I woke up stressed out, stomach in knots, dreading what was to come of the day.
It didn’t matter if I had a solid 8 hours of sleep, or just a few. It didn’t matter if the sun was shining or behind thick, dark clouds.
It didn’t matter if I had 10 million things that were going well, or if I just had a really great time the day before, if I had a full to-do list or an empty one- the dread over my current state persisted each morning.
Logically, it made no sense. And I told myself that every day. Lots of things to be thrilled about, and really not much to be unhappy about. But somehow, my logical brain wasn’t in control, instead, my emotions set things up for me. How’s my business going to improve? How am I going to get a girlfriend? How am I going to fix this annoying shoulder tendonitis? What if someone is angry with me right now? What if the dollar plummets to zero? What if my tenants decide to stop paying rent?
All of these were legitimate concerns! All can also lead to a day full of anxiety, stress, worry, and bunch of other unhealthy states.
And in many ways, I have no reason to complain, no reason to worry, and compared to so many other people, my life would be considered easy! I just interviewed a woman who got cancer TWICE, and has had to live with rheumatoid arthritis for most of her life, and yet, has an upbeat spirit about her that is contagious!
But comparing yourself to others, giving yourself pep talks, and trying to reason your way out of it doesn’t work. Reading inspiring books and blog posts also doesn’t work. Neither does getting drunk, or even surrounding yourself with lots of friends.
What does “work”? How can you be free from your emotions? After all, if you’re trapped by your emotions, you are not free at all- no matter how much money you have, countries you have traveled to, or even how many people praise you on a daily basis.
Well it may be different for everyone. Maybe I should have titled the post “How I Became Free From My Emotions”, rather than writing this as prescription! I guess I thought the title I made was catchier. Anyway, here’s what I do, and I’m open to more ideas:
1. Write it down. Your emotions control you when you identify with them. Writing or journaling what is going on inside allows you to detach from your emotions, and get out of whatever state you are in. Mark Lindsay describes how this process works from a psychological standpoint in his excellent article called How To Achieve Emotional Control. In the past, when I have woke up worried about something, if I take the pen to the paper and just start writing it usually decreases my anxiety levels by at least 75-80% almost immediately. If I work in some Nathaniel Branden sentence completions, I can usually get rid of all or most of the rest of the stress and have a smooth and cheerful day.
2. Move. Don’t even think of it as exercise, just move your body. I love walking. I also like to run the stairs, or just jog really slowly, ride my beach cruiser, do yoga, go for an easy swim, or if possible- play some volleyball or do some rock climbing. For me, all of the above can be a form of meditation. (some people even think of cleaning as a form of meditation, I have yet to enjoy it but maybe this will work for you!) Your mind will be focused on the activity at hand. If you are walking, you can focus on your breathing. Or count steps, or look for new paths or scenery. If you do think about your problems or worries, they will be easier to deal with as you move than if you’re just laying on your bed, or sitting on the couch with remote in hand. Studies are showing that high-intensity exercise is best for stress-relief, but all of it is beneficial and I say do what works for you.
3. Breathe deeply. I have found that deep breathing can help bring me out of worked up states. I use the 4-7-8 method I learned years ago from Dr. Andrew Weil. Basically, you breathe in through your nose to a count of 4, hold your breath for 7, and exhale to a count of 8. Start off with just doing this a couple of times and build up. If you do too many too soon, you will get dizzy and may pass out! But over time, increase it to about 10 rounds, do those in the morning and at night (and maybe a few in the day for good measure). This is also advice I give triathletes to use before their race (a couple of rounds) to calm the nerves and stay focused.
4. Interact with people. Talking to random people in your day can not only make you a more interesting person, it can put you in a good mood. In fact, for me, it is almost guaranteed to put me in a better mood! I’m talking about just striking up random conversations. In line at the coffee shop or super market. Waiting for the elevator. In public places. Most people are bored out of their minds and will be lifted by your gesture. I usually go with something simple, like “How’s your day going?” The trick is to default to starting these conversations to the point where it feels strange to not say anything! Don’t worry, only about 1% of people will think you’re deranged and will want to run away immediately. The small connections you make (and sometimes they may work into bigger connections) will get you out of your own head, cultivate empathy for people, and in time you will start to see your life improve with just this one thing.
5. Fall in love with objective reality. It’s easy to dream up lots of things that either you think are going wrong, or can potentially go wrong. One thing that really helps me to stay on an even keel emotionally is figuring out the facts around whatever it is I begin to worry about.
-“OMG I’m going broke!” If I ever think this, I will review all my finances and find out that it’s simply not the case.
-“OMG everyone is out to screw me!” I just think of the last 5 interactions and about 99% of the time, at least 4 of the 5 were pleasant. Therefore, everyone cannot be out to screw me!
-“OMG the country is collapsing!” What does this even mean? If you experience this thought, try to point out specific things in your life that can be used as evidence of this. Newsflash, the economy always sucks unless you listen to people like Ben Bernanke, who clearly do not live in objective reality land! In this case just turn off your TV and AM radio, and things will get better…in YOUR life! I don’t watch TV with the exception of Seinfeld and Scrubs reruns occasionally.
The more objective you can be about your situation, the more you will be in control of your life and your emotions.
This is still all a work in progress for me daily, although I’ve made some great strides lately. Writing this blog post helped!
In taking control of our emotions we start to form a clear path to personal freedom. This can allow us to make much better decisions and set us up to maximize happiness, and minimize wasted time worrying, sweating the small stuff, and watching time pass by like an Usain Bolt 100 meter dash.