There are so many incendiary topics swirling in the popular media right now. We seem to be inundated at an unprecedented speed with emotional events and topics: Me Too, gun violence, mental health, politics, stock market, Him Too, immigration, pronouns, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” – just to name a few. Is your blood pressure up as you read this list?
It seems to me that many of us are consuming more news and digesting more information that usual. We have access cable TV in our car; smart speakers can give us moment by moment headlines; we have multiple 24-hour news networks feeding us all day; as well as text alerts on our phones for hourly breaking “news.” I believe we are all flooded with information and drowning in all the crises. There is a debate if these are media-made crises or real-life ones. For my article today – I don’t think it matters. I think that what is important is the overwhelm many of us feel carrying so much conflict, crisis and viewed injustice.
This is not to say that staying aware of current topics is a bad thing. I believe that knowing world affairs is important. However, I think that it is also important to understand that the current environment of moment-by-moment “breaking news,” all of the “us vs them” fights and the need to put down people with differing world views – is damaging us.
I have seen rising levels of anxiety in my clients – and I see it with my friends and family. For many this manifests as difficulty sleeping, feelings of fear that permeate daily life, a need to gather more and more information about current news and a lessening of self-care routines. The end result is a feeling of stress, powerlessness and a sensation of spinning in place.
So, what to do? Again, my answer is not to stop paying attention to news or politics. It is important to be an informed citizen of our amazing United States. I do think that the answer is to be aware of your self-care activities; be aware that as you get more stressed you need to add more stress relieving activities.
I define self-care as anything that empties your cup of stress. Let me explain – all of us have a cup of stress and our job is to keep it about half full. We need the extra room so that when life dumps more stress onto us, we are able to contain it without spilling over. Spilling over looks like: losing our temper, crying uncontrollably, being sarcastic (nasty) to loved ones; going flat emotionally (numbing out) or having anxiety attacks. Your goal is to find the things that empty your cup. As stress in your life increases, you need to increase the frequency of these activities.
Each of us use different things to relieve stress. There is no “right” way to relax or to empty your cup. Some examples of stress-relieving activities include: exercise, listening or playing music, meditating, seeing friends, watching funny shows, going for a walk, praying or dancing. I may not have listed what works for you – please know that this list is not all inclusive.
I do think that there is one activity that empties everyone’s stress cup – having moments of silence and stillness in your day. Our phones convey so much information, entertainment and distraction; they constantly ding and bing at us – letting us know we have missed yet another urgent piece of information. These smart devices might be more addicting than any substance we ingest.
In this time of crisis and anger – one very smart way to take care of yourself is to turn your phone off for 5 minutes (maybe even 15) – and sit in the silence remains. Now, I don’t mean just “silence” your phone or put it on airplane mode – actually turn it off and power it down. When you do this you also need to turn off your TV and hide the newspaper. You might be surprised by how much of your cup is emptied when you have this moment of silence.
A wise teacher once told me that the most valuable hour of our day is the hour that we waste. He talked about “wasted” time as the moments when there is no input into our brain – moments when are not learning and when we are not being entertained. It is in these silences when our brain downloads what has happened to us; it sorts what we learned and experienced; and it draws inferences, conclusion and therefore gains perspective on itself. We gain perspective about our lives in moments of where there is NO input. This is also where our creativity lives – but that is another article.
As we approach the hectic holiday season and New Years – I urge you to take a moment to unplug, be board and “waste” some time. Start with 10 minutes and see if you can work up to an hour. The next question I always get is: “but what do I DO during this time?” Wasting time might look like: going for a walk – without a book on tape, doodling, sitting and looking at the leaves as they move in the wind, lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling, take 100 deep breaths or work-out without the TV or radio on. Do not: make lists, write the emails you are behind on, clean, fold laundry or sort things.
I am curious where you brain will take you if you give it a few minutes to wander. I imagine you might have a breakthrough idea for your business, relationship or a gift. Many clients also report that their hunger for more and more information and entertainment wanes as add in more self-care and moments of silence into their day.
As always, please reach out with any questions you have about stress, unplugging or wasting time. I wish you all a peaceful and (at moments) empty holiday season.
Ashley Seeger, LCSW is an experienced counselor with offices located in Boulder and Broomfield, CO. She specializes in working with couples as they move through life-transitions. You can find more information about individual counseling here.