Five simple steps to help you find peace in an unpeaceful world
Posted September 10, 2009
“PEACE. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”—Unknown
Dear Dr. Jed,
I just received your newsletter. It really sounds like my husband is getting stressed out. Three months ago he told me he hasn't been happy for 2 or 3 years. He has been extremely irritable, short-tempered, and mean. We've both been under a lot of stress lately and I know it has had an effect on our relationship.
We're both busy professionals. He's a physician and I'm an emergency room nurse. We love our work, but it's getting increasingly difficult to practice. Budget cuts at the hospital put pressure on everyone. He also had major surgery on his shoulder two years ago and he hasn't been the same since. Physically, he's fully recovered, but he seems frightened that something else will happen. He tells me he feels like his body is falling apart, even though he's perfectly healthy.
In addition my mother has been sick and I have spent a lot of time trying to take care of her. Both she and my Dad are getting older and I'm worried that their medical bills are going to wipe them out financially and they'll be dependent on us.
Well, I'm rambling on here. You get the idea. I feel that if we could reduce the stress in our lives or deal with it better, we could get back to our old selves where we were a team. Now it's like we're always fighting each other all the time. Help! RT.
Stress is when you are worried about getting laid off from your job, or worried about having enough money to pay your bills, or worried about what kind of future your children will have, or whether your parents will be dependent on you as they age. In fact, for most of us, stress is synonymous with worry. If it is something that makes us worry, then it is stressful.
However, our bodies have a much broader definition of stress. To our body, stress is synonymous with change. It doesn't matter if it is a “good” change, or a “bad” change, they are both stressful. When you find you find your dream home and get ready to move, that is stress. If you get a divorce, that also is stress. Good or bad, if it is a change in your life, it is stress as far as your body is concerned.
Even imagined change is stress. If you fear that you will not have enough money to pay your rent, that is stress. If you worry that you may get fired, that is stress. If you think that you may receive a promotion at work, that is also stress (even though this would be a good change). Whether the event is good or bad, imagining changes in your life is stressful.
Stress is part of life. If there were no changes in our lives, we'd either be dead or wish we were. The problem with stress is when we have too much change, in too short a time, with too few ways to release and relax. For most of human history stresses were few and far between. Occasionally, the wild animal would leap out of the forest and we'd have to run for our lives or fight for our lives. Our bodies, minds, and spirit are built for fight or flight.
But modern-day stress is primarily psychological, not physical. We are bombarded by worries. We are frightened by angry drivers who wave their fists and fingers at us. We are frustrated at the state of the economy.
However, the body doesn't know the difference between an attacking leopard and a criticizing husband. It can't even tell the difference between a real threat and an imagined one. When stress strikes, whatever the source, the body mobilizes, thinking it's under attack. The body reacts with an outpouring of hormones (i.e. adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol) that increases heart rate and respiration, sends more blood to skeletal muscles, dulls pain, stimulates the immune system, and turns sugar and fat into energy.
We used to get physical in response to stress, whether running away or chasing the animal out of the camp. Now stress is almost constant and we stew in our own juices. It's no wonder we get irritable and angry. So, what can we do? Here are some tried and true ways for dealing with stress.
Get moving immediately.
For millions of years of human history we got moving in response to stress. The best stress-reduction technique we have is movement. It's a simple formula: If you have stress every day (and we all do), you must move every day. Start walking, jogging, dancing, playing ball—anything, but get moving. Find some activity or group of activities you will commit to doing every day of your life.
Reduce the stress in your mind.
In the world our bodies and mind were designed for, the things to worry about were limited: Wild animals, snakes, poison plants, jealous husbands (yes, we had them back then, too). Now, our worries are endless: Nuclear threat, terrorist attacks, global warming, economic collapse, losing our jobs, our children getting sick, our grandkids getting into drugs, our health deteriorating, and on and on.
Here are two simple techniques to reduce the stress in your mind. First, ask yourself “How are things now?” You'll find the answer is always, “Fine” or “Pretty good.” Worry is always in the future. Stay in the present and you'll eliminate a lot of stress.
