Ever wonder how we get “stuck” being busy? You know the feeling, when you’ve been rushing from one thing to another without any real awareness, feeling like you were in a whirlwind the whole day? Thanks to COVID, we can’t really go anywhere, so why do we still feel the pressure to hurry?
The answer is, we’ve conditioned our minds to be busy.
Let me explain. You’re probably familiar with the experiment run by a scientist named Pavlov, who wanted to test salivation in dogs around feeding time. What he discovered was that he could condition dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell by ringing the bell before serving food.
We’ve done the same thing to ourselves! Our mind is comfortable being busy, it knows how to operate feeling that pressure and as crazy as it might sound, it's more comfortable in the busy state.. So even when we aren’t busy, we find ways to make ourselves busy.
You see, over the course of our lives, without even realizing it, we’ve conditioned ourselves to create patterns of behavior. For example, most of us are conditioned to brush our teeth in the morning and before bed. When we forget to brush, there is an obvious bad taste in your mouth. Another example is comfort food. Where does that come from? Food is food, it's meant to fuel us, not comfort us. But we have conditioned our mind and body so when we are feeling down, certain foods make us feel better.
We’ve done the same thing with being busy. Our mind likes to create automatic habits or patterns. Before COVID, we were conditioned to be busy, used to running around from work to errands and everywhere in between. But now things are different; we can’t go out as much as we used to and we don’t see as many people as before. The thing is though, our minds don’t know that we are going through a pandemic, and we’re operating as though we’re living life pre-COVID.
Our mind feels more comfortable being busy because for years we have been in motion. And it feels weird not to be. Some of us are noticing an increase in anxiety, others might realize that they are adding things to their to-do list to make themselves feel more productive. We’re all just looking for ways to feel back to our busy “normal”.
But is that how we really want to be? Do we want our mind to be conditioned to be busy and create internal pressure, urging us to always feel like we have to GO GO GO? Some people might want a busy mind, while others will recognize it’s not a very pleasant way to go through our days.
Society has instilled certain values in us, so some people might feel that if they aren’t busy, always moving from one thing to the next, then we aren’t doing enough. Or that if we aren’t doing something then we are lazy. If you’re comfortable living with a busy mind, make sure it's for reasons you believe and virtues you want to stand by. Don’t let it be because others might perceive you in a certain way.
For those who don’t want to live in a busy mindset, the question becomes, "How do I change my mindset?" The answer is, one small step at a time.
Your mind is conditioned without you knowing it. You feel pulled to your phone, or your email, or TV at different times of the day - and all that is triggered by your busy, restless mind. The first step towards truly relaxing is to understand that your mind is incredibly powerful, so trying to change in one big leap will not give you the outcome you crave.
Start small; sit still for 2-5 minutes without your phone or other stimuli. Try to calm your mind and just focus on your breath. At first it will feel weird and like a waste of time (that’s the busy mind talking). But really it’s you exercising your higher brain power over your subconscious to regain control. It’s similar to a muscle -the more you use it, the stronger it will get and the easier it will become.
WHY CHANGE YOUR MINDSET
In order to shift out of the busy mind, first YOU HAVE TO WANT TO.
Honestly, this is the hard part, because you have to convince your busy mind that being busy isn’t beneficial. You need to try to reframe your perception.
Some people might perceive the benefits of a busy mind to be feeling productive and accomplished. Maybe they feel as if they seem more successful at life because they feel busy. Maybe they feel like it’s the only way to be a good parent, daughter/son, partner, friend, coworker, etc.
But notice how all these benefits are personal perceptions. They’re not based in fact or scientific proof. There’s no study that says if you’re constantly in a state of busy-ness your life is better than anyone else’s.
In fact, there are consequences to living in a constant state of busy-ness, and frankly, they’re a bit scary. Our nervous system acts like an ON/OFF switch, so when we are living with a busy mind, our nervous system switches our stress response ON, causing a ripple effect within our body. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase, we are more prone to digestive distress, it can disrupt our sleep pattern (needing too much sleep or not being able to sleep), it affects our reproductive system causing a lower sex drive and it can make a women’s time of the month less pleasant (menopausal or not).
Being too busy also affects our cognitive abilities by making it harder to focus, making us less productive, causing our mind to race and increasing irritability. We all know how that can cause conflict with the people who matter most in our lives and how that can generate anxiety or depression. Yikes!
When our stress response is constantly ON, it has damaging effects on our bodies.
So the question is, now that you know all of this, why is it so hard to relax? Probably because you were never taught how to.
I know you’re going to say, I was never taught how to stress, but you were. You grew up in a society that glorifies being busy. Maybe it was your parents or your teachers, but you’ve observed stress your whole life. It’s a learned behavior. But on the flip side, the last time you were taught to relax was probably in kindergarten at nap time.
The other reason it’s so hard to relax is we don’t value the benefits of relaxing, largely because we don’t know how to do it properly. When we “relax” we might be watching TV, playing a game, exercising, or scrolling on social media. But those are not examples of RELAXing, those are examples of DISTRACTing.
Distractions can help with stress management, but I’m talking about true relaxing; when your mind is in the moment, not rushing around going over your to-do list, or playing on your phone while you’re at a game or watching TV. Some people can truly relax when they meditate (it’s really hard for the busy-minded people), or get a massage. But really the only time we all consistently relax our mind is when we sleep.
VALUE OF RELAXING
So what is the value of relaxing? Why should we take time out of our day to purposefully relax our mind?
Well for starters, remember all those effects of stress we talked about earlier? Most of those effects are diminished, if not erased completely, when balanced with regular bouts of relaxation. When we relax, we flip our nervous system switch into the Rest and Digest System (or the Parasympathetic Nervous System). This switch naturally combats all the stress effects because once it’s flipped, our mind stops working on overdrive, helping us feel better! Our bodies not only calm down, but we can think more clearly, we have more patience and understanding, and we can avoid conflicts with the people in our lives who matter because we will have the mental capacity to respond better.
Ultimately, relaxing makes it easier to be the version of yourself you want to be.
TIME TO CHOOSE
Prioritizing time for yourself is a challenge, so prioritizing time to relax might seem impossible.
But if something doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.
And for you to truly convert your mind into a calm and productive space (versus a busy and stressed space) you will need to overcome challenges. I urge you to really pay attention and reflect on your time during COVID as well as your time before COVID. How was the state of your mind? What differences do you notice? Honestly answer the question, if I could build my ideal balance between being stressed and being relaxed, what would that look like, and what benefit will it hold?
What you’ll most likely find is you’ve been stuck in your busy mindset. But once you notice that and recognize the moments in between, when you were calm and how good that felt, you’ll understand the value of simply slowing down and enjoying a moment to relax. You just have to choose to learn your limits, and create your boundaries. Then you’ll be able to set up a peaceful, fulfilling and accomplished lifestyle!