March 25, 2013

Worst-Case Scenario

What's the best strategy for coping with anxiety generated by hypothetical scenarios and "what if" questions (What if I hit 'reply all?' What if I made a mistake at work? What if I offended my friend?) Should we reassure ourselves that the scenario didn't or won't happen (we didn't hit reply all, we didn't make a mistake or offend anyone), or should we imagine the worst-case scenario?

You'd think that imagining the worst-case scenario would make us feel worse but counterintuitively, following anxiety-provoking "what if" thoughts to their conclusion can sometimes provide greater relief.

How does this work? The key principle is this: avoidance maintains anxiety. When we reassure ourselves that our stressful or scary thoughts probably won't come true, we're essentially avoiding the possibility--pushing it away and dismissing it. Avoidance is often effective in the short term, but the stressful what ifs return in full force after a few minutes, leaving us thinking "Okay I know I probably didn't hit reply all...but what if I did?" The possibility is still there so the anxiety remains.

When this happens, it can help to consider what would happen in the what ifs came true. Examples:

1) After some hemming and hawing about whether or not to make the trip, I booked an expensive airplane ticket to attend an engagement celebration in another city. As soon as I pressed 'purchase' on the airline website, my mind raced to "What if it's not that weekend after all? What if they change the date?" I tried to reassure myself that the party date was unlikely to change, but the anxiety remained. What worked was asking myself what if it were changed--then what? Answer: I'd be stuck with an expensive plane ticket I couldn't use and I'd be out $500.

2) I received an email from a supervisor concerning a decision I'd made about a project we're working on together. Before even reading the message, my mind reacted: "What if she thinks I made a bad decision?" Instead of reassuring myself that my supervisor probably doesn't care that much, I asked myself what if she did disagree--then what? Answer: My supervisor would be unhappy with one thing that I did.

3) I was running late and arrived only minutes before teaching a class, without time to review my notes as I usually do. My mind leapt to: "What if I'm unprepared and the class doesn't go well?" When it didn't work to reassure myself that not reviewing my notes wouldn't affect my teaching, I switched strategies, asking myself what if the class doesn't go well--then what? Answer: One of the classes in the eight-week course would be inferior to the rest and students might be dissatisfied with the one class.

In each of these situations, exploring the worst-case scenario was more effective than reassurance in alleviating my anxiety. Why?

a) Knowing the worst-case scenario puts an end to the what ifs. The answer is clear.

b) Knowing the worst-case scenario allowed me to figure out how to deal with it, and how to not make the same mistake in the future. I determined that if the party date changed, I'd try to sell my ticket online but that next time I'll double-confirm the date before booking. I realized that my supervisor disagreeing with one decision isn't the end of the world, but that next time I'll check with her first. I concluded that sub-par teaching wasn't something I was willing to risk, and that it was worth it to start class a few minutes late in order to review my notes.

Considering the worst-case scenario might not alleviate anxiety in every situation but next time reassurance isn't helping, try it out and see what happens!

March 15, 2013

Stress Reduction for Normal People

Last post, I wrote about the benefits of taking time out for relaxation, meditation, or other forms of non-productive downtime. But what if you want to be less stressed, and more relaxed and mindful in everyday life without setting aside time to officially relax or meditate?

Here are a few simple things that I've been trying lately:

1) Not jaywalking. A lot of us automatically cross the street as soon as it's clear, regardless of the colour of the traffic light. Last year, as part of a one-month mindfulness challenge, I resisted jaywalking for 30 days, and enjoyed it. I recently returned to this practice and have concluded that not jaywalking decreases stress and promotes relaxation and mindfulness in three ways: a) It's relaxing to realize that no matter how rushed you feel or how important your destination, you actually can afford to wait twenty seconds for the light to change; b) The twenty seconds of waiting at a red light is an opportunity to get out of your head, check out your surroundings, and ground yourself in the present (I sometimes say to myself things like "Here I am, this Tuesday morning at 9:15 in March 2013, walking to the bus stop"); c) It's relaxing to cross the street without having to suddenly sprint to avoid a car that came out of nowhere.

2) Going out without your phone. I'll admit this usually only happens by mistake, but it's undeniably relaxing. Cell phones are really good at taking us out of the present moment. When I pass an adorable kitten in an apartment window, I can notice and appreciate it and experience an awesome moment of kittenness. When I take out my phone to take a photo of the kitten and text it to my sister with a cute comment, I'm no longer present. Similarly, if you're having brunch with a friend but keep checking your phone for updates on dinner plans, you're not really experiencing brunch with your friend because your mind is already at dinner. Not having your phone on you can admittedly be inconvenient sometimes, but there are few things that actually can't wait; wouldn't it be nice to sometimes, instead of returning a call or posting on Instagram while we wait for the bus, actually just... wait for the bus?

