Cultivating Calm

We all could use a little help reminding ourselves to relax.  This seems especially true in our 24/7 world where information overload never seems to cease.  There are strident voices everywhere, all of which seem entrenched in their own particular version of truth.  We receive constant messages designed to make us fearful.  Yet we race around our lives at warp speed without really spending the time necessary to evaluate what is or is not worth our concern.  As a result it’s pretty easy to fall into a state of perpetual worry.  Even if we’re not personally affected by some of the larger dangers in the world, there are plenty of localized concerns.  No need to name them; each of you reading this has a list of your own.  It’s no wonder that so many of us find ourselves in a state of chronic stress.

Maybe your own brand of stress has nothing to do with events in the news, local or otherwise.  Yet almost all of us at some point will find ourselves worried about something.  Stress is actually our body’s natural reaction to perceived threats.  It puts us on alert and releases physical reactions designed to help us address the danger, whatever it is.  There are mechanisms within our bodies that help us recognize and cope with threats to our survival.  In small short-term doses, stress can be a good thing.  Some stress can make us stronger by training our systems mentally and physically to handle discomfort.   But too much of anything can cause overload.  Then instead of adapting, the body gets thrown out of balance and many health problems can result.  In modern times, perceived threats to our survival may be more psychological than physical.  Often, if you examine your worries honestly and objectively, you will probably recognize that they are related to something that happened in the past which can’t be changed, or something that hasn’t happened yet and, in fact, my never happen.

Sometimes we don’t even realize how stressed out we are until something happens that becomes a wake-up call.  For example, a sudden illness or injury may help us to recognize that we may need to pay more attention to how we treat ourselves.  If we’re lucky, there will be a chance to turn things around and find ways to cope.  Even for those of us who do not see ourselves as chronic stress sufferers, there are times in everyone’s life when we just need to take a time-out and release tension.

So what can you do if you find yourself all wound up in a state of anxiety? Maybe you feel like you’re lacking something you need, like time, money or control over your life.  Right now we’re entering into the holiday season which on the surface should be a time of fun and joy, of giving and receiving, festive events with family and friends.  Yet too many of us find the holiday season akin to a mine field, laden with hidden traps ready to grab us when we least expect it.

Not surprisingly, my first suggestion for relieving stress is movement.  Think you haven’t got time?  Everyone has time to get up and walk around, even if it’s only for a minute or two.  If standing too much is stressing you out, then sit in a chair and do some easy stretching.  Shoulder rolls and neck stretches can help to relax.  You can, I’m sure, come up with all kinds of excuses.  But I will contend that unless you are a medical professional in the middle of a life-saving treatment, nothing you are doing is so critical that a few minutes of break time will make a difference in the outcome.  All sorts of events may be sabotaging your usual movement routine.  But no matter where you are or who you’re with there is always time for a break.  Make it a priority.  Remind yourself that not only will you feel better, but the world is not going to fall apart as a result.

Still having trouble finding time for movement?  Try breathing.  Whether or not you realize it, you’re going to breathe anyway.  So why not try focussing on your breath for a few minutes.  Just notice.  Slow it down.  Take your inhales all the way into your belly.  Lengthen your exhales to empty completely.  Try it!  Go into another room if you need to (like the bathroom, for example).  You may be surprised to find that whatever was in your head dissolves while you focus on your breath.  It may return afterwards, but you might also find that you are less tense and better able to handle whatever it is.

Another possible strategy is to let go of expectations. A friend recently said, “Every year I tell myself that whatever gets done is fine and whatever doesn’t is fine, too.  And every year that idea goes out the window as I try too hard to do too much.”  Think about it, though.  That’s pressure that we put on ourselves.  Generally, no one else expects as much from us as we expect of ourselves. It’s fine to make plans but sometimes the best laid plans and strategies can be upended in a moment through no fault of your own.  When that happens, it may not be easy to accept a different outcome.  But when you think about it, what choice do you have?  Reality is what it is, even if we were hoping it would be different.  We can blame ourselves or someone else, but placing blame is unlikely to change the situation.  Sometimes a mistake was made that we can learn from and avoid in the future.  But even that is not always possible.  Better to focus on living with the outcome as it is, whatever it is, and moving on from there.  Sometimes you might even find that outcome leads to something even better that you could not have foreseen or anticipated.  Keep your mind open to whatever happens and you just might be surprised by the results.

