When it comes to the stresses of our lives, maybe Lennon & McCartney had the answer right from the start. We need to just “Let it be.”
It’s likely, however, that even those famous lyrics were inspired by wisdom passed down by the sages and mentors who guided Liverpool’s famous composing duo.
Reading and listening to books from the most recognized social and spiritual leaders is where I’ve found the ideas that guide me through life’s challenges. Some of these books are thousands of years old, and some are brand new, but the lessons and points of view that they all contain are timeless. Through these lessons and through new eyes, I see stress, worries, and depression very differently than I did when I suffered more acutely in the past. Implementing and practicing these lessons helps me find peace, even in my darkest and most worrisome times.
At the time I initially started this post my boys and I were nearing the end of our summer break. As two teens…and a middle school teacher…we were each facing new school years, a change of schools, meeting new people, and as always…we were poised to write the next chapters in our lives. It’s times like these when we can find ourselves bound by the chains of worry and the fears of what lies ahead. What better time to share what I’ve learned over the years about all sorts of uncomfortable, awkward, and often unhealthy feelings that we’re certain to all experience at one time or another.
I wish that I had handled fear and stress differently when I young. I wish that I could say that these worries, these anxiety-filled moments will end as we move through life, but they won’t. They only change. They turn from worries about fitting in to worries and fears about careers and friendships and starting a family and health concerns and on and on. The sooner we learn to see stress for what it actually is the better off we’ll be moving forward toward bigger and better and most importantly…happier times.
Of the thousands of pages that I’ve read on the subject, here is a simplification of the thoughts and ideas of our wisest and most informed, as they pertain to stress, anxiety, and depression:
The foundation of it all:
All stress is caused by our inability or unwillingness to accept what is. Read that again.
All stress is caused by our inability or unwillingness to accept what is.
It creeps or sometimes bursts into our lives when during the times when we either can’t accept or refuse to accept our current life circumstances. Accepting what is…is the simplest key to calm feelings of stress, anxiety, shame, regret, anger, disappointment, sadness, and so on.
Before we go too much further, it’s important to know that there are actually two very different types of emotional stress: Eustress and Distress. Eustress, like euphoria, is fantastic; it’s positive! Distress breaks us down, and when left unattended…it can bring us to our knees.
Eustress has the following characteristics: It motivates us, and it focuses our energy and intentions. It is short-term, and its something within our realm of control. Although it’s still a type of stress and it feels uncomfortable; it can bring tears and even make you feel nauseous…it’s really an exciting feeling. And when we can harness its power to actually improve our mental and physical performance, it’s one of life’s most beautiful tools. You might be coming out of a coach’s huddle, heading onto the basketball court with 3.8 seconds left and the championship on the line, or you may be waiting for the curtain to open on the biggest stage you’ve ever performed on. Either way…your chemistry changes. You can feel the energy running through your veins. It’s almost electric!
Distress, however, is bad. It’s very bad. It’s insidious. Distress, what we usually simply call “stress,” is a negative-stress that has the following characteristics: Distress makes us worry, it causes anxiety, and maybe worst of all it robs you of the moment that you’re in! It robs you of focus and guides you away from your purpose and your intentions. It causes a release of chemicals in your body that literally makes you sick and miserable. It causes headaches. It steals your ability to focus and replaces it with fear and worry and so many other negative thoughts feelings.
Today, stress accompanies us almost everywhere; our jobs, our homes, our meals, and our bedrooms. We don’t even need to give it an invitation. It first sneaks into our minds, then slowly finds its way into our spirts, eating away at our passions like a cancer. It will enthusiasm and life and love from even simplest joys. Distress is so all-consuming that we could find yourself on vacation…in a tropical paradise…at an all you can eat buffet…with the love of our life…yet worry is stealing away that very moment and replace it with pain, fear, anxiety, insecurity and/or guilt. Distress can be long term or short term, but it’s often perceived as outside of our ability to control. The accompanying feelings are not exciting. In fact, they’re quite unpleasant. Stress has been repeatedly, scientifically proven to decreases both mental and physical performance.
But how bad can it really be? I mean…c’mon! Harden up!
When left unchecked, stress literally becomes a silent assassin. I don’t share that lightly…because it hits so close to home. Research shows that our inability to manage stress levels leads to heart disease, asthma, obesity, headaches, intestinal problems, premature death, and depression. Even more tragic, like voodoo and black magic, it can draw us in, enticing the most vulnerable to search for permanent solutions to life’s temporary problems.
