The power of a habit is enormous. It can propel you forward incredibly or it can block any change for the better, depending on whether it as a good or a bad habit.
The one habit that counts the most, I think, is not a specific thing that you do, but rather the way in which you respond to the world. Some of it is a part of your temperament, of course. You can’t do much about the temperament you were born with. But a great part of the way you react is actually a habit, an acquired pattern of behavior, that was shaped by your past experiences.
If, for whatever reason, you were conditioned to react strongly to certain people or situations in the past, you may have to deal with a lot of stress throughout your entire life, whenever you encounter similar situations. Your acquired pattern of behavior will make you overreact even to a normal, everyday situation, because some tiny aspect of it is perhaps similar to the original bad situation and therefore triggers the same reaction.
If this becomes your primary mode of living, it can make your life full of stress, mess up your relationships and health, and decrease your productivity. Going on vacations or becoming a recluse on a desert island will only partially and temporarily solve some of the problems. Sometimes running away is necessary, but you will have to return eventually or some other problem will pop in.
The only permanent way of solving the problem is to unwire the triggers and the learned response. One of the best ways you can do this is to pay attention to your breathing whenever you detect your old unwanted patterns to emerge. Just put your attention on your breath and observe it. If this doesn’t help, then go a step further and intentionally make your breathing deeper and slower and also make sure you inhale and exhale at a regular pace. This will automatically calm you down and divert your attention away from the problematic situation.
However, you will not want to divert your attention away unless you first – at least to some extent – accept the present moment and the situation at hand, because otherwise you will have a feeling that by not reacting the usual way, you are capitulating and letting the other person take advantage of you. Of course, you are not. All you are doing is breaking the chain of automated reaction that you habituated in the past. By focusing your attention on your breathing for a few seconds you are allowing yourself some time before you can intentionally respond to the situation. It may be that the situation demands a fierce response, but you will do it on purpose, and not because you are reacting blindly. (Some emergency situations may be exempt from what I just described).
Of course, this is easier said than done. Old habits are really, really persistent, and before you have had a chance to think about it you are already reacting. Therefore, I have chosen my own personal mantra (inspired by Eckhart Tolle) that I repeat over and over again, and it helps me remind myself about what needs to be done:
Breathe. Allow this moment to be
I have written this on a piece of paper and I usually carry it in my pocket, looking at it many times a day, so that I will really internalize it. When some difficult situation presents itself I try to repeat this mantra in my mind and then actually live it. By allowing the present moment to be as it is (and not as I wish it would have been) I undermine the need to react immediately, which gives me some time to focus on my breathing instead, and this enables me to respond to the situation calmly.
It doesn’t always work, but then again I only recently put this into practice. Years of habitual agitated reactions to certain situations, people and events cannot be changed overnight. I stay optimistic that in a year or so, my new mantra will fully become part of my life, and I won’t even have to think about it anymore.
One good thing about writing this blog is that I can’t keep lying to myself for long. Incongruity between what I write and my real life clearly stands out, so that I can’t ignore it. I wrote about how important it is to set priorities and focus on them (Quote of the Month, December 2010). Yet, I haven’t been following my own advice.
I know that my number one priority at this time is stress reduction. In the past few months my stress level has gone considerably up, but it really is a problem that has been accumulating for years. Part of the problem is my OCD, which I have written about, too.
So, I know what the problem is and how to tackle it, but I haven’t been doing that consistently. On the contrary – I have engaged in activities that I know are in the way of my priority and actually increase stress level. Like watching news on TV or reading newspapers.
As I am someone who has serious problems with stress I should ask myself: what is my priority – to be informed about events in the world, some of them thousands of miles away, that may or may not affect me someday in the future or dealing with stress that is killing me right here and right now?
If something really terrible was about to happen in my environment I am sure I would have picked it up in everyday conversations with people – I don’t need to follow news for that. And all the nonsense that is happening in politics – I think am better without it. Almost every week there is some new scandal and allegations of corruption in the media. We have police and other authorities to deal with that.
The nature of mass media is that they focus mainly on negative events, drama and scandals. Partly because that is what attracts people’s attention the most, but also because one of the missions of the media is to raise awareness of the problems in society, so that solutions can then be searched and found.
I do firmly believe that democracy and changes in society depend on people being well informed. So, I am not against TV and newspapers in general. I always looked down to people who don’t seem to care about what is happening in the world or even in their own community. So, while it is certainly not a good idea to be in front of TV every single hour of your free time, some interest in what is happening in the world around you is a positive thing.
However, drastic circumstances require drastic measures! If I don’t change my daily routine and reduce stress I am headed to burnout. Therefore I have decided to cut off all TV, newspapers and magazines for as long as I don’t learn how to manage my stress level effectively. In addition I will not read or watch news on the internet. In fact I will use internet only for the purpose of managing this blog, reading about personal development, communicating with people (e-mail, etc.) and searching for practical information that I may need.
If I can’t even stick to these simple rules I may as well close this blog.