3) Moving more slowly. If you don't jaywalk or engage in compulsive cell phone use, you probably still have the nearly universal habit of moving more quickly when you're stressed. I observed this on a recent morning when I was rushing around trying to eat breakfast, pack my lunch, brush my teeth, and get out the door. My movements were speedy and frantic and inefficient (e.g., picking things up and putting them down in the wrong room, banging my shoulder on the door frame), and I realized that moving my body on fast-forward was reinforcing the URGENT! LATE! message from my mind, amplifying my stress. In moments like this, simply returning to a normal pace lets your body send your mind a different message, instantly decreasing stress. 

Let me know how these work out!

March 10, 2013

Dying to Relax

One of my mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) students has three kids, a husband, and a demanding job. On occasion, she stops at a cafe on her way home from work to have a cup of tea and take a 30-minute breather before launching into her evening of dinner, homework, lunches, and bedtimes. When she makes the stop, she notices that she feels relaxed and grounded afterwards, and that she's more patient and present with her husband and kids. Despite the obvious benefits of the cafe pit stop, she hasn't made it a regular habit; it's too hard to justify "doing nothing" for half an hour when she could be completing one more task at work or getting a head start on dinner before her husband gets home. It feels indulgent, selfish, and like a waste of time.

This client isn't the only person who finds it hard to be unproductive for a few minutes, or who feels like they simply don't have time to relax. Friends, patients, and MBSR students struggle to find a few minutes per day to breathe, meditate, read, or simply be. So do I. How can we spend fifteen minutes sitting quietly and watching our breath when we have emails to send, texts to answer, and dishes to wash? How can we read a novel when we have a backlog of articles to read for work and the laundry isn't done? Not only is there a lot to do, but often each item on our to-do lists feels absolutely urgent--as if it needs to be checked off right this minute.

Even though we intuitively know that down time is good for us, many of us are unaccustomed to being unproductive, and find relaxing difficult to prioritize. When you're struggling between sending one more email and having a quiet cup of tea before bed, or between your morning meditation and getting to work a few minutes early, consider the following:  

a) Non-productivity is productive. The minutes you "waste" relaxing or meditating return to you several-fold in productivity. The relationships between relaxation and productivity and between meditation and productivity are well established--but research aside, most of us have experienced how much better we work when we're relaxed, when we're well rested, when we're able to focus. This is one reason that successful companies like Google, Sun Life, Ford, General Mills, and Twitter have established mindfulness training programs for employees.

b) Dying to relax. In his book Wherever You Go, There You Are (WYGTYA; see right sidebar), MBSR founder Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to meditation as "dying" to the world for a few minutes. He reminds us that if we died right this minute, our personal agenda would dissolve immediately. That is, some of our projects would be absorbed by others, but most of our oh-so-important goals and must-be-done-right-this-second tasks would simply evaporate. JKZ says "So if this is true, maybe you don't need to worry about it in any absolute way. Maybe you don't need to make one more phone call right now, even if you think you do. Maybe you don't need to read one more thing or do one more errand. Stopping for a few minutes--dying on purpose--to the rush of time, you free yourself to actually have time for the present. You become more alive now, and once you do decide to go again, it's more deliberate, more vivid, richer."

I love this! A friend recently reminded me of this passage from WYGTYA, and I used it the other night: I was getting ready for bed after an evening of baking, and as I turned out the kitchen light long past my bedtime, I noticed that there were still crumbs on the kitchen table. As I picked up the dishcloth, I stopped to ask myself what would happen if I died and the table didn't get a second wipe. Answer: nothing. Result: I put down the dishcloth and got in bed. Reminder: sometimes you just don't need to do one more thing.

Do the ideas of productivity via relaxation or meditation, and dying to our responsibilities mean we should all spend our days relaxing, meditating, and not answering emails or cleaning up after ourselves? That our personal agendas aren't important? No, of course not. But next time you're considering eating lunch at your desk, remember that taking a real lunch break isn't a waste of time. Next time you're sending work emails from your phone while you brush your teeth before bed, consider that managing your inbox at 11pm might not be as urgent as it feels.

NB: If you want to try adding ten minutes of mindfulness meditation to your day but aren't sure how, I recommend this free and easy guided program.