Recognizing the unique natures of these two different stresses, we can see that eustress is absolutely fantastic. It’s often the antidote we need in order to break free. But now lets focus on distress, learning how to recognize it, how to avoid it, and how to untangle it when we need to.
Perhaps the most important revelation that I’ve come across when searching for remedies for anxiety, stress, and depression is this:
There are only two primary, fundamental causes for our emotional distress, but they are both solved by the same solution. Two problems. One solution. This means that if we can (and yes, some will certainly require more clinical/medical remedies) master just one solution…we can use that to help us through all of our challenging emotional times. So what is that elusive, mysterious solution?
Simply and directly, we need to be present. We need to learn to “Be in the now.” We have to accept our life circumstances…as they are right now. Make peace with it. Become its partner. “Now” is the only moment we’ve ever had…and the only moment we will ever have.
But how does it work? Adopting this mentality may not be easy, as we’ve had years and years of practice worrying and little to no time learning and practicing mindfulness.
It works like this:
All feelings of guilt, shame, anger, resentment, bitterness, and sadness result from living in the past. “How could I be so stupid?” “I can’t believe he could betray me like that!” “Why did this have to happen to me?” “It’s not fair that this happened in the first place!” “I just can’t forgive her.” Can’t you feel the pain written into all of those comments? All of these comments, every last one, focus on something behind us; something that happened in our past, not in our present moment. In fact, in a very real, very literal, very scientific way…those events are not longer real. We can’t find them. We can’t measure them. We can’t record them. They are gone, unless or until we invite them back into our lives. If we’re present, we can see; we can feel…that they aren’t actually with us.
All feelings of anxiety, fear, worry, insecurity, and that general uneasiness that’s become so prevalent in modern societies…come from living in the future. Our worries about the future steal us from the moment we’re in and bury us in fear about what may (or may not) come later. If we’re not mindful and present we can find ourselves being hit by an avalanche of What-Ifs. “What if I don’t get the job?” “What if she doesn’t like me?” “What if the doctor can’t help us?” “What if I’m not chosen?” Worrying about the future, regardless of what we’re fearing or anxious about, will never improve our future. It will, with absolute scientific certainty, make it worse. But it will never make it better. Truth be told, we’re often worrying about circumstances that we believe are coming, when in fact, they aren’t! What a massive and undermining disservice this is to our wellness and our happiness. We rob ourselves of the “Now” by worrying about an event that will likely never happen in the future.
Personally, I often catch my mind wandering aimlessly through a sea of “What ifs” only to remind myself that I am absolutely fine at the moment. I’m sitting on a comfortable sofa, in a beautiful home, with a cup of tea in my lap, surrounded by my boys. Really! What else could I possibly want? Why would I ever allow stress to rob that precious moment from me? I recognize stress and worry as an intruder…then I politely excuse it.
“But I’ve lost my job and…”
“But if he leaves me I’ll…”
Yes! There are so many What-Ifs to worry about. But if you lost your job…do you want to be unemployed and miserable, or unemployed and grateful? In both case you’re unemployed. Worrying about it won’t change that fact. Action will! Positivity will! So what a prefect time to look at what we SHOULD do as opposed to what we shouldn’t be doing.
The Best “Toolbox” I’ve ever built:
Now that we’ve taken a moment to recognize the ugly truth about allowing stress, anxiety, and depression to take us away from our present moments, how do we fix it?
It’s important that I take a second to state something clearly. Anxiety and depression are dreadful mental and emotional foes. Periodically individuals do and should lean on modern medicines for relief. I’m certainly not a doctor. I’m not even an expert. In fact, I’ve had a lot of failures in this area over the decades. In fact…I’ve gotten incredibly good at failing. So much so that it doesn’t feel any different to me than making my bed in the morning or taking out the trash. Failure is a function of success, and man it is a wise and powerful teacher. Finding solutions that don’t work has helped me discover and hold on to some tools that are actually effective (for me) in pushing back the dark!
I now keep a funny little visual in my head of a small toolbox; one like my dad used to call our family’s “crash-kit.” Not over-dramatizing for effect, but this little “toolbox” has literally saved my life on more than a few occasions. It’s a sort of laundry list of strategies that we can always go to in order to help manage sad, lonely, and hurtful feelings when they start to show their ugly faces. We can learn to recognize them earlier and earlier, then stop them in their tracks and escort them to the exit.
