Destress Amid Chaos


Guest Post by: Art Decker

I know I'm not the only person out there who is under a lot of stress. I talk to people every day who are under severe levels of stress. In addition to the recession, many people have their own temporary (they hope) but severe stresses, such as relocating, changing jobs, getting married or divorced, surviving the death of a loved one or the death of a relationship, or coping with medical challenges. And then there are the everyday stresses--the little things that finally end up really getting to us--parenting, budgeting crises, work pressures, an unyielding travel schedule.

Nobody likes to admit that this kind of stress is getting to them. Least of all me! When people who know how crazy my schedule is ask how I am doing, my most common responses are "fine, thanks!," and "hanging in there!" I never reply, "To tell you the truth, I am having a hard time. I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't concentrate!" Ah, denial. It's more than just a river in Egypt...


Stress Can do Whatever it Wants to Your Body

But my denial could only last for so long before my body decided to tattle on me. I kept having these episodes when my heart would pound and I felt like I couldn't breathe. I didn't think it was a heart attack -- I have low blood pressure, low cholesterol, all those things that are supposed to be low...but I went to see my doctor and asked if what I was experiencing was stress. Her answer was, "Absolutely. Stress can do anything; it can do whatever the hell it wants!" Stress can make it hard for you to sleep (check!) or hard to wake up (double check!). It can make your skin break out in hives (check!). It can completely overthrow the smooth functioning of your digestive system (check). It can even play a role in chronic diseases, especially autoimmune diseases (let's hope mine hasn't gone that far).

My doctor told me to try to find more time for exercise, especially yoga or martial arts, and to consider making time for meditation. I added them to my to do list/tickler file, using my GTD system: S/Some Day. The problem with that is that the Some Day items on my to do list tend not to get done today -- and today, right now, is when I need stress relief.


Pauses for Thought

I have found a coping mechanism that works for me -- the bell of mindfulness approach.

The bell of mindfulness approach may be familiar to very religious people. Churches and temples, of course, ring bells, and Buddhist monks in monasteries use a ringing bell as a reminder to take a moment to stop, breathe, and be in the present moment. I wish I did have time for an hour of meditation every day, and I wish I had time for daily exercise -- but even I can find five seconds to stop and breathe.

To use the bell of mindfulness approach, you need a sound (or possibly a visual or tactile event) that occurs at a random time, not known to you in advance. I started with the sound of incoming IM on my computer -- I get a lot of IMs. Whenever the IM alert sounds, I stop what I am doing, take a moment to deeply pay attention to my surroundings and environment, and focus on breathing in and out. Only then do I check to see what the IM is about (so if you are a coworker and I have been taking a few seconds too long to respond to your IMs, now you know why!).

I wasn't really sure that it would help. But here is what happened--when I returned to my work, I could focus again. I didn't feel so overwhelmed. I stopped multitasking (oh, the horror!). Yes, I stopped multitasking. I began to do one thing at a time -- I'm old enough to remember when that was normal, before we had computers and iPhones and email and IMs. Amazingly, my productivity has improved. And I've stopped having panic attacks (that's what my doctor calls those heart-pounding/can't breathe episodes. Necessary disclaimer: personally I think the episodes were more protest than panic--I refuse to admit to feeling panicked by stress!)


Random Mindfulness

I was so fascinated by the effect that the IM bells of mindfulness were having on me that I decided to try using other random events as bells. Here are a few that I have tried, but I am sure you can think of many more:

  • the alert sound of an arriving text message or IM message (this, of course, was the first one I tried)
  • a ringing phone (this one is hard because I want to answer the phone--but then I realized I could always call back)
  • a stoplight (true dead time--there is literally nothing else you CAN do but sit there and breathe)
  • the feeling of a cat coming over to rub against your leg (or flopping across your keyboard in my case)
  • my morning alarm clock
  • the sound of birds chirping outside my window
  • firecrackers (a seasonal bell of mindfulness--I tried this on the fourth of July, and the days before and after when my neighborhood sounds like a war zone)
  • in the fall, I plan to try the sound of nuts dropping off the trees in my yard in the fall

I also found a website that will provide a bell of mindfulness at my chosen intervals. The website is provided by the Washington Mindfulness Community and will play a small or big bell after a number of minutes that a user chooses. The software for the Mindfulness Bell resides at the website and does not have to be installed on your computer.

Post by: Art Decker

Art is a division manager with Self Storage Company, which operates a group of websites, including a Texas self storage locator. Art leads a stressful life, consumed meetings and conference calls. He also travels a lot between sites, like from Texas to the Illinois self storage site. As a result, Art has a strong interest in productivity, organization, working on the road, balancing work and home life, and reducing stress.


Photo by HckySo