Focus on De-Stressing

Everyone seems to be stressed out these days.  Of course, there are many valid reasons for this.  Each of us experiences potential sources of stress every day.  Perhaps it’s the weather or traffic that’s making us tense.  Or maybe it’s a health concern, either one’s own or that of someone close to us.  We might feel overloaded at work or be faced with looming deadlines that seem impossible to meet.  There might be people in our lives that are difficult to deal with.  Loving your job, or those difficult people, doesn’t make you immune to the stress they might cause you. Sometimes just facing the reality that there are situations or changes occurring that are beyond our control is enough to make life stressful.  And if all of that is not enough, there is the climate, the planet, politics, war, intolerance, fear, etc. etc.  Yikes! It’s a wonder that we all aren’t curled up and babbling in a fetal position.

Some stress is beneficial.  In discussing stress management, the Mayo Clinic reminds us that the “brain comes hard-wired with an alarm system for your protection. When your brain perceives a threat, it signals your body to release a burst of hormones to fuel your capacity for a response.”  Once the threat is gone, though, we’re supposed to return to a “normal relaxed state”.  However, our 24/7 lives don’t always permit this. We can be our own worst enemies, not allowing ourselves downtime when we most need it.  Sometimes we don’t even realize how much stress has gripped us.  It becomes increasingly difficult to know when or even how to dial it down.  When stress becomes chronic it can have serious negative effects on one’s health.  According to a recent Harvard Health newsletter chronic stress “contributes to everything from high blood pressure and heart disease to anxiety, digestive disorders, and slow wound healing.”

The good new is that “managing stress helps control many chronic conditions or reduce your risk for developing them.”  And here’s even more good news:  exercise in general, and mind-body practices like yoga and Pilates in particular, are among the top recommendations for reducing stress.  Among the reasons for this is that both of these disciplines encourage coordinating breath with movement.  Breathing techniques have long been known to encourage a relaxation response which can actually produce “changes in genes that influence health”. This can encourage reductions in blood pressure, blood sugar levels, digestion problems and even inflammation which has been shown to be associated with numerous health conditions.

Yoga and Pilates also encourage tuning into your body to learn how it behaves.  We spend so much time listening to the endless noise in our heads that we can forget that we even have a body.  Worse yet, our bodies can themselves become a source of frustration when they don’t look or feel the way we would like them to.  This also creates stress.  Discovering how your body works as it moves is actually fascinating if you let yourself look at it that way.  You will also begin to recognize when you are holding tension in your muscles.  The first step toward relaxing both mind and body is recognizing tension.  Many of us don’t even realize how tense we are until we start to feel what it’s like to let that tension go.  Holding tension in the body makes stressful situations that much more difficult to deal with.  Learning to release tension takes practice.  Regularly practicing mind-body disciplines like yoga and Pilates is a good place to start.

There are many different ways to manage stress. No single intervention can be the total answer for everyone.  Each of us needs to find what works for them.  And different situations may required different responses. All of this takes practice.  But instead of finding this discouraging, it might help to see it as an interesting challenge.  The benefit of any practice is that it allows you to keep trying.  If one attempt doesn’t seem to work you can try again or try something else.  Remember the goal:  better mental and physical health.  Keeping that in mind can make even the most difficult practice worthwhile.

One Thing at a Time

In this age of distractions, attempting to focus on one thing at a time can be surprisingly difficult.  A recent article in the New York Times cited a couple of studies demonstrating the pitfalls of so-called multi-tasking.  Are you listening to music while you read this?  Or maybe someone is talking to you.  Or you might be in a crowded or noisy environment where a loud noise could take your mind away from your reading. This may seem like a minor thing, but according to these studies multi-tasking can “double the number of errors made in assigned tasks”.  In fact, it turns out, by trying to do more within the same period of time, you actually accomplish less.

Interestingly, I was able to actually prove this to myself while I was reading the article.  Any of you who read online news have probably already noticed that advertising peppers the page you are reading from.  Advertisers actually count on your inability to resist distraction. About half-way through the article a little video appeared at the side of the page. Despite my best efforts to focus on the article, the lure of the video was unavoidable.  Without even realizing it, I found myself glancing over to the movement.  The sound was turned off so I don’t even know what the video was about but as soon as I realized that I had been sucked into the distraction vortex I had to laugh. I couldn’t help but wonder if the author of the article was aware of the irony.  Stanford professor Clifford Nash, who was part of a research team that published an article on this subject for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, calls this being a “sucker for irrelevancy”.  Isn’t that the truth!

The problems with multi-tasking don’t stop there.  People who multi-task may think they are maximizing accomplishments, but according to a study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, multi-taskers are actually less productive.  In fact, distractions make the original task take about 50% longer “compared to focusing on one task through to completion before starting the next one”.  Furthermore, it turns out that multi-tasking actually depletes your neural resources contributing to the mental exhaustion you might feel at the end of each day. As the Times article points out the “term ‘brain dead’ suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.”

There are other factors that contribute to being easily distracted or having difficulty focusing on one thing at a time.  These include stress and lack of adequate sleep.  But the constant noise of our 24/7 world makes avoiding distractions especially difficult.  Try and picture the last time you were in a noise-free, media-free environment for any length of time.  Many of us have become so accustomed to constant noise that we have actually developed what could be considered an addiction. Admittedly, this is true for me.  Not only do I run a fan at night year-round for “white noise” to sleep by, but I also confess to being a long-time radio junkie.  Until very recently when I stopped wanting the constant bombardment of news, I used to have the radio playing as “background noise” all day long.  Some people use TV for the same purpose.  My husband and I have lived without commercial TV for the past 10 years so I have managed to eliminate that noise from my daily life.  But as many of you know I am now a podcast addict so I guess I’ve just substituted one form of distraction for another.

This is where yoga and Pilates come to the rescue helping me to learn how to focus my attention on one task at a time.  The Times article refers to “monotasking” as a “21st-century term for what your high school English teacher probably just called ‘paying attention.'” Those of you who follow this blog will probably recognize learning to pay attention as a benefit of mind-body movement modalities.  As I’ve noted in earlier blog posts getting injured is often a direct result of not paying attention.  According to psychologist and Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct , monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced”.  There’s another term mentioned frequently on this blog: practice.  Think about it.  Given the obstacles, it’s not surprising that learning to focus on one thing at a time requires practice.  But the benefits are worth the effort.  It turns out that monotasking “can also make work itself more enjoyable.”

Still it’s not easy to concentrate one’s focus.  As a typical “Type A” personality I can definitely attest to that.  However, I know how much yoga and Pilates have helped me learn how to practice.  And every day presents new opportunities for practice.  For example, throughout the day I will often find myself starting one task and suddenly remembering something else that draws me in another direction.  When this happens I have learned to remind myself to finish the first thing first.  I may even have to say it out loud to myself:  “Finish this first!” If I need to I can make a physical note (that is, write it down) of the “something else” so I won’t forget to do it when I’m done with the first thing.  This is just one example of how I have learned to practice.

Years ago, I remember taking a time management course. The instructor talked about the things that need immediate attention vs. the things that have the appearance of needing immediate attention.  The latter are usually distractions.  When you’re in a yoga or Pilates class and putting all of your attention into connecting your mind with your body you will probably find that there is no room in your head for anything else. But still your mind may try to pull you in another direction.  This is the siren call of something having the appearance of needing your immediate attention.  When this happens, remind yourself that the other thing will still be there when you are finished with the task at hand. This is your chance to practice.  The more you practice the better you will get at remembering to put the practice into action.  Then you just might find that whatever you’re engaged in actually gets done more efficiently and may even be more enjoyable.