Enlivening Ourselves

(Dr. Norquist is on vacation this week. We are re-running a previously published column.)

The majority of the people who write to me or who I see in my practice struggle to one degree or another with anxiety, stress, tension, and a lack of peace and contentment in their lives. To address these concerns adequately, I’ve decided to write a more in-depth response to the many questions I get about stress and anxiety. This is the second of a two-part series on learning to manage stress, anxiety and tension in your life. Last week’s response focused on some of the physical aspects of stress management. This week’s response addresses the role of the mind in producing and reducing stress.

When it comes to the experience of peace and serenity, the mind is the primary distraction. One of the most important tools we have for combating anxiety is the mind – of course it is also the same mind that has created the anxiety in the first place! It is our thoughts that trigger our emotions, which then trigger a physiological response. If you want to reduce the anxiety and stress in your life, you must practice disciplining your mind. Start by observing your thoughts. What kind of a mental diet are you feeding yourself? Do you focus on thoughts that create fear, anxiety, worry or anger? Get to know your mental habits, for it is your mental habits that create your experience of yourself and the world. These habitual beliefs, perceptions, and thought patterns are formed in childhood, and then continue to be unconsciously exercised long after we are capable of more accurate and in-depth understandings of ourselves and the world. We also have habitual verbal and behavioral responses that stem from, and reinforce, our customary experience of ourselves. We are largely creatures of habit, on many levels. The beauty of human life however, comes into play when we use our free will to consciously create something. We are only imprisoned by our habitual responses and mental associations when we are unconscious of them. Once we are conscious of something we’d like to change or create, we have the power to so. To do so, however, requires consistent conscious effort and self-discipline.

During the day, observe your thoughts and consciously practice directing your mind toward positive, uplifting ways of perceiving whatever situation you encounter. See the highest in others. If you focus on the lowest in others, you are bringing yourself down. Instead of fixating on what’s wrong in yourself or another, look for the miracles and the blessings around you. Look for what is right. Cultivate a state of mind that is uplifting to you and others and you will attract positive experiences. We carry a delusion that worrying about something will make it better. Usually we practice worry and tension, rather than peace and relaxation. Worrying only adds power to what is being worried about. When you find yourself polluting your mind through focusing on negative thoughts and worries, just drop it. Let it go. Pick up a lofty or reassuring thought instead. Use your free will to cultivate serenity and you will find anxiety, worries and tensions occupy less and less space in your emotional life. Practice giving yourself positive messages, such as "relax, calm down, breathe, be still, listen."

Can you be content doing nothing? In our Western culture there is a premium placed on doing and accomplishing. It is common to get our self-esteem from doing, achieving and accomplishing. It is hard for someone to relax if her self-esteem comes from accomplishing. If this is you, then consider relaxation and doing nothing as an accomplishment and build time into your day to give yourself a rest from the outside world. Take time to become quiet.

There is a great exercise that takes only three – five minutes of your time and gives a wonderful break from mental stress. I call it the "present moment experience." In this exercise you take a comfortable position, closing your eyes. Now take a few deep breaths, scan your body for any areas that are tense that you can consciously relax, and then focus solely on your senses. The senses exist only in the present moment. So if you have your mind focused on the senses, it is in the present moment. Feel the weight of your body on the chair, and your feet on the floor. Watch your body breath. Feel the air on your skin. Focus on the scents in the air. Listen to the sounds around you. Listen to the sounds as far away as you can hear. If you find yourself thinking, just let the thoughts go and return your focus to your senses. Do this for three – five minutes, then take several long, slow, deep breaths, open your eyes, and return to your everyday world. The more often you do this exercise, the easier it will be for you to feel a place of inner centered-ness and serenity while you do your daily activities.

Again, relaxation and serenity are hard won inner achievements. They do not just automatically appear in our lives. When we are peaceful and relaxed, we can be aware of deeper, more subtle aspects of our inner experience and of the world around us. In this way, we improve the quality and richness of our daily lives.

(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling and Stress Management Center, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)

Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling and Stress Management Center, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at drnorquist@chaitanya.com, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding and treating physical symptoms and health-related concerns. Practitioners of the following techniques are available to answer your questions: psychology, acupuncture, therapeutic and neuromuscular massage, yoga, meditation, spiritual & transpersonal psychology, Reiki, Cranial Sacral Therapy, and Alexander Technique Ó 2001 Chaitanya Counseling and Stress Management Center


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