Recently I was driving to an appointment and running late. My mind was racing, my breath was shallow, my heartbeat was off the charts, and whenever I thought about it I realized that my muscles were clenched, I was leaning right up next to the steering wheel, and every cell in my body was urging the car to go faster.
At the same time, my logical brain was well aware that no matter how tense I was, how “uptight” I felt, I didn’t want to get a speeding ticket (which would have slowed me down even more). I also wanted to enter the meeting with a sense of relaxed confidence that simply wouldn’t have been possible if I stayed in that frantic, urgent state.
Stress and anxiety are characterized by speed and tension. Our thoughts, heartbeat, muscles and breathing all react to our sense of urgency, can run amok and derail any activity unless we take control.
But how do we do that?
Essentially every stress management strategy begins with our ability to slow down enough to become aware of the present moment. Once we are “here, now” we then have more access to our executive functioning and we’re able to make choices about how to calm ourselves down. Maybe it’s consciously relaxing and letting our muscles soften so that we stop feeling “uptight”. Maybe it’s taking a long, deep breath to entrain our internal rhythms to a slower pace. Maybe it’s taking a moment to really see what’s happening around us instead of being frantic with our urgent need to accomplish the next task.
Whichever strategy we use to slow ourselves down, we are helping to reduce our stress and heighten our sense of presence. Each of these strategies serve to immediately divert our attention from our anxious thoughts and bring us into the present moment.
But presence isn’t an end result, it’s a journey. Unfortunately, our mental chatter can be quite seductive and will, most likely, in very short order, return to its urgent spinning around our fear or anxiety.
So, we practice an intention to be more aware, to be able to step back from our thoughts and to return to the relative calm of the present moment. Over and over and over again… In time, we might begin to find that it’s easier to stay in the moment, easier to stay calm, and that we are much less driven by that sense of urgency.
As I was driving to my meeting, I let go of the need to be absolutely on time (although as it turned out, I was only a couple of minutes late). Whenever I noticed my interior world speeding up (which happened with alarming frequency at first), I slowed my breathing, relaxed my muscles, sat back in my seat and let my mind become quiet. By the end of the half-hour drive, my heartbeat was no longer racing, my breath had deepened, my mind was clear and I was able to walk into the meeting with a relaxed sense of confidence.
This is the type of every day event that we all can relate to. In these anxious, uncertain, technology driven times, we are relentlessly besieged with a sense of urgency that can drive us to high levels of anxiety. But it’s actually in these ordinary life events that we have continuous opportunities to practice presence so that when we encounter situations where the stakes are high, we can skillfully regain our balance, equanimity and sense of well-being.