels