How to Secretly De-Stress and Re-Joy the Human Race
How to Self-Care Anywhere, Anytime
By Jane Tawel
January 8, 2020
You lie awake in the wee dark hours, your mind churning and fussing over what happened in the past or what you are anticipating in a stressful future. Or you sit at your desk and simply can not focus on the menial or career-defining task at hand. Or you perch on an uncomfortable chair designed to keep you awake when bored in the umpteenth meeting for the umpteenth yakkity-yak, feeling your shoulders rise to your earlobe level, ready to scream at the next speaker, for no other reason than that they, too, keep using that ubiquitous and utterly irritating most recent pause filler again and again and again. I swear, the next time I am listening to someone speak publicly about anything and he says, “that being said”, I am going to take off a shoe and throw it at him.
That being said, here is what I will try to do instead. The next night or day I feel stressed-out, but am also trapped, and unable to get outside and walk around in the “real world”, the world not made of nightmarish sleeplessness or sleep-inducing boredom, or irritatingly boring meetings, or anxiety-inducing discussions with people I like, but who are causing me stress for some reason right now, etc. etc. etc. — I will purposely practice relaxing and re-joying.
I would, like you, of course prefer to run away from my nightmares by having a “nightcap” or metaphoric “toddy” of another chapter in my mystery book, relaxing by candle light, but I have to get up for work in two hours, so I really need to find a way to go back to sleep. By day, I would really prefer, to check my cell phone during a boring meeting, and fake a shocked look on my face, stand up, apologize to the people in the meeting, but tell them there is an urgent emergency that requires my immediate attention and I have to go. And as I hastily walk out the door when they ask me what the emergency is, I will tell them, “the emergency is that my head is going to explode if I have to listen to one more thing coming out of any of your mouths while, you like not-hot-at-all succubi, drain and suck the life slowly out of me.”
The following ways to de-stress when you can’t escape either someone else or your own churning thoughts, are old techniques, and yet, I hope, may be fresh ideas on how to try to de-stress your mind and body. These are techniques you can use when you sleep next to someone you don’t want to wake-up, or when you can’t let-on to the person standing next to you that you are de-stressing. These are the secret care -for- the- soul means and modes to find at least a bit of relaxation, less stress, and maybe some actual and evident true joy in whatever journey, day or night, you find yourself on.
Eight Practices in De-stressing and Re-Joying
1. Be a Cat. Cats enjoy themselves just for being themselves. If you are allergic to cats and can’t own one yourself, watch videos of cats, and then be as sneaky as they are in self-care. You don’t realize how completely committed to self-care, cats are until you have lived with one. Dogs may teach me that there is joy in being with others; cats teach me that I can find joy just by being with myself. Cats are endlessly able to make themselves happy and content by playing with fluff, stretching their limbs, yawning, staring out the window, scratching their itches, and licking themselves. I don’t recommend licking yourself in a sales meeting, or yawning when your loved one is droning on at you, but if they don’t catch you, you could stare out the window or play with a bit of fluff.
2. Silently repeat memorized poems. Of course, first you need to start, (if you haven’t already) memorizing things that will help calm you. I have a few poems by Dickinson, Frost, and Donne pretty much under my belt, a couple ancient psalms, and The Serenity Prayer memorized (except for the lines about “accepting things at they are and not as I would wish them to be”, which for “some reason” — air quotes aptly applied — I balk at remembering). Memorizing de-stressing words of great artists and those human beings who left a record of having lived well, help me get outside my own thoughts and into something higher. Poetry is important to read and helpful to memorize because metaphors and concise imagery take us to a different plane of understanding and metaphors can grow in meaning along with our own individual growth. It is also easier to memorize things that rhyme or things that are poetic in structure, so there is that.
Memorized pieces also can function as mindless mantras, sometimes, much like counting sheep might in terms of repetitive-type thinking meant to help in relaxation. Rather than using my brain to read or write or do something that requires me to take-in something that will stress or stretch me further, or require me to put-out something new and productive; repeating memorized “feel-good”, encouraging, or joy-inducing literary things, is a way to somehow connect little old me stressing-out within, to and with something big and grand and wonderful, without. Memorizing things comes in incredibly handy when you simply can not pull out something to read or watch.
3. Breathe in and out, but send the breath into different parts of your body. We can all get a bit lazy with letting simple breathing techniques relax or de-stress us. This technique is an old theatre exercise and one that you can do anywhere if you are relatively quiet about your breathing. Take a deep breath in and then mentally send that breath into a part of your body. If you are short on time, simply send it into the part of your body where you are feeling the most stress. If you have time and maybe a wee bit of privacy, or you are trying to sleep, you can lie down and do this properly. If you are able, you can stand up at your desk or sit back for a moment, spend five or so minutes, and close your eyes, and send the breath into every part of your body. If you are at work, one of those slightly extended bathroom breaks that we all take from time to time, is much better used for de-stressing this way, rather than sneaking time on your cell phone, and stressing out about the latest Kardashian drama or the text from your spouse or the screenshot of what your kid got on his math test. If possible, take several minutes and start the exercise by sending the breaths into your toes, then feet, then calves, then hips and work all the way up to the tippy-top of your scalp.
If we truly thought of our breath as our life-flow or our spirit, then we would honor it more in every part of our bodies. By letting my breath have space and a place in each part of me, I honor the whole of myself. By de-stressing my entire outer-being, my body, I am practicing not only a physical exercise but a spiritual discipline, and I will find that I am better able to let go of what is stressing my inner-being, or mind, heart, and soul.
4. Tense and release, starting from the feet working up to the head, and then reverse the order from forehead down to toes. This is also a breathing exercise and functions much in the same way as breathing into your body does. Again, start at your toes and “stress” them by scrunching them up, tightening as tight as you can all the muscles in them; hold the tension while you breathe deeply in;, then all at once, release the tension as you breathe out. Work your way up your body again from the bottom to the top, not forgetting any part — fanny, tummy, your fingers, wrists, jaw, forehead, etc. Breathe in- Tense. Breathe out — release. If you are out and about and people may be watching you, you can still do this pretty secretly with your feet, your hands and sometimes your facial muscles.
5. Massage your hands. The “handy” thing about this is that you can do it without anyone noticing. Try massaging your neck next to someone, and they will ask you what is wrong, and then you’ll be all stressed out explaining. Try massaging your feet, and you will be asked to put your shoes back on. But most people will not notice if you are massaging your hands. While not as relaxing of course, as a full body massage, or even a foot rub, massaging your hands does have benefits. In fact, there is a special little spot, between your thumb and forefinger — that little web-like spot, that if you squeeze hard between your other hand’s thumb and forefinger and massage that web in little circles — even to the point of a bit of pain — you can relieve minor headaches and relieve cold symptoms. I often need to put moisturizing lotion on my hands during the day, and will use that time to do a little massage of my hands with no one the wiser. (Choosing to have a good smelling lotion is an additional sensory technique for reducing stress which has acceptable public approval ratings).
Our hands do so much for us, it is nice to give them a little special attention and lovin’ during the day and they will return the favor by making us feel more relaxed. Pressure points on the hands work much like those on the feet to relieve a host of problems. Here is one schematic of pressure points in the hands and their associated problems that massaging can help relieve.
6. Replace bad memories, with good plans and vice versa; replace dreaded future events or things you are dreading ahead, with good memories from the past.
I have a difficult time accepting that there is relatively and almost always nothing I can do to change the past, either in my own life, the life of someone I love, or the world at large. I can, however, take the memories or historical facts that are weighing on me, and use them for fodder to plan for the future. While it is true and important that we not avoid thinking about stuff, and must try to learn and grow by learning from past mistakes, that doesn’t mean that we may think and plan better if we also reduce stress.
So when the past is burdening my thoughts and spirit and I can not get the crazy, stressful ‘history-monkeys’ off my back, so to speak, I make not good plans, but “plans for GOOD”. I let my mind wonder into what seems impossible or un-doable and I dream big and imagine wildly. If something in a past relationship is upsetting me, I imagine a future where that person and I are traveling to Italy or having a moon walk together in a future where space travel is available and free for all. If I am feeling bad about myself in the past, I imagine a future when I am reclining on clouds, eating calorie-free bread, cheese, and chocolate and discussing and creating art with Michelangelo, Bach, and Shakespeare. If I am anxious and fearful about decisions leaders make that lead us towards war or increase pain and poverty, I quietly might sing the words to John Lennon’s “Imagine”, and dream about all the good things that will happen with enough daring hope and enough audacious kindness.
As for stressing out about the future, which I often can and should do something about, but which sometimes, of course, I can’t be certain of, or in charge of, or feel at peace about no matter what happens — I find it helpful to look to the past, of either my own life, or the lives of other human beings. I am a worrier and a planner and the two often go hand in hand, even if I am planning something that is “technically” a good thing. I get consumed with tomorrow when it is still today. I churn over wanting to find solid, immediate answers to questions that are still in the queue. Will it turn out? What if? Should I? Will she? Why? Why not? What is that pain in my side and will it kill me tonight in my sleep? Etc. etc. etc. And while none of us can foresee the future, we can all choose how to remember, focus on, or obsess over the past.
If I am stressing about something I am “driving” towards up ahead on my future day’s or life’s road, it is not only helpful, but wise to remember that I also should be looking in my rear-view mirror at what is behind me. I look behind me and realize, “oh, I did make it around that pothole successfully, even though I didn’t know it was there.” Or, “wow, I took that last speed bump way too fast which was kind of thrilling at the time, but I think I will slow down for this next speed bump ahead.” Or maybe, “that is a beautiful sunset and view, back there. I can’t turn around and go back myself, and I certainly can not turn the whole darn bus around for everyone else, but I can stop, and just gaze in my mind’s rear-view mirror, meditating on the beauty and joy that I and so much of the world, have traveled through.”
