Whenever I’m about to start writing an article, I get anxious. I start looking through older papers, previous lessons, or websites to get inspired. I open a lot of files and I start reading to gather information, and the more I read the more my ideas pile up and increase my sense of stress and anxiety. I then try to organize my scattered thoughts. I write things down and then cross them out and rewrite things like “what am I writing?”, “where’s that article that I liked??”, or “what about that thing that I had read?”… STOP! Silence. That’s enough! Who’s in charge here? This is how the dance of our internal dialogue unravels: layers of thoughts in an endless imaginative process, completely out of control. At a certain point I stop and look at myself. I’m the one in charge, not my mind, a marvelous machine that instead of being the undisputed tyrant, can actually be my friend.
Slaves to our own thoughts
A good place to start is to remind ourselves that our mind doesn’t distinguish between what is remembered and what is imagined. The mind builds, imagines, rambles, invents, dreams, and insists. So, let’s first acknowledge this: monitoring the endless labour of our mind is the first step towards recognizing how easy it is to be deeply absorbed in our thoughts and how little time we spend in the here and now while we are doing something. A good example is driving. Where are we when we drive? Well, we are obviously in the car… but we’re not! We are anywhere our thoughts take us. While our body carries out automatic orders that have become part of our unconscious skills, we drift between thinking about our shopping list, the upcoming evening, our appointments, “oh no! I’ve forgotten that document! Oh well, I’ll send an email later and I’ll ask them to send it over. I don’t feel that well today… Stop complaining, you’re late! Keep calm and breathe…”. In the meantime, you’ve missed the exit, or you’ve forgotten to stop for petrol, and “Put your foot on the breaks!! Wow, that was a close shave”… STOP! I need to breathe. Just by writing down these rambling thoughts I feel stressed and anxious. However, this is how we spend most of our time, and anyone living like this would feel exhausted at the end of the day.
Anxiety comes from the future
Anxiety is the sister of fear. Fear is our most ancient feeling: we feel it when we are born and later in life when we face a danger that puts our physical safety at risk, i.e., when our survival is at stake. That’s how we feel if an angry dog bars our way, or if we perceive an upcoming tornado, or when our heart leaps when we see a snake while walking in the woods. In all these cases, we feel afraid, and this feeling protects us because it allows us to react to danger. Anxiety is similar, but it’s much more devious.
While fear stems from a real danger, anxiety emerges from an imaginary one.
The effects on our body are similar: the heart sinks, you feel stunned or want to flee, you take a step back, and you breathe faster. For example, think about that meeting where you’ll present that project that matters so much to you and where your boss will decide whether to approve it or not, or that meeting with an angry client you need to present solutions to, or again that speech you’ll make in front of a large audience, or that final exam that will determine whether you’ll get that certification you want so much.
How does that make you feel? Are you getting anxious or are you focusing on what you need to achieve your goal? The adrenaline that flows in our body when facing a difficult situation is healthy. It allows us to do the best we can, and it encourages us to act. So, when we feel our heart beating fast, let’s not call it anxiety, let’s call it LIFE!
Stress comes from the past
Let’s go back in time and look through our past. Where do our fatigue, tiredness, and insomnia come from? And why don’t they give us a break? The past is arranged in a series of experiences and floating memories that often restrain us. We can either learn from what has happened to us or weigh ourselves down with useless burdens that we don’t want to let go because we feel they are part of us and because, deep down, we might even be fond of them.
Stress stems from layers of unfinished moments, uncompleted experiences, and open files that are waiting for a solution, all of which characterize our lives.
Stress is akin to a pile of boxes stacked into a corner that we don’t even see anymore, without realizing how much space they take up and how they could be replaced by something new or different. Yes, you know I’m talking to you, and you know what I mean: it’s time to do some cleaning!
Here is a plan to put more order in your mind:
- Stop for a moment and consider your priorities (what is important for you in this precise moment? What’s your goal? Where do you want to start from to achieve it?).
- Finish off what you’ve procrastinated on or haven’t completed.
- Throw away anything you don’t need (including your thoughts!).
- Face that colleague you had an argument and clarify yourself.
These tips will help you clean up your RAM, as we do with unused files in a computer, and free up space!
So, we have come to the end of the article, but it was a nice journey and I thank you for coming along with me because now I’m more relaxed.
Here is a summary of my advice to overcome stress and anxiety:
- Get back in touch with your body: have a walk, do some sport, make something.
- Focus on your perceptions: what you see around you, what you can smell, the surfaces you are touching, and the movement of your muscles.
- Get in touch with your breathing.
- Embrace what is there.
- Distinguish between what is real and what is simply imagined.
And remember that the present is the only moment when life really happens. Have a good life!
I have to free myself from time and live the present as there is no other time than this wonderful instant. Alda Merini in “My Past”
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