During a scene in my favorite TV show (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), a British character, in a time of crisis, asks for coffee rather than his usual tea. The friend working with him asks why. Giles responds: “Tea is soothing, I wish to be tense.”
When I’m stressed at work or at home (but it’s usually at work), I sometimes say this to myself. It reminds me to stop choosing to be tense, or at least to recognize that’s what I’m doing. As someone who struggled with anxiety in the past, part of me rejects the idea that I can just choose to be calm if I want to. The reality is, sometimes in a particular moment, all my skills for staying calm leave me. I can appear calm, I can get things done despite feeling anxious, but inside serious tension reigns. Still, over the years, I’ve gotten better at taking a moment to shift my focus. It might be reminding myself that repeating how little time I have, or how much I have to do, or tensing my muscles, will not, in fact, help me get things done faster or better. It might be substituting “How can I do a great job and get done on time?” for “What if I never get this done?” It might be taking ten minutes to walk outside, despite the feeling that I must spend every second on the task at hand.
I heard someone on the radio talking about human beings’ tendency to feel tense or anxious in evolutionary terms. The speaker said that in the time of cavemen (and women presumably) people who tended to be anxious probably had a better survival rate than those who were peaceful, because a caveman sitting on rock meditating was a lot more likely to get eaten by a tiger. (One could argue that’s not so, because mediation can result in heightened awareness, not checking out of the world, but I got the idea.) The rush of adrenalin that goes with the fight or flight response, and wariness and vigilance regarding possible physical danger, were no doubt huge helps to our ancestors. In today’s world, when many people experience stress in situations where neither fleeing nor physical fighting is the answer, that adrenalin rush obviously can work against us. If it goes on too long, it can make it harder to think, just the way a little caffeine can sharpen our focus but too much can make it impossible to focus.
My best one-minute way to become more calm, which seems like a bit of an oxymoron, is a quick breathing exercise. I breathe in, counting slowly to two. (I used the one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand method.) I breathe out to the count of two. Breathe in for two counts again, then breathe out to the count of four. Each time, the in breath is two, but the out breath count increases by two until I reach ten counts of breathing out. I find this is almost guaranteed to calm my thoughts, relax my body, and help me feel more focused and less stressed. The premise is that when people tense, they often don’t fully empty their lungs, even if they take deep breaths in. So the steadily increasing exhale sends the body and brain the signal that things are okay, it’s all right relax.
I’m sure some of the wishing to be tense stems from cultural pressure. Our culture tends to admire people who work too much, are always busy, and say they are highly stressed. As a whole, we seem to believe that is what makes people successful. This raises any number of questions, including about how we define success and why, for another post. For now, though, I’ll just heat my cup of tea and breathe.
Lisa M. Lilly
Author of The Awakening