4 Tips for Slowing Down to Reduce Stress
Slowing down can improve your physical and mental health.
In April, NPR ran a story titled, “The Slow Internet Movement.” It reported that hipster cities like Portland, Oregon are sprouting Internet cafés that only offer dial-up access to the web. These cafés give customers, “Slow pours and slow Internet. Here, you can order your coffee and spend four hours checking your email, all for .99 an hour.”
I thought: “Wow! That’s just my speed!” (No pun intended.) But the story didn’t just run in April. It ran on April 1st and was NPR’s little April Fools joke at the expense of gullible people like me. It got me thinking though. Life would be less stressful and my anxiety levels would be greatly reduced if I embraced the spirit of The Slow Internet Movement. So here are four tips for slowing down.
1. Decide how much time you think it will take to complete a task…and double it!
How often do you clock in at or under the time you’ve allotted for a task? I rarely do.
Take my raised asparagus fern bed that needs to be cut back a few times each year. Every time I assess the task, I estimate it will take 20 minutes at most. But it always takes at least twice that long. By the time I’m done, I’m “trashed” as we call it in my household.
Inspired by The Slow Internet Movement, when I tackled the task a few weeks ago, I doubled my 20-minute time estimate. Forty minutes is more than I can handle stress-free at one time, so I cut back half the ferns on Saturday and the other half on Sunday. Sure, the box looked odd for 24 hours, but no one seemed to notice. Not only did I spare myself burnout, but I truly enjoyed the activity both times.
2. Consciously perform tasks in slow motion. Whatever you’re doing at the moment, slow it down by 25%, whether it’s thinking, typing on a keyboard, surfing the Internet, running (excuse that unfortunate word) an errand, or cleaning the house. Pick some tasks to experiment with.
Unless I’m vigilant, I’ll slowly speed up until, soon, I’m moving at full speed. Often, this scurrying around is for no apparent reason! When I realize this, I take a deep breath and repeat the words of the Chinese sage Lao Tzu: “Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.”
3. Stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system—sometimes called the involuntary nervous system-—regulates many bodily systems without our conscious direction, such as the circulatory and respiratory systems. Two of its three branches are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
When the sympathetic nervous system is aroused, it puts us on high alert, sometimes called the “fight-or-flight” response. The sympathetic nervous system is necessary to our survival because it enables us to respond quickly when there’s a threat. By contrast, when the parasympathetic nervous system is aroused, it produces a feeling of relaxation and calm in the mind and the body.
The two systems work together: as one becomes more active the other becomes less active. But they can get out of balance. Many people live in a constant state of high alert and high anxiety—sympathetic nervous system arousal—even though there’s no immediate threat. Three of the recognized causes for this are our fast-paced, never-enough-time-to-do-everything lifestyle; sensory overload (exacerbated by multitasking); and the media’s distorted but relentless suggestion that danger lurks around every corner.
In other words, the parasympathetic nervous system-—the system that produces a calm and relaxed state—is underactive. By stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, we can restore the balance. With that balance restored, we naturally slow down our pace of life.
The following techniques for stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system are adapted from Rick Hanson’s excellent book, Buddha’s Brain. You can try these just about anywhere, anytime.
- Breathe from your diaphragm. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system because it slows down your breathing. If you put your hand on your stomach and it rises up and down slightly as you breathe, you know you’re diaphragm breathing. (This is why it’s sometimes called abdominal breathing.)
- Combine diaphragm breathing with mindfulness—the practice of calmly resting your attention on whatever is happening in the present moment. If your sympathetic nervous system is in a constant state of arousal, mindfulness helps restore the proper balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems by increasing the activity of the latter. This creates a feeling of calm and relaxation.
- Use imagery to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Visualize yourself in a peaceful place, like a mountain stream, a forest, a secluded beach. Engage all your senses in this imagery—sights, sounds, the feel of the breeze on your face.
- A favorite of mine: Lightly run one or two fingers over your lips. Parasympathetic fibers are spread throughout your lips so touching them stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. I was skeptical of this until I tried it. Now it’s my “go to” practice for immediately calming my mind and body. Once I’m calm, I slow down naturally.
4. No multitasking. (Okay, okay: less multitasking.) Korean Zen master Seung Sahn liked to tell his students, “When reading, only read. When eating, only eat. When thinking, only think.” To us, this means, no multitasking! I’ve discovered that it’s hard to break the multitasking habit. Sometimes it feels like an addiction. Mindfulness practice helps because unless I consciously pay attention to the present moment, I can find myself engaged in multiple tasks without even realizing it.
Too much sensory input increases my stress level, so I’m working hard on “no multitasking.” Call me a recovering multitasker. I’ve discovered that it takes a lot of discipline to break the habit, so much in fact, that sometimes I have to be content with “less multitasking.” But it’s a start.
These four tips are in the spirit of The-Slow-Internet-Movement-that-wasn’t. I hope that in reading through them, you allotted twice the time you estimated it would take!
Note: The theme of this article is expanded on in my books How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide(link is external) (2015) and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow(link is external) (2013)
Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I’m also the author of:
How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers(link is external) (2010)