There are, of course, many articles and even books full of ideas for reducing stress, but here is my final suggestion.  When faced with disappointment or anxiety, making a gratitude list is something that always works.  No matter what is going wrong, there are bound to be things that are going right.  Did that new recipe not work out so well?  Take heart – most likely no one will go hungry because of it.  Were you unable to help out at that charitable event this year?  There are people in need all year long.  Be thankful that you can be generous in a different way another time.  Did you have enough to eat today and a warm place to sleep?  Even the fact that daylight arrived when expected today and you were there to witness it is reason to be grateful.  If you really spend some time with that list, you will come up with many more things to celebrate.  When I’m tempted to regret something from the past or feel insecure about the future, it always helps me to remember that right now – in this moment – I have everything I need.  And if this moment is uncomfortable, it will pass.

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Challenging Competitiveness

Photo: Peg Ryan – Mile High Pilates and Yoga

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
October 15, 2017

Custer, SD – This summer I volunteered at a couple of local running races.  Having run marathons myself, I appreciated the efforts made by volunteers when I was running and now try to help when I can.  Watching the runners I admired their fortitude.  As a former ultrarunner, I have a particular affinity for long races and often try to staff a post at which the runners passing through are either near the end of their race or at least more than half way.  Abilities vary but all have one thing in common – the desire to compete.   Some are competing to be the first to finish.  Others choose their competition based on pace.  Many races have awards in age-group categories in addition to overall winners providing another level of competition.  In ultrarunning, the distance itself is a worthy adversary and challenging terrain can further add to the intensity.  Some people compete with themselves, trying to better a previous mark or reach a goal they’ve established.

Competition can be a great motivator.  It is part of our lives from earliest memory.  The games we play as children are based on competition.  We learn at a the start of our lives that there are winners and losers.  Winning is celebrated and rewarded.  There is competition for toys in the sandbox and swings on the playground.  Everyone wants to be first and best.  This can be a good thing when it encourages one to strive for greater heights.  But many of us also remember the experience in gym class of being the last to be picked on a team or struggling to complete tasks that others found easy.  This might prompt us to begin labelling ourselves as capable or incompetent.  The internal dialogue of not being good enough begins when we’re young and may continue throughout our lives.  Instead of being a motivator, competition becomes an inhibitor.

We live in a society where competition is pervasive.  Even when we don’t realize it we measure ourselves against others.  It is a double-edged sword.  Seeing someone else do something really well might be a source of inspiration or it might convince you that it’s not worth trying because you’ll never be as good as them.  The effects of competition can be insidious.  It is present whenever we compare ourselves to others or worry about what someone else thinks of us.  We all want to be viewed as winners and it hurts when we think we’ve been bested by another.

As with everything, though, there are many ways of viewing competition.  It’s all about perception.  The terms “winning” and “losing” are arbitrary labels meaning different things to different people.  Furthermore, like everything else in our lives, they are temporary.  Can any of you name a sports star of the past who kept winning forever?  Sure they had wins that will always be in the “win” column.  But eventually they had to cede the top slot to someone else.  That may not mean that competition stops for them.  But it probably means  that the competitive standards change

It won’t come as news to anyone reading this that our abilities change as we get older.  This can work both ways, though.  Your skills might decline in some ways.  For example, during my volunteer stints I heard some older racers lamenting the fact that they weren’t as fast as they used to be.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but just because it’s obvious doesn’t make it any easier to accept.  Still no one can go back; we all have to keep moving forward.  How to move forward is a matter of choice.  One choice is to change the competitive parameters.  Instead of competing with your former self and lamenting your inability to do so, perhaps you can move the target.  Back away from former goals and set new ones that more realistically reflect your current status.  Just finishing can be considered a “win”.  Being good at something is in the eye of the beholder.  Be your own cheerleader!  You determine what it means to win.

Those of you who follow this blog know that accepting change is a recurring theme.  Attitudes toward competition fall into this same category.  For me it is helpful to remember that doing something is better than doing nothing.  This is even reflected in my practice of yoga and Pilates.  There are moves and poses I used to do that no longer work for me for one reason or another.  It is worth more to me to continue enjoying the movement I can do rather than force myself into certain positions just because others are doing them.  Injury might mean stopping altogether, so being mindful about how I move and what I choose to do makes sense to me.  Still this doesn’t mean I no longer try new things or challenge myself.  But it does mean that I avoid being influenced by what others are doing or thinking.  The competitive parameters I set for myself now are subject to change on a daily basis and that’s fine with me.  Nothing is fixed.  Everything is fluid.  Some days are better than others.  But there is something to celebrate in every day.  And that in itself is a “win”.