As a society, we enjoy a standard of living and liberation from menial tasks that goes far beyond the wildest dreams of someone who lived only 200 years ago. Ironically, I think most people would agree that while our external circumstances abound with blessings, our inner experience is far different. Along with the rise of standard of living has come a rise in expectations for ourselves and our families. Be it keeping up with ever-rising tuition rates for our children; balancing the demands of professional, religious, and personal lives; finding time for exercise, sufficient sleep, and leisure; building relationships with spouses and children; and caring for aging parents ... the list is endless and at times can feel crushing.
How do we cope with this tidal wave of demands?
First, I believe that one of the biggest problems our society faces is our expectation that we are supposed to be happy amidst all the plenty. Earlier generations knew that they were stressed, and just assumed that life was a challenging business. The general assumption was that if one strove to meet his responsibilities, he might not always be happy, but he could attain a sense of fruition and purpose stemming from being an important, contributing member of society.
Clinically, it is well known that one of the quickest ways to crush happiness is the expectation that one is supposed to be happy. We do not obtain happiness by seeking it. Happiness is a gift that comes to us unpredictably, from time to time, as, with a full heart, we pursue the things that are most meaningful to us.
Second, we need to create spaces and times in our lives for quiet reflection and calm. Each person needs to find the stress reduction modality that works for him; luckily, there are classes and training experiences for such techniques. Some examples include yoga, mindfulness meditation, team or solitary athletics, tai chi, playing or listening to music, deep and soulful prayer, or spending time in nature.
Whatever path one choses, one should strive for full sessions of the chosen activity or activities multiple times per week (three to four times lasting 30 minutes or more), with mini booster sessions (10-20 minutes) on other days. The chosen modality should activate the relaxation response (mind and body relaxation and deepening of breathing). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it should facilitate acceptance and compassion for oneself.
When approached with the right attitude (putting worries aside and a deep acceptance of self and others), spending quality time with friends and family can be helpful with de-stressing as well. If needed, one-on-one work with a therapist can also be helpful, and I have often seen my clients learn powerful new skills from such work.
In the meantime, try this simple exercise:
Close your eyes. Take three deep breaths. Then let your breath return to normal, without judgment, without trying to control it. Now imagine the face of someone you love. Imagine them smiling at you, a little glint in their eye, showing their pleasure at seeing you. Smile at them. Feel your shoulders relax, your stomach soften.
Take your time with this, pausing during each step so you can settle into it. Then, whenever you’re ready, open your eyes.
Feel better? If so, great. If not, that’s okay, you’ve still learned something. Maybe you need to do much more work on de-stressing, or on your relationships. We don’t learn unless we become curious — and we can’t even be curious if we don’t pause and become quiet for long enough to notice.
By Michael Milgraum
Michael Milgraum is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Kensington, Maryland. He sees children, adults, and families for therapy, parenting advice, and evaluations.