Stay grounded in gratitude. Focus on what you have now…in this moment. Is it family? Maybe a close friend? Your relationship with God? A place to sleep? A meal? Focus on your safety, your health, or anything else that’s going right, rather than what you perceive is going wrong. I’ve had instances in my life where things were incredibly difficult to get through, but simply being grateful for the bed I slept in and the fact that I could see and hear helped me get through those moments. A bed. Sight. The ability to hear. That’s literally all I could find. Maybe that’s not all that I had to be grateful for, but it’s all I could find in the moment…and it was enough; enough to help me through the next moment. Gratitude and anxiety live in the same place in your head. Focusing on gratitude gives anxiety its eviction papers!
Think “Water.” If you find yourself feeling down, angry, on the verge of tears (not that tears are inherently bad), find a way or ways, to get closer to water. This probably seem ambiguous “get close to water.” It is! But water sooths the soul. It really does. It’s what we’re made of. It is our life force. So pick one of these…or better…pick ’em all!
Jump in the pool, the ocean, a creek, run through the sprinklers…or…just take a cold shower. (Yes, cold! Shockingly cold). An ice bath or cold shower shocks our bodies and reaches beyond what’s in our minds into what’s often referred to as our “reptilian brain.” Think about animals in nature. They don’t worry. We do. Our animal instinct won’t let us worry, so engaging that part of our brain can help us focus on what matters. It helps us be present. How many times in the movies do you see someone panicking, only to have someone else throws a glass of water in their face? Add to that this scientific fact. Water in motion releases negative ions. Negative ions are odorless, tasteless molecules that we inhale while we’re near them. Negative ions have been proven to reduce stress and help elevate our moods! So get to the pool, the river, the sea, and especially waterfalls. It works. It brings us to “the here and now.”
Drink fresh, very cold water. Water, especially cold water has a naturally calming effect. You can feel its effects, both physically and emotionally, almost the moment it hits your lips. There’s a nice side effect to this strategy as well. While that tall glass or bottle of cold water is calming our mind and our emotions, our physical body is being hydrated and nourished which is beneficial as well. Water is almost like a lubricant that helps our minds, bodies, and spirits function at their best.
Look within. Don’t look outside of yourself for solutions. Don’t look to someone else to ease your pain. Caffeine, sugar, video games, adrenaline, shopping, relationships, etc. are never the answer. We may see our friends turning toward other vices such as drugs, alcohol, and prescription medications to help them “feel better.” But there’s one unequivocal truth about these “solutions” and this is that…They all take more than they give. Sugar leaves us flat. Video games leave us tired and our brains fried. Comfort food makes us sleepy and causes unnecessary weight gains and a sea of other health issues. Depending on others to ease our discomfort may leave us lost if we find ourselves on our own again. Drugs, including alcohol and many prescription medications, may make you feel fantastic at the moment but often leave you feeling dreadful when they wear off. Again…they take more than they give.
Sit with your discomfort. Here’s the part where Lennon & McCarney (and Leo Babauta, whom I first learned this technique) got it right. “Let it be.” Let our stress, anxiety, fear, regret, disappointment simply be. We can sit with your pain. See it. Feel it. Notice it. Watch it change. If we sincerely give it our attention…it will change. It always changes. In a way, it’s a healthy means of processing our stress. When we’re done, it’s gone…or at least much more manageable. Yes, it may come back. But recognizing the emotion for what it is, then watching it change into something completely different can be a life saving skill.
Get Physical. This one is very special to me. Depending on the severity of your negative emotion in the moment; depending on your immediate level of discomfort, you may want to get really physical! Intensely physical! There’s a phrase that I lean on from time to time that reads, “Mood Follows Action.” I think of this almost like bump-starting a car with a dead battery. The car won’t run. It won’t start. So let’s push it or roll it down a hill (action)…then pop the clutch and let it run (mood).
Sometimes simply taking a walk can help get us re-centered. For me though, it often takes something a bit more intense to steal my thoughts back from my fears and anxieties, so I go to a level of intensity that works. With practice, you’ll learn to recognize the feelings almost like a headache. You’ll feel them getting better. It might take a trip to the gym or a quick bike ride or a run. But during those instances when I can’t get away (restless at 2:30 am, at work, etc.) I can still knock out a few sets of pushups or sit-ups, just enough to get my mind off of what’s consuming my thoughts at that moment. Make it intense. You’ll have to focus on what you’re doing in the moment which leaves no mind left to perpetuate your suffering.
