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The Great Exhaustion: Embrace the Slow Lane

photo: matt palmer

I published The Great Exhaustion nearly seven months ago, yet each week more and more people find it. For myself, the way out of this exhaustion has been a fumbling journey with many setbacks. However, I choose to remember that I’m not terminally unique. We’re all in this boat. Left, right or center, nearly everyone I know is tired and wants a reprieve from just about everything that is going on.

This piece will be about you can better support yourself amidst these challenging times by slowing down. I am learning that if you stop to take care of yourself with slow intention and not through quick fixes (be they a supplement, some new health fad, a short vacation or a week-long diet) you will begin to unwind the tangled cassette tape of exhaustion. For me, the most critical way to do this has been by cultivating awareness and not living my life blindly.

What I have learned (albeit the hard way) is that if you go, go, go without ever stopping to slow down, your life will inevitably pull the governor. It will tell you that you have reached top speed and you need to slow down now. This may look like a serious illness or chronic pain, it could look like an anxiety attack, it might look like interrupted sleep and constant exhaustion, a stretch of depression (from living a life that is out of alignment) or a deep sense of loneliness resulting from an absence of time with friends and family. It could look like all of the above.

Here’s the thing though, it’s how you and I approach our solution that will help us unwind the mess. The problem is that few of us like solutions that take time. America has become a country that loves fast everything. Fast food. Fast cars. Fast workouts (I see you, spin people). Fast results. In turn, we have become increasingly unaware of the areas in which we need more slow. An existential dilemma that took years to cultivate will not be undone with one vacay to Hawaii or psychedelic trip or Bible study or 30-day paleo challenge. Sorry.

So, I am here to encourage you to embrace the slow lane. Literally too. Try driving in the slow lane as a spiritual practice sometime. Feel the discomfort.

In my 2016 TedX Talk Learning How to Embrace Silence, I detailed how embracing silence can change our world and ourselves. But what I’ve learned since then is that slowing down is the critical mechanism to enable the silence. You have to *stop* to smell the roses. You have to pause to hear something deeply. You have to slow down in order to see your life as it really is so that you can begin to make it what you want. Our lives are demanding our attention in a world that is so distracting… so how can we get it back and unwind?

Here are some things that have been working for me on this slow journey. Take what works and leave the rest.

photo: clem onojeghuo

1 — Your body

Chances are you’re reading this while sitting down. If you are, I want you to notice your shoulders. Are they scrunched up? Tense? Can you drop them to create a small release? What about your posture? Are you hunched over? Sit up a bit straighter and it may help you to breathe easier.

What about your tongue? Is it touching your teeth? Without opening your mouth, can you drop it and slightly open your teeth. Relax your jaw.

How about your breath? Are you aware of it? Is it slow and measured right now? Can you lengthen it? Can you try breathing in for four beats, pausing for one and breathing out for six to engage your parasympathetic nervous system? Can you repeat that a few times? (This helps to disengage fight or flight.)

What about your heart? If you have a smart watch, begin to become aware of how your heart rate increases when you have stressful thoughts. Often times this happens just before bed, in the middle of the night or when we first wake up. You may think it’s normal. But pay attention to it. Can you lengthen your breath to slow your heart rate down to give you some space? If that is difficult, repeating the phrase, “my breathing is slow and steady, my heart rate is normal” can help settle you. Becoming aware of your heart rate will let you know if there are times during the day that it would be beneficial to pause and breathe.

These four little ways to slow down and cultivate awareness of your body are simple. You can do them wherever you are. At work. In the car. In bed. They are best however, when you do them consistently through out the day. If needed, make repeated calendar reminders in your phone that say, “Drop your shoulders, relax your tongue, and breathe.” These mini slow down moments can help you reset when you begin to progress through the day unconscious.

2 — Your mind

The phrase, “The only way out is through” is a challenging one for any of us who have gone through tough times. Take grief for instance. Any of us who have lost parents or a spouse or a child know firsthand how grief is an unbearably slow process. It never ends, but it does lighten and shift.

I remember sitting on the floor of my apartment four months after my mother died in 2012, going through a simultaneous break up + miscarriage and thinking… this is unbearable pain. My friend Vic (who would pass the next year himself) said to me that morning, “You must sit with this. The only way out is through.” I don’t know why, but I finally heard it when he said it in his kind, fatherly voice. I had a radical shift that morning because I stopped my thoughts that were resisting reality and I finally accepted where I was. The reality was: I could not bring my mom or my baby back. My ex handled the situation horribly and didn’t care. My boss (a woman) did too. It was what it was.

I accepted all of it and that this hurt was real, it would not go away fast and resisting it would not help. In that moment, I felt a subtle shift. Ironically, for as painful as that period was, I now remember how powerfully transformative it was too. Coincidentally, I met my husband only six months later and had a new job not long after.

Now, all of that does not mean that I have been a beacon of acceptance and awareness ever since. That’s the thing. If we heal and go right back to our speedy lives… we will inevitably fall off the balance beam again. Mindfulness is a way that we can circumvent that however.

Be it journaling daily, talking to a therapist you trust (on a weekly basis), taking more regular baths, slow exercise (like Yin yoga or Tai Chi), meditating, gardening, practicing 12 step recovery, nature hikes or walks by yourself… slowing down to mindfully sit with the present moment and just accept it will provide a pressure relief.* Just be sure to surround yourself with people who lift you up. Don’t ask for advice from people who don’t have what you want or don’t believe in you.

One note on meditation, if sitting in silence is extremely uncomfortable or triggering, I highly recommend guided meditation with teachers who use visualization. It’s an easier start than something like silent meditation (Vipassana) or even a body scan. One great lovebug of a teacher I enjoy is Estelle Godsman who teaches imagination-driven meditation on the Insight Timer app (it’s free). Estelle is like a friendly grandma that you wish was your neighbor. She’s precious. Also, don’t be afraid to start with a short meditation. Estelle has some has short as 4 or 5 minutes.

In Closing

I wanted to add more sections to this piece, but I am going to go slow. I have decided to practice what I preach and pace myself as I write this. Hopefully, it will allow you time to digest it.

Starting to cruise in these two slow lanes — observing your body and observing your mind — will enable you to begin to create a new support system for yourself. You do not have to do any of this perfectly. In fact, imperfection is probably a better approach. Attempt to do your best and if you forget a day or two, get back on the horse.

If you’re sitting there reading this thinking, “This is all ridiculous. I need an action plan. Now.” I’d like to lovingly challenge you. I was that person. That’s the voice of the, “I don’t have enough time” quick fix person. Trust me, if life slows you down — you will have enough time. We are not immortal. That stomach pain? It’s not simply because you eat poorly. It’s because you’re stressed and depressed. Your weepiness? It’s not just your hormones. You’re actually sad sometimes and it’s OK to cry.

Pay attention and take great care of this vessel you were born with. Your body is sending you signs. Question the thoughts your mind is sending you and know that you don’t have to believe them all. Fear is simply false evidence appearing real.

Next time, we’ll unpack a bit about media and the war for our attention.

photo: thomas despeyroux

*By the way, I find cultivating mindfulness to not be a one trick pony. I literally do every single thing mentioned in that paragraph. Sometimes it takes me doing all of those in one week just to get centered again. Progress not perfection.



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