When clients ask me about relaxation exercises, I often suggest deep breathing. The influx of oxygen can help relieve stress, and it’s a lot less risky and expensive than medication. But, like medication, oxygen is only a temporary fix. In other words, it’s no substitute for introspection, reflection, and perhaps even behavioral change.
If you find yourself in a stressful situation, deep breathing can clear your head and help you with the thinking process, i.e., challenging anxiety and realizing that just because you feel it doesn’t make it true. This can be an effective preemptive strike against common errors in thinking such as overgeneralizing, leaping to conclusions, and taking things personally.
When I tell people to think in response to stress, their first reaction is often, “That’s work — and I’m already stressed!” Fair enough, but that’s my point: Thinking is how we cope and survive. If you’re too stressed-out to think, then you need to rearrange things to make time for it. Thinking gives your mind the space to breathe.
I write a lot about self-esteem. The core of self-esteem is treating your mind well. Some have built-in times when they 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, 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. For example, people take medication to lower anxiety and depression. If it helps, fine. But the medications, assuming they work, only reduce the symptoms temporarily. The pills cannot address 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 points to consider. The more we refuse to face things head-on, the more likely we are to develop emotional symptoms and even compulsive behaviors and addictions. I don’t think it’s any surprise that addiction is on the rise at the same time today’s society has become more rushed. The less time we allow for self-reflection, the more anxious we become. And the more anxious we are, the more at risk we are for trying ill-advised “quick fixes” like drug abuse, alcohol abuse, overeating or other compulsive behaviors.
Compulsive behavior is nothing more than an escape valve to sidestep the fact that you’re not giving yourself what you need. Conventional wisdom incorrectly asserts that things like alcoholism are “diseases” that randomly strike people for no reason other than perhaps genetic factors. But former addicts 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. And thinking doesn’t kill you.
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. Traveling 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 perilous at best. Yet, people took time to reflect, and when apart, wrote 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 back then than some rushed, misspelled 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 perhaps dangerous quick fixes will fade away.
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