Feed your body. I don’t mean sit on the sofa with a Little Caesar’s pizza and a coke. For real. That’s not even food. I mean feed yourself. Take in the fuel that our minds, bodies, and spirits need. Don’t feed the emotion what emotion needs. Feed your body what your body needs! For me, it’s all about fresh whole foods. It might be a fruit salad or green salad. More often, it’s a smoothie that’s packed with everything our bodies could possibly need. I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist, so I can’t be sure what I’m lacking. So during really challenging emotional times I ‘top it all off.’ What I call my “Fix-All” smoothie starts with coconut water, turmeric powder, and flax meal or chia seeds. I add to that nutrient and vitamin-rich spinach or kale (that I’ve cleaned, blanched, and frozen in advance). Take a base like that, then add your favorite fruit, (or whatever’s on the counter about to go bad). Typically I keep frozen blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, mango, and pineapple in the freezer. In a very real way, my freezer is my medicine cabinet. I keep it stocked with all I need, from ice packs to organic fruits and veg. “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” I think that Hippocrates guy could be onto something.
Breathe with purpose. Breathing with intention is an incredibly powerful way to bring yourself and your thoughts together again. Think about that. It’s a powerful way to bring yourself…and your thoughts…together.
This is a skill that The East has mastered, and The West won’t even give credence to. Often, taking a short moment to focus on a few (7 to 10) full breaths is enough to get your body and mind back in line. Don’t think about posture. In fact, let that go. We want to breath! Big, full, belly-stretching breaths. As you continue to practice breathing, that 7 to 10 breaths will turn in to 3 to 5…then it will become one. Now…it takes me one, big, deep, focused, intent-filled breath in order to let the stresses of the moment fall away. In fact, the power of breath is so evident in science that there are a number of experts who believe that the “Runner’s High”; that feeling we sometimes feel during and after a great run, is more about the heavy breathing than it is about the actual running itself. Whatever activity that requires heavy breathing would probably do just fine! ; )
Do Something. Well, isn’t that ambiguous? Yeah. It’s designed that way. It leaves the door open to interpretation, circumstance, and ability. It takes away excuses. So…do something. Find anything to do; anything that requires your attention. Do Something good for yourself, like yoga or reading. Do a chore, but do it with focus and attention. Do schoolwork. Do something for someone else. As a busy dad, this can be something as simple as making sure that the kitchen is clean or folding the laundry. But, while I’m folding towels and socks and pajamas, my focus is on the task. Other than maybe some soft sounds or music in the background, I make sure that my environment is peaceful. Then…I focus on the task at hand and doing it absolutely perfectly. The folds are symmetric. The stacks are neat like you see at Macy’s or Nordstrom. It focuses my attention on the task at hand…leaving no room for whatever else had previously captured my attention. Bonus? (we’re filled with bonuses!) Now you’re done with the laundry or the dishes or the vacuuming. The key is to just get engaged in something that requires your full attention to do it right. Can’t think of anything? Write a thank you note. Really! Just take a moment to write a sincere, hand-written thank you note. It’s sad that this simple, kind, and courteous gesture has all but vanished. “But I don’t have stamps.” (we can be awesome at making excuses) So write your thank you note, then take a picture of it and text it to the recipient. I promise…it will be appreciated.
This last tool, doing something, actually brings us right back to the beginning; right back to #1 again. In order to write a sincere thank you note, you need to be in a place of gratitude. That place of gratitude is where our journey out of the dark should always start.
And as for this incomplete laundry list of thoughts and ideas…? You can do several of these at the same time, or even sequentially. Do what works for you, but I find that by the time I’ve done one or two of them, I’ve collected my thoughts and I’ve centered myself again, and often with a happier, more peaceful disposition. If one or two haven’t worked, I continue down the list until I find relief.
At the end of the day, all we need to do is to engage in an activity that commands our attention and forces us to be present.
When we’re living in the moment, fully accepting the moment that we’re in, we’ll no longer experience the regrets, sadness, or disappointments of the past, nor will we suffer through the anxieties, worries, or fears of our future.
Stay in the moment. Accept what is. The rest will take care of itself.
If you know someone who’s struggling with anxiety and depression please forward this along. I can’t promise that it will help, but I promise that the ideas below have helped millions throughout the years.