Psychotherapy - time to think
Do you find yourself stressed, anxious, and irritated without any good cause? The following are not good causes by the way - having to wait at traffic lights, not receiving an immediate return text from someone, getting stuck behind a slow-moving trolley in a supermarket aisle.
"Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing" - Lao Tzu
"Hey man, slow down, slow down..." - Radiohead ('The Tourist')
If everyday life leaves your heart racing and your teeth clenched, regularly, you likely need to slow down.
Now, please read the italicised words, above, again. These two words may be frequently spoken, but they are not acted upon frequently enough.
Let’s try an experiment. In a moment, I’m going to ask you to stop reading this article and to sit in your chair - doing nothing - for two, whole minutes. OK? That’s sitting, nothing else. Stop reading, and do nothing, for two minutes, starting... now.
Did you manage it?
If the answer is 'no', is this perhaps because you are walking the streets while looking at your phone? Twitchily waiting for a tram to get you nearer to work? Worrying about what to cook for dinner? Half-talking to your partner? Switching between the Counselling Directory and your Twitter feed? Waiting at red traffic lights in your car? In other words, a part of your consciousness is on this article, while another part is elsewhere.
Or, perhaps you simply found yourself unable to sit still - and do nothing - for two, whole minutes. Your leg was jiggling, your hands clenching, and your eyes searching for something. Thinking "that must be two minutes... it's two minutes now, surely? Come on...".
Why is it that so many of us rush around, multitasking? Doing, doing, yet always feeling that we are falling behind, on the edge of being late, failing in our ability to complete the allotted number of tasks each day. Not doing anything completely or wholeheartedly.
Well, our system - capitalism - stresses the need to continually increase production, profit, and consumption. This leads us all to internalise the feeling that pushing forward and being productive are essential qualities in our lives. During working hours, we must be productive, or rather, be seen to be productive. Thinking, resting, and contemplating are likely to be seen as wasting time.
Outside of work, we are encouraged to spend and consume - cars, holidays, technology, clothes, foods, moisturisers, 'lifestyles'. Also, many of us find ourselves checking texts and emails, tweets and posts – and sending them – at home, in the street, at work, at lunchtime, in bed, on the way home, on holiday, on the tram, in the library. No wonder we all feel so much pressure. No wonder so many people feel so anxious, so often.
No wonder we rush from one thing to the next, experiencing life as a never-ending series of tasks; "When I’ve done this, then I’ll do that, then I must do this before doing that, and I still haven't done this or even started doing that, and oh I forgot that I need to do that...".
Finally, we crash, slumping in front of screens, comfort eating or drinking, before tossing and turning in bed, touching our phones and sleeping fitfully; then waking to another day of the same - the same rush and the same feelings.
Try slowing down, and try stopping now and then.
Who says that walking quickly is better than walking slowly? Or that driving quickly is preferable to driving slowly? Who thinks that sitting in a car, pulled up on the pavement, engine running, flicking through screens, is an intelligent way to spend the few minutes of so-called 'downtime' between more periods of rushing? Who says that buying more and more and more, doing more and more and more (half-doing more), is so important?
Why must we always - always - be striving to be productive? Intelligent thinkers, such as Guy Claxton, have argued convincingly that we are more intelligent when we think slower and when we think less (see his book "Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind" - 4th Estate, 1997).
Who says that we cannot challenge the prevailing culture of haste and anxiety, and slow down. Take our time. Stop. For a little while. Just once in a while. Think a little more. Or stop thinking and simply be? After all, our name is not 'human doing' but 'human being'.
Contemplate this idea - rush, stress, and anxiety lead to more rush, stress, and anxiety, leading to more rushing, getting stressed, and feeling anxious... ultimately leading you into a life lacking calmness and lacking happiness.
Scientifically-speaking, rushing around without sufficient rest over-stimulates the body's sympathetic nervous system. This regulates unconscious reactions such as heart rate, pupil dilation, breathing, and muscle contractions in the stomach. So, your blood throbs in the temples, sweat breaks out at the armpits, breathing is shallow and rapid (hyperventilation), and digestion is inhibited (dyspepsia). Feelings of stress, anxiety, and anger will almost inevitably accompany this over-stimulation.
Living like this - reactive, anxious, and angry - can become habitual. Without slowing down, without stopping, this habit can become a lifestyle. This lifestyle then becomes life.
- stopping in the streets...
- putting that phone away and lifting your head...
- looking around you...
- breathing - in through the nose, and out, in, through the nose (slowly) and out again...
- using the whole of the lungs, filling them with air...
- allowing yourself to be, for a moment or two...
...will help to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system is often called 'rest-and-digest' or 'feed-and-breed'.
If you feel permanently trapped in 'fight-or-flight', what you need to do is 'rest-and-digest' (or perhaps 'feed and breed'). Take time over your food; relish it - that is what it's there for. Take time over the walk to drop your kids at school, and enjoy the time you are spending with them - it is precious. Try to take time over everything - bathing, shopping, walking, talking, thinking, working, playing, loving. Life is much better when it is not lived in a continual, reactive rush.
It's much more satisfying to do something, almost anything, well, and to take the time and trouble to experience the doing of that thing, than it is to get it done super-quickly. Things take... however long they are going to take. That includes this article, which I estimated would take about three hours to write but has, so far, taken me more than a week and is not even complete... yet.
Hold up. It's easy to say take your time, easy to write don't rush, put that phone down, get your head up, breathe from the diaphragm. It's easy to advocate mindfulness or yoga, doing nothing, and simply being. Changing ingrained habits - particularly when these habits are societal - is another matter.
One problem is that almost everyone else seems to be rushing around, too. Our system seems to promote this jumping-from-one-task-to-the-next-without-pausing. Our society seems to value those forever on the move, forever being productive (until they slump at home in front of a TV 'boxset').
Slowing down for a few moments may seem counter-productive, against the grain. Leaving your phone at home and taking a stroll on your own, may feel an almost revolutionary activity. Stopping, shutting down the screens, turning off TV and radio, music and noise, may - perhaps, right now - be beyond you.
If so, don't worry. You are not alone, either in your desire to slow down and feel calmer or your seeming inability to do so. This is where psychotherapy or counselling can come in. As much as anything, psychotherapy is an hour to think. To think about your problems, yes, but also to think about the world, to think about your children, to think about your past, your schooling, to think about your mother and your father, to think and to talk about your lovers and your friends, your pleasures and your pains, your fears, your shame, your joys. Everything. Anything. A whole hour (or fifty minutes) for you to slow down. Stop. Think, alongside a fellow, sympathetic human being.
Our stressed, rushed, incessantly calling and warning, coaxing, and threatening way of life seems - seems - to offer us so little respite, so little time, that the psychotherapy hour may be the first time in a long time that you have just... stopped.
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