Teaching a Stressed System to Relax: Living in the Gaps
“The more I practice cultivating the gaps and being really present for them, the more my nervous system gets the message that I’m okay.”
I am someone who loves to be busy. Especially when something shifts in my life and I start to feel anxious or out of control, I’ll plan a bunch of stuff to do so I don’t have to deal with my feelings.
I’ve been working on this one over the last few years. As a freelancer and yoga studio owner, I make a lot of my own work. Now, when I finish a project and have a little space before the next thing, I’ve been trying to let myself live in that gap until I’m really sure what I want to do next. When I have a free evening, I’ve been trying to just let it be free. This might sound easy to you, but for me, not having a plan, not having anything to do with my hands, can be a big source of anxiety.
Most of my life, I have been guilty of precrastinating: while procrastination means avoiding a task that needs to be done, precrastination means doing something too soon, too fast, or simply filling your hands with busywork that doesn’t actually benefit you or anyone else. When I don’t slow down enough to really think through what I’m doing, I don’t do it very well. I make up a bunch of projects for myself that I don’t need to do, and half of them never go anywhere anyway. I’ve truly created a lot of my own stress.
One of the paradoxes I have discovered about all this is that if I feel pressed for time, I can actually make more of it—by slowing down. When I am anxiously trying to get a million things done, I’m not truly focusing on anything. If I stop for ten minutes, relax, and just let my mind play out whatever it needs to play out, I’ve created some space in my brain, which makes me more capable of focusing on what needs to be done and doing it in a reasonable time frame.
Slowing down in this way has also been something of a sea change for my nervous system. It’s always been difficult for me to simply sit in the natural spaces of life. And there are always spaces—big spaces, like between projects or on holiday, and small spaces, like between getting home from work and making dinner. The more I practice cultivating the gaps and being really present for them, the more my nervous system gets the message that I’m okay, that there’s plenty of time, that I don’t need to be stressed. I don’t always have to be doing something. (For more, see my article, “Why We Need to Stop.”)
The key to the nervous system is habit. When we are stressed all the time, the nervous system gets used to that. Have you ever come out of a very stressful period into a vacation and it’s taken a few days (or longer) for you to come down and enjoy it? Or you’ve gotten very stressed about whether you should go to the beach or the museum first? Sometimes our bodies will invent things for us to be stressed about because it assumes that if we’re not anxious about something that’s because we must have missed it. That’s its habit.
On the other hand, when we practice noticing, enjoying, and even creating those gaps between things, we are teaching our internal systems that we have all the time in the world. We are remembering who we are when we’re not in action. Managing stress isn’t about removing stressors from our lives, which isn’t always practical or necessarily desirable. Plenty of stressors help us grow, change, and create. But when we are in a habit of stress, we lose our efficiency, not to mention our joy and energy. We lose the ability to tell the difference between what really needs to be done and what is simply filling up our hands. The key to change may simply be in learning to notice—and love—the gaps.
Want more? Try my meditation for pausing the breath.