Turning Stress Management Into Cultivation of Calm


It's Saturday morning. Woot! You made it to the weekend. But if it feels like the upcoming day and a half are already filled to the brim by your to-do list—you are not alone. 

There are phases in our lives when the hamster wheel of life feels unstoppable, even on the weekends. This was particularly acute for me when I was in med school, raising our two young sons, and adapting to the wonderful yet challenging addition to our family of two adopted daughters. There were days when I felt like I was drowning in demands on my time from other creatures (we also chose to adopt two dogs and two cats during this life phase) and had no time to spare a thought for my own needs. 

Can you relate? 

During this phase of my life I would have loved to have taken a week off, just for myself, and gone on some kind of a retreat, but there was just. no. way. 

Can you relate? 

This is when I got really efficient with my practice of cultivating calm. 

Calm Cultivation - what does that mean? And why is it so important? Good questions. I will take them one at a time. 

Calm cultivation is essentially a way of referring to "stress management" without creating additional stress. Instead of focusing on the management of stress (ugh - can you feel your chest tightening just from thinking of one more thing to manage?) we can reframe the practice as the cultivation of calm (ahh - feels those shoulders relax). 

As for why this is important - and I can't emphasize this enough - stress is at the root of all chronic disease. It may not be THE cause of the disease (although in many cases it is), but it always makes things worse. This is because our bodies struggle to heal in a state of stress. 

Now, I don't want you to think that stress is inherently bad - it can be life-saving. It's when we spend most of our waking hours under the influence of one stressor or another that stress becomes problematic. And not all stressors are bad. Many of them we actively chose to bring into our lives because they add meaning and purpose and bring us joy. Our kids, our partners, our jobs, our pets, our pet projects. We don't want to get rid of them - we just need a little break from them now and then. 

This is where the power of calm cultivation comes in, and my secret for making it through med school while simultaneously raising four young children without losing my mind.

I made two commitments to myself. One on a weekly basis, and one on a monthly basis. 

First, I promised myself that once a week, on a Friday morning, no matter what else was on my plate, I would spend an hour in the sauna at my school. Stepping into that small cedar-lined space I temporarily left behind my exams, parental obligations, financial worries, etc. and dedicated an hour to just relaxing. 

Now, I can imagine you're wondering "how can just an hour a week many any difference?" And "what happened when you got out of the sauna?" And yep, you're right. It's not much time, and yep, as soon as I stepped out of the sauna I was right back on that hamster wheel. But knowing that I had that hour a week for myself made every other hour that week more bearable. When it felt like my obligations were caving in on me and there was no end in sight, I would take a deep breath, think of my sauna sanctuary, and tackle my to-do list. 

This post is getting lengthy, so I'll save my monthly commitment tip for next week. It's super simple and directly related to the power of pajamas - I'm looking forward to sharing it with you! 

In the meantime, take a moment to imagine an hour a week just for you. No works, chores, errands or e-mails allowed. How would that feel? What would you do? Walk... Paint... Read... Nap?

Now, pull out your calendar, and FIND THAT HOUR. And yes, you may have to delete something less important, and in order to do that, I need you to understand that this is one of the most important steps you can take for your physical, mental and emotional health. Our culture is not great at recognizing this, but relaxation is powerful, powerful medicine, which is why it is on every single one of my patients' treatment plans in one form or another. 

So, my secret for staying sane and healthy while living a busy and fulfilling life with multiple demands on my time? Treat yourself to an hour of relaxation once a week. Protect and value this hour like your life depended on it. Recognize this hour of relaxation as powerful medicine, and look forward to it when you feel like your hamster wheel is spinning out of control. 

And, if you are in a place where you can take more time for yourself, check out our upcoming retreats, designed to take your relaxation skills to the next level.