In my Psych class, I like to do a little experiment with my students. I usually do this about halfway through the semester, when they are comfortable enough in the class to be honest in their writing because they know I am not going to collect it, and even if I did I would keep it confidential. So I hand out a piece of paper to everyone in the class - half of them get one writing prompt, and the other half gets a different prompt. The first half is asked to spend 5 minutes writing about the little things in life that make them happy, whatever those things are. The other half gets a little blurb about how smartphones increase stress, and about the expectation from employers, friends, family, and pretty much everyone that you will always be available because of technology. Then I ask them to write about what is stressing them out. When everyone has written for 5 minutes, I asked them to put that away and to try a maze puzzle. I tell them it should be fun and give their minds a break before we go on to the next topic.
The differences are amazing.
The students who wrote about what stresses them out get ANGRY at the puzzle. They get angry at me (a lot of them accuse me of giving them an impossible puzzle or of the task being dumb). Several of them finish it, but it in a "f-you puzzle" sort of way. They say that the puzzle is easy, but stupid. They don't enjoy it. When they have to start over, they slam down their pens and puff out their cheeks, and generally look like they would rather be sticking hot pins in their fingers.
The students who wrote about what makes them happy? Here's the interesting part - they tell me the puzzle is hard, most of them think it is impossible and are genuinely impressed when someone finishes it. (For the record, it is hard - mostly because the lines are really small and the puzzle takes up the whole page, so it is doable but takes forever.) But they don't care! They laugh when they make mistakes. They keep trying over and over, but they don't get angry. They ask their neighbor for advice; they come up with strategies like using different colored pens to keep track of routes they have already tried. They have fun.
I am sure you are like "Duh, everyone gets angry when they are stressed." Yes I know. That's not what matters here - what I want to point out is how quickly I can do this to my students. They write for 5 minutes. Half of them don't even actually write for that long by the time they find a pen, read the prompt, check their phone, realize everyone else is actually doing the work, and get started. FIVE MINUTES. And their entire attitude shifts - for better or for worse.
Circling back to where we started: the world is crazy and overwhelming 24 hours a day. It is hard to get away from things (thanks, internet!) but it is ESSENTIAL that we learn to carve out space to take care of ourselves, and to disconnect from the things that are stressing us out. Even for five minutes.
I know! If you have spent like more than 30 seconds with me, you know that I am the LAST PERSON who should be preaching about relaxing and unplugging. My cats won't sit with me because they know as soon as they sit down, I will get up and start vacuuming. I can't make it through a half hour show without wandering around and Googling things like "How much does my hair weigh?" I work too much (and I enjoy it). It is physical effort for me to relax my muscles. But lately, I have been trying to be a lot better about this whole self-care thing, especially in light of what I see in my students during this activity, and in myself as I have gotten busier and busier at work. It is not pretty. There are days when everything is a "f-you puzzle" and I don't want to be like that. I like challenge, but I also want to enjoy it.
So I have been trying to take better care of myself. It has been a struggle. I read a bunch of stuff about it. Most of them suggest meditating. Reading about sitting still makes me antsy! So that is not for me - at least not yet. I have made changes in my diet (okay, sort of, in my head, I PLAN to make changes in my diet, eventually). I take naps. Which I did before, except now I claim they are "essential to my mental health" and not just what I do every day when I get home. How you talk about these things matters! But it is still hard, because I am not used to taking care of myself, and sometimes I have to remember that it is not the same as being weak.
The biggest place that I have had to make a change is in my running. If you know me, you also know I run a lot. I used to be really competitive, mostly with myself. I get upset when I don't hit a specific pace, or run a boatload of miles each week. That is a challenge that I enjoy, and don't want to give it up. But - I have also come to realize that running is how I take care of myself. It is my time to unplug. Inevitably, when I run I end up thinking about work, and what color I want to paint my bathroom, and whether or not my hair weighs enough that if I cut it could I get any faster. But I am also making a conscious effort to think - for at least five minutes - about how amazing running is. About how much I love my sneakers, or about the cool things I get to see because I am exploring a new road, or just about how much fun my next race is going to be. I intentionally try to make pockets of time to stop thinking about the stuff that swirls in my head all day, and instead to silence everything except the fun things. So that when I get home and find I didn't hit my target pace, it's okay. And when there are 15 new emails, I can deal with them without feeling like I never have time to myself.
I am not good at this yet. I probably never will be; it will always be work. That's cool thought because I like work, I like a challenge. And if you know me, you know I am a challenge - even to myself. But I can do anything for five minutes.