When it feels like everything is speeding up around us, working against the tide and putting pressure on ourselves to force our own pace to match rarely offers the best way forward.
It can feel as if everything is speeding up, particularly at this time of year as a certain date in December approaches. Obvious advice to those who feel they are going too fast seems to be to slow down, but that tends to ramp up the tension still further, as it fights against the tide. Any attempt to pretend that a situation is the opposite of what it is, will be pretty much doomed to failure. All the visualisations in the world are unlikely to convince you that you are in a slow-moving pastoral idyll if you find yourself in fact in the middle of a hectic, over-heated shopping mall, hermetically sealed from fresh air.
Another approach is to feel the speed and enjoy it. As physiologically speaking anxiety and excitement are very similar, if not indistinguishable, it’s the way we interpret the rush of things in our minds and around us that makes the difference. This is a useful piece of information not only for performers, but also for Christmas shoppers. When there’s a lot to do and little time to do it in, thoughts tend to move faster and shoot in all directions at once to try and cover it all. The sensations that go with those movements of thought often get called ‘stress’. The very word ‘stress’ probably then ups the level of discomfort. We respond to it with muscular tension and fast, shallow breathing that send further signals throughout the nervous system, reinforcing the sense that there’s something wrong, there’s some imminent danger, and swift action is required — except that we can’t act, because we don’t know exactly what danger to react to.
Stress is not always about speed, the feeling of going too fast and not being in control, or of things around us moving too fast to be dealt with properly. It is sometimes more spatial, about going too far out, trying to do things which we can’t do because they aren’t under our control, or because they are in the future, or in the past. Everything gets spread out and everything seems equally important. In this case, what is needed is to bring the focus in to see what the next thing to be done actually is. To bring the focus in, we usually do need to reduce the inner speed. This is where taking a deep, low breath and focusing attention on it can really help. The next breath — however complex the situation may be — is definitely the next thing that needs to be done.
So far I’ve been considering situations you might call stressful, such as Christmas or other ‘occasions’ when external expectations and deadlines force us to add extra things on to our daily routines, and to get them ‘right’. But everyone has their own internal pace in everyday life, and that also tends to be changeable. All other things being equal, people do tend to cycle a bit between slower, more reflective and relaxed periods and faster-paced ones. In my counselling practice I notice people putting pressure on themselves to change their pace, say, to be slower and more mindful, because that is supposed to be good for their mental health, or to be faster and more externally focused and productive because that is what they need to keep up at work.
Of course being able to adjust the pace to different conditions is a necessary skill. Working against the tide is rarely the way to get there, though, and forcing the pace exacts a cost, even when it involves slowing down. The trick is, as with most things, accepting the pace you are at, at which point it can adjust itself naturally to the task in hand. While not guaranteed, at least the opportunity is there, whereas forcing matters guarantees you feel the kind of pressure that obstructs things, that comes along with the message ‘there’s something wrong with you’. We could all do without that, and while it may sound more of an inconvenience than a big deal, to my mind, changing this message to ‘you’re fine, go at your own pace’ brings immeasurable benefits, and frees up bandwidth for adjusting to the changing circumstances in hand.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on December 19, 2017.
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