Second, ask yourself, “Do I plan to do anything about this today?” Most of us worry about things that will never happen or aren't really that important to us. If you're not going to do something about the nuclear threat, or global warming, or your kids, or parents, today, quit worrying about it. If there is something you can do, do it. When we're doing, we're not worrying.
Control the changes in your life.
We live in a world of “a million changes a minute.” But the truth is we can control a lot of it. Here's what you can do. Turn off the TV. You don't need a thousand new images bombarding your brain. Take a break. Do something else. Walk in your garden. Play cards. Read a book.
Stop buying new “stuff” and get rid of the clutter. Look around your house. What do you see? If you're like me, too much stuff. Keep the things that truly bring you pleasure and get rid of the rest. Each thing you look your stuff it makes your brain go through changes. Cart it out, give it away, toss it. Next time you think of buying something new, ask yourself this question, “Will I still think this thing is wonderful a year from now?” Probably not! Resist the corporate exhortations to buy, buy, buy. Remind yourself you don't need more change.
Learn to breathe.
I know you don't think much about breathing. You just do it. But most of us breathe too quickly and too shallowly, particularly when we are under stress. Conscious breathing is a great stress-reducer. Here are two techniques I learned from Dr. Andrew Weil, one of the world's leading experts on holistic health.
Sit in a comfortable position with the spine straight and head inclined slightly forward. Gently close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then let the breath come naturally without trying to influence it. Ideally it will be quiet and slow, but depth and rhythm may vary.
To begin the exercise, count “one” to yourself as you exhale.
The next time you exhale, count “two,” and so on up to “five.”
Then begin a new cycle, counting “one” on the next exhalation.
Never count higher than “five,” and count only when you exhale. You will know your attention has wandered when you find yourself up to “eight,” “12,” even “19.”
Try to do 10 minutes of this form of meditation.
Here is another breathing exercise from Dr. Weil that you can do anywhere at any time.
Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Note that you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. This exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. It's simple, but takes some practice.
Once you develop this technique by practicing it every day, it will be a very useful tool that you will always have with you. Use it whenever anything upsetting happens—before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension. Use it to help you fall asleep.
Remember, “You Are Not the Target.”
In 1963 Laura Archera Huxley, wife of Aldous Huxley, wrote a wonderful book, You Are Not the Target. If offers one of the most helpful techniques I've ever found for reducing stress and turning negative energy into positive. I've given many copies away over the years, but keep my original. Her technique is simple, but effective. I have been using this 4 step process for the last 45 years:
Step 1: Remind yourself that you are not the target. When your husband complains, when your boss is irritating, when your friends are neglectful, when your business partner is difficult, when your child is unmanageable...stop! Realize that their irritability, irrationality, lack of consideration, coolness—in other words, their disagreeable and wounding behavior is not really aimed at you. You may feel as though it were, but in the majority of cases it is not. You are not the target. You just happen to be there.
Step 2: Decide which part of your body you wish to beautify and strengthen.
We all could use some body toning. Pick a spot—Abdomen, buttocks, genitals, chest, thighs, upper arms? Where would you like to use the negative energy coming your way to create a positive change in your body?
Step 3: Move your muscles.
Moving from here to there is helpful, but so is making our muscles move while we're standing still. Contract and relax the muscles of the chosen part of your body in regular rhythms until you find the rhythm which is most comfortable for you. Now, contract and relax the muscles in your abdomen, buttocks, or wherever, while repeating to yourself, “I am not the target, I am not the target.”
Step 4: Heal the past.
The reason the words from our spouse, boss, or friend hurt so much is that they stimulate memories (often unconscious) from the past. After the unpleasantness in the present has passed and you can take some time alone, see if you can remember an incident from the past that was triggered by your present situation. You may remember something your father or mother said or did, for instance. Relive the moment of unpleasantness, and as you feel the bolt of energy flying in your direction, immediately convert it into that rhythmical contraction and relaxation.
Please share your own thoughts and feelings. What are the things that are causing stress in your life? What can you do to better handle these stresses?
Jed Diamond is director of MenAlive, a program dedicated to healing men and the women who love them. He is the author of 7 books including Male Menopause and The Irritable Male Syndrome. For more information, or to sign up for his newsletter, visit MenAlive.com.