Stressed? Take a deep breath–but don’t forget to think

Deep breathing is an effective technique for relaxation. The influx of oxygen can be a good way to cope with stress, and it’s a lot less expensive and hard on your body than taking medication.

At the same time, however, it’s only a temporary fix, and when things are bothering you, it’s only part of the solution. In other words, it is no substitute for thinking, reflection and, when appropriate, behavioral change.

If you find yourself in a stressful situation, deep breathing can be the first step to clear your head and help you move forward with the thinking process. In terms of stress reduction, ‘thinking’ means challenging your emotions and realizing that just because you feel something, doesn’t automatically make it true. Understanding this can help you prevent or correct common errors in thinking such as overgeneralizing, leaping to conclusions, and taking things too personally. So breathe away, but don’t make it a substitute for the active use of your mind.

When I tell people to ‘think’ as a response to stress, sometimes their first reaction is, ‘That’s work! I already have enough work—and I’m stressed!’ Fair enough—but that’s my whole point. Thinking is how we cope and survive. If you’re too stressed-out to think, then you need to rearrange your life and make time for it.

Thinking provides the time and space for your mind to ‘breathe,’ the same way you allow your body to breathe when you do relaxation exercises. Deep breathing (like some medications) can serve a temporary purpose, but (like most medications) cannot solve your problems. But it CAN set up the right climate for thinking. The only way to face up to your problems is to allow yourself to think.

I talk a lot in this column about the need for self-esteem. The core of self-esteem is treating your mind well. Some have ‘built in’ times when they can relax and think. For example, people have told me that their commute to and from work serves this purpose. Others tell me that walks along the beach, or yoga, or counseling sessions serve this purpose. Still others say exercise helps them mentally.

A ‘quick fix’—designed to treat the symptoms rather than the underlying causes—won’t solve your stress problems. Treating the symptoms in the short-term is fine, just so you realize that’s all you’re doing. For example, people take medication to lower anxiety and depression. If it helps, fine. But the medications, assuming they work, will only reduce the symptoms—and temporarily, at that. The pills will never address what’s really required to make your life happier. For example, asking yourself questions like, ‘How do I spend my time? How true am I to myself? How authentic am I with other people? What really matters to me? Am I loyal to the people, things and ideas that are important to me?’

These are key things to consider, and, quite literally, you avoid considering them at your own risk. The more you refuse to face things head-on, the more likely you are to develop emotional symptoms and, in some people, compulsive behaviors and addictions. I don’t think it’s any accident that addiction is on the rise at the same time everyone has become more rushed in today’s society. The less time you take for self-reflection, the more anxious you will become. If people say that you ‘rush around like a crazy person,’ they might be closer to the truth than you think! It’s human nature, and it applies to all of us. The more anxious you are, the more at risk you are for drug abuse, alcohol abuse or other kinds of compulsive behavior—the ill-advised ‘quick fixes.’

Compulsive behavior is an escape valve; a way to sidestep the fact that you’re not giving yourself what you need. I know that ‘conventional wisdom’ asserts that things like alcoholism are diseases, implying that they randomly strike people for no reason other than perhaps genetic factors. But former addicts almost always tell me that they drank (or drugged, or gambled, or whatever) to escape the anxiety they felt. The addiction became a replacement for thinking.

People don’t take or make the time to stop and reflect. Recently, I read the biography of John Adams, former President and a key founder of the United States. Life in those days was a lot rougher. Today’s two-hour drives took much, much longer. People got sick easier and their illnesses lasted longer. There was no relief from heat, cold and mosquitoes. Traveling to Europe from America was horrific and perilous. Yet, people took time to reflect, and when apart, wrote long, long letters to one another. They thought a lot more than most people seem to think today. I’d much rather read letters people wrote to each other in those days than, say, the typical rushed and cryptic email or text message.

So, breathe deeply, and think daily. Just as the oxygen is good for your body, deep thinking is good for your spirit. Life will become less stressful, and the urge for pointless (and dangerous) quick fixes will fade away.