How To Relax When You‘re Always On Edge
Strategies to overcome five of life’s most toxic feelings
Have you ever felt on edge as though your adrenalin spigot were running like a broken fire hydrant?
For most of my life, I thought peace, tranquility, and serenity were terms invented by late-night infomercial scoundrels. Remember those life-changing DVDs that would bring you peace and happiness for only four payments of $29.99?
It took me many years to realize this constant state of tension wasn’t normal. The awareness came after I committed to a daily journaling practice; it enabled me to connect the dots between my experiences and subsequent emotions.
A pattern of five sensitivities emerged — triggers that created a feeling of constant tension.
- Sensitivity to stressful situations — manifesting as anxiety
- Worry — always fretting over worst-case scenarios
- Overwhelm — from too many obligations and responsibilities
- Runaway thoughts — blocks of time would pass where my mind raced from one thought to another
- Overstimulation — too much social interaction without a break
Avoiding the situations that triggered these feelings seemed like the ideal solution, but proved incompatible with my life goals. We can’t always control the stimuli and experiences to which we expose ourselves.
I settled on an alternate strategy. Live life to its fullest and create coping mechanisms to stifle these venomous responses before they adversely impact my life.
1) When you feel stressed
Numerous studies have shown the benefits of deep breathing in minimizing the emotional stress and even reduction of its physiological effects. No doubt, you’ve read or heard about the benefits of deep breathing on countless wellness discussions, articles, and videos. But how often do you do it?
I prioritize my deep breathing time when I feel the physical effects of stress: anxiousness, inappropriate sweating, hand, and leg tremors.
Just five minutes of deep breathing reduces your stress to manageable levels. More extended periods result in better results. You might even forget what caused the stress, at least temporarily.
There are numerous deep breathing methods. The one I describe below works well for me.
- Sit down in a comfortable chair.
- Close your eyes.
- Breath in through your nose and fill your belly with air. Picture a calming scene in your mind as you breathe in and focus on that picture.
- Hold it for ten seconds
- Breathe out of your mouth slowly and imagine little bits of stress leaving your body through the expelled carbon dioxide.
- Repeat this exercise for five minutes, longer if possible.
2) When worry consumes you
I used to worry excessively. Some of my worries were legitimate, but most were far-fetched. Some folks are more prone to excessive worrying, and I guess I’m one of them.
I still worry, but now I employ a strategy to curtail it. I do this exercise in my journal as part of my pre-bedtime routine. It helps me stifle those inconvenient thoughts that interfere with my sleep. If you’ve ever participated in risk management, this exercise will seem familiar to you
- Write down the specific outcome you worry about.
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how realistic is it?
- What steps can you take to mitigate the worry?
- Reassess the score (scale of 1 to 10) based on your mitigation plan.
- If the worst should happen, what is a viable backup plan?
It may appear simple, but it has profound effects on your perception of the outcome you fear. Assigning a likelihood score brings you perspective. Mitigation plans help lower the score. A backup plan brings you peace of mind.
3) When you have too much shit on your plate
Do you know that haunting feeling of too many obligations and not enough time or resources to deal with them? That’s “overwhelm” you feel.
Several years ago, I read the book, The 48 Laws Of Power, by Robert Greene. Law 36, and its potential applications, resonated with me: disdain things you cannot have. Ignoring them is the best revenge.
I’ve adapted that rule to help me deal with overwhelm.
Disdain things that don’t matter. Saying I don’t give a f*ck is the best way to lighten your responsibilities and obligations. It feels damn good, too.
You might counter that advice by saying, what if everything matters? No, it doesn’t. It can’t. Most of those emails piling up in your inbox don’t matter. The world won’t stop spinning if you politely refuse a coworker’s request to join a sub-committee on whatever.
I still feel guilty when I decline someone’s request for help. It’s an almost universal response that explains why so many of us feel overwhelmed. This question helps me put things in perspective.
Am I willing to sacrifice my well-being to help this person with their demand?
The guilt dissipates faster than a deflating balloon.
4) When your mind races
Ever have one of those days where your mind races to a thousand thoughts, inhibiting your ability to focus?
What you need is a distraction, one that forces you to focus on something silly and pointless.
Here’s what I do.
I draw the perfect circle. Yeah, seriously. I focus on drawing the perfect circle. It’s impossible to draw a perfect one. You will always find a flaw when drawing by hand. A circle is as basic as it gets — no complex contemplation and minimal cognitive load.
- Begin by drawing a circle. Don’t rush through it, but avoid drawing unnaturally slow.
- Look for the imperfections. Is it too oval? Do the two points fail to intersect properly?
- Draw another one. Pay careful attention to fixing the imperfections of your previous circle.
- Repeat this process at least twenty times.
You’ll soon forget the slew of jumbled thoughts scattering throughout your brain. The circle exercise is the single best tactic to reboot your mind and start on a new task.
5) When you’re sick of people
I get sick of people, and I crave solitude. Introverts might be more susceptible to moments of people-annoyance, but I know extroverts who need time away from others too.
Removing yourself from the presence of others helps ease the anxiety of overstimulation, but I take it a step further. I engage in sacred time — an expansion of solitude.
You disconnect from the world and engage in activity that brings you peace and heightened awareness. Sacred time relies on four principles.
1. Total solitude — Temporarily isolate yourself from the presence of others. If you must cross the path of other people, there should be no expectation of interruption.
2. Eliminate the possibility of a disruption — Put your phone on airplane mode. If you stay indoors, carve out time when you’re sure nobody will interrupt you.
3. Movement — Engage in a light physical activity like walking, casual biking, or non-strenuous hiking.
4. Freedom from production goals — In periods of solitude, we may impose a goal on ourselves: write a specific number of words, come up with a bunch of ideas or create something of substance. Sacred time imposes no such goals. You can take notes as ideas form in your mind — and they will! — but treat that as a side-effect of the experience, not the objective.
Dedicate thirty minutes a day to sacred time. It not only helps you recharge from overstimulation, but it also serves as a catch-all activity to relieve you of a variety of toxic emotions.