It feels to me lately as though the pace of traumatic and catastrophic events is increasing. Anyone else feel that way? From hate crimes in our own country to the famine in Yemen, there is much to mourn and much to concern all of us. It feels like it’s too much to take. I am a bit of a news junkie, and I’ve found lately that it’s been really difficult to turn it off. If I’m really honest I was reading newspaper articles and listening to NPR like it was my job—and I have plenty of other, real jobs to do. I talked with my coach about it, and she asked what I thought I might be able to resolve by diving so far into the news. After a little reflection, I told her that I thought if I watched, read, and listened enough, that perhaps I would find certainty. And that makes sense, given the very uncertain world that we seem to be living in. Human beings loathe unpredictability. Babies are born with the ability to immediately begin making distinctions between different aspects of their environment. Dark versus light, a smile versus a frown, friendly versus frightening. Psychologists like myself believe that this ability helps infants survive by enabling them to discern and respond to the stimuli that surround them. As we grow, we use these distinctions to guide our behavior—to go toward people and environments that offer something we are seeking, and avoid those that are harmful or just uninteresting. We make these choices as a way to learn about our environment, but also to try to predict what will happen next. We crave predictability and certainty because, above all else, we desire safety. Safety means survival, and that is our most primitive instinct. When we feel unsafe, our defense mechanisms are activated in the brain—fight, flight, or freeze. Those mechanisms are designed to activate to help us cope with immediate danger or stress, and then to relax once the danger or stress has passed.
The problem that so many of us are facing today is that we are living in a state of constant alertness and stress. We don’t feel that we are living in a world that is safe, or predictable, or certain. Under those conditions, our defense mechanisms can stay activated over longer periods of time. We know that living that way creates a range of negative effects in our bodies and our minds, including physical pain and illness, and psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression. We may have milder symptoms, such as general feelings of sadness or irritability, or we might have trouble sleeping or focusing at work, and be unable to pinpoint the exact cause. It might be difficult to feel hopeful or excited about the future. Some people may see a direct connection between those feelings and current events, while others might not be sure exactly why they feel the way that they do.
I am very worried about my children’s future, and about the state of our world more generally. At the same time, I know that what I focus on will grow. So by devoting more time and attention to the things I am worried about, I’m giving energy to those same sources of stress and harm, and perpetuating their negative effects on myself and those around me. That’s not something I want to continue. I want to stay in a state of compassion for those who are suffering and for those who cause suffering. And, ultimately, clarity and certainty are not to be found in any source outside of myself. As my coach said so simply and powerfully to me, “it’s an inside job.” I knew in that moment where I had strayed from my path and what I needed to do to return to it.
I have a set of habits that I’ve developed over the past few years that help me to stay calm, grounded, and focused. Anytime I find that my feelings tend toward anxiety, helplessness, and distraction, I know it’s because I’ve dropped too many of those habits for too long. As the world around us becomes more stressful, creating and practicing similar habits will become more and more important for all of us. You don’t have to do what I do, but I would encourage you to create your own set of habits that work for you. Mine are based partly on personal experience but also on both psychological research and my own observations of people who are successful leaders in both the spiritual and business realms. I have taken those observations and my experiences and created a set of habits that make use of the best information we have available about how people can choose how they want to experience their days and their lives despite outside influences who try to tell us how to think, feel, and act. These habits always return me to a place that feels peaceful, joyful, and purposeful, no matter what is happening around me.
Here they are:
Sleep. If I don’t sleep, almost nothing else works very well. As Anne Lamott says, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” I had to give up my late-night tv habit to get enough sleep, but after a week or two I didn’t miss it, and I found I had so much more energy and focus during the day. Seven or eight hours should be your goal. We all think six is enough—it isn’t.
Exercise. Sleep first—if I’m exhausted, I will nap above all else. But then my second priority is exercise. If I don’t exercise, I don’t feel good. I’m all tight and crampy and knotty.
Stillness. I need time alone and time for my mind to be still. Sometimes I get this through exercise, but I find if I don’t set aside specific time to meditate and to write, my thoughts become like my body when I don’t exercise—all tight and crampy and knotty. This is my time to connect with my higher consciousness, my source. The energy that created the world and me in the world. Now, you might think this would be #1—but if I don’t sleep and I don’t exercise, I have a really hard time being still. So if you can’t be still, do those other things first and try again. Many successful CEO’s utilize meditation—and didn’t admit it for a long time, because it wasn’t an acceptable part of corporate culture. More are sharing the fact that it’s worked for them, and some companies are even incorporating it into their wellness offerings for employees.
Connect. When my buttons get pushed, sometimes I need another perspective to make sure I’m not losing my mind. I’m lucky to have special people in my life that I can count on to listen to me and support me. Social media can be a great source of connection, but it can also dominate our attention. Media platforms in general are designed to keep you attached to them for the next new thing, and then the next, and then the next. It feeds a need that our brains have for new stimulation, but as we know it’s not a healthy form of stimulation for long periods of times. Create a habit around how often and for how long you will use these platforms. CEO’s swear by setting specific times of the day to check email and social media and then the rest of the time they turn them OFF.
Contribute. I am happiest when I’m in service—to my clients, my family, and my community. When I’m helping someone else be more successful in life (whatever that looks like for them), I feel like I’ve won the lottery. Nothing will snap you out of your own head faster than showing up for someone else. Do some good for others and you will be doing some good for you too. Companies who are clear about their mission and what they want to contribute to the world are more likely to have long-term success and loyal, devoted, and happy employees.
Create. When I have free time, I love to create—I love to write, craft, cook, and garden. The experience of creating or growing something with my two hands that didn’t exist before gives me such joy. So go make something—a pie, a greeting card, a piece of music, a dance, whatever. Remember that how you do anything is how you do everything. So let yourself be free. Dial into your own creative energy and you’ll be amazed at how it carries over into other areas of your life. So often we are walking around following rules all day—in traffic, at work, etc. We all need a place to feel free from rules and constraints. See what you can create by letting go of the rules just a little bit. And, it’s important to nurture yourself as you nurture those around you. You can’t fill from an empty well.
If that list seems intimidating, remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Just choose one thing to bring into your day and into your life—maybe that’s another hour of sleep, or 30 minutes of exercise, or 10 minutes of meditation. Just choose one. And then notice how you feel after a couple of weeks. If you feel better, keep it up. And then maybe add one other habit for the next couple of weeks. As time goes by, you will probably notice that you have more energy and more patience, and that you can think more clearly. You may find that you get more done in less time because you aren’t as stressed and tired and overwhelmed as you used to be. You may spend less time bouncing from one task to the next, and perhaps even start to notice that you are able to set clear priorities and goals based on an inner sense of focus and direction. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for more clarity, more peace, and more joy. Those are qualities not to be found in any news article or Facebook post—they are only available by going within. Remember: “It’s an inside job.” And the more I can experience those qualities, the more I can share them with others. As we head into the holiday season, wouldn’t that be something wonderful to celebrate?