Looking at the past glorious sunsets and remembering successful points of view, can help us anticipate tomorrow’s sunrise, and find hope that the triumphant point of view of someone else traveling, just like I am traveling, will arrive, up ahead, just around the next curve.
7. When you can’t doodle or write lists, draw pictures in your imagination. This is where I, a hopelessly horrible visual artist, can rise to the ranks of a Van Gogh or a Gary Trudeau, depending on the need. If you are stuck lying awake at night, imagine the ceiling as your canvas and paint your own “Starry Night”. If you are stuck looking at a podium or projected power point, become a Gary Trudeau or a Bill Watterson and doodle some cartoon characters in your mind’s eye (just remember to chuckle silently or you may get a dirty look or two). If you are waiting at a bus stop, figurative or otherwise, and foolishly forgot your book, don’t hop on the cellphone where more stress both mentally and visually lie in wait. Gaze at the scars and junk around you and create beauty. Remember that lovely scene in the movie “American Beauty”, when the plastic grocery bag becomes a thing of beauty as it floats in the breeze, and the character named Ricky, teaches us that this is proof that “there is an incredibly benevolent force at work in the world”. It is good to allow yourself to believe that if you can find beauty, you can find benevolence. Of course, then go pick up that plastic trash and give it a proper burial in your closest recycling bin.
Which brings us to:
8. Turn trash into beauty. This is a hard one for me, because I want to destroy trash, not find its beauty, but sometimes you can’t. However, I also find that allowing the trash to defeat my own peace of mind and inner beauty, allows both the real trash and my mind-trash, to defeat my inner fight for peace and joy. I sometimes can not stop my mind-trash from winning the immediate battle, but I can stop it from winning the war.
I have two friends, both of whom take old things like broken furniture or shards of pottery, and they take what would be trash to anyone else, and restore and remake it into beautiful, functional, and artistically joyful new things. I need to do more of this “turning trash into beauty” of the things in my mind, heart, and soul that weigh me down, give me anxiety, or stress me out. Turning trash into beauty also can work to get rid of stress when someone is trash talking; when you can’t turn off someone’s voice that fills you with pain or anger, or you can’t turn off in your mind what someone said to you or about you or on the television or whatever. The mind is a powerful tool and can be used to turn ashes into art, and trash talk into poetry.
We should not do this by ignoring the truth of the dents, mars, holes, or big “boo-boos” in situations, jobs, choices, or relationships. Sometimes, you have to see things for the un-fixable messes they are, cut your losses, and choose better and more wisely next time. But sometimes, you have to realize that nothing — absolutely nothing — from a piece of furniture to a job to a human being — is perfect and without blemish. We simply can not keep hoping for perfection and throwing stuff out or blowing things up until we find it, because perfection is an ever just- out -of- reach goal, not a gift to hoard or a trophy to claim. Perfection is a motivator and a dream, not an accomplishment or historical achievement. Recognizing this in the wee dark hours or the irritating or fearful or angering ones, can go a long, long way towards finding honest but benevolent ways to replace a desire for perfection with a desire for joy in the journey.
And sometimes we should remember that one woman’s trash, is another woman’s treasure. To accept the imperfections of others, myself, and the planet itself, means that beauty is in the eye of the beholder if the beholder is focused on finding beauty. Creating and retaining a cesspool or nuclear waste dump of thoughts in my beautiful mind should be no more acceptable than creating and retaining them in our beautiful world. Once I recognize a thought as trash, I should find a way to clean it up and clear it out.
Not a day or night goes by, usually, that I do not have to “give myself permission” to de-stress and practice habits of finding ways to re-join myself to all that is positive and valuable in being alive and in being human. We all need to take more time and more thought to restricting the bad and re-joying the good.
It’s a funny old world we live in. Perhaps it is especially a wacky-world for us who are privileged and yet confined by being First-Worlders; humans who live here, with not just great stress from without made by those who rule us, but stresses from within, and those, often of our own making. There is much to be done about all the things out there that make us fearful or angry or stressed-out, and we should not take our hands from the plows as we work to make the world a better, kinder, more beautiful place for everyone.
I long for a world where we are surrounded by people who automatically and quite naturally follow that universally admired but eternally just-out-of-reach Golden Rule; and by human beings who freely and joyfully treat other people with love, as they would like to be treated themselves. I yearn to find that kind of love within myself, not as a rule, but as a naturally occurring, deep-within-me, daily phenomenon and life-style.But to truly care for and act on behalf of others, we must practice habit-forming pro-active self-care and find practical, functional, as well as emotional and spiritual ways to “love ourselves, as we would like others to love us.”
Take the time, spend the energy, honor the Good in yourself, and as quickly as possible, clean up whatever is marring your beauty, peace, and joy in the journey. Love others today, by giving the gift of love to yourself and by practicing self-care. Then play it forward to some else.
Today, right now, wherever and whoever you are, Re-Joice in the best in all of us, past, present and future, and Re-Joy in the Journey.