Welcome 2023! The start of a brand new year is a natural occasion for setting new goals for a more fulfilling life. However, many of us were so wrapped up in holiday festivities last month that it may take a few weeks into January before we can really decompress and wrap our minds around new ambitions. For myself, December 2022 felt like the exclamation point at the end of an extremely busy year which is now mostly a blur. And personally, I don’t enjoy the feeling that my life is a haze. Afterall, life is meant to be enjoyed and savored, not lived on auto-pilot right? If you’re feeling a similar sense of overwhelm, it’s a clear indication that you may need to slow things down a bit.
I’m writing this while my family and I are returning home from a memorable New Year’s ski trip in Colorado’s glorious San Isabel National Forest. We enjoyed a four-day mountain getaway in which we exercised our bodies, connected as a family and enjoyed breathtaking scenery from atop a mountain. Chatting amongst ourselves on the drive home, it was evident that each of us was lacking enthusiasm about returning to our daily grind of work, school, etc. This prompted an enlightening discussion about the frantic pace of life these days and how important it is to take breaks from that daily hustle in order to de-stress. For many of us however, we are so caught up in running on the hamster wheel of life that we’re not even sure how to take a break or how to stop ourselves from feeling like we always need to be “doing” something or doing more. It’s not always easy to slow down but here’s the thing: slowing down is exactly what we need. Life doesn’t have to be frazzled, nor should it be lived that way. It simply is not healthy for humans to consistently live in such a rushed way. If you’re reading this while multi-tasking and rolling your eyes believing that if you do slow down you’ll be perceived as lazy or incompetent, please keep reading because the science-based facts I’m about to lay down will help give you a reality check.
Slow Down to Accomplish More
What? This doesn’t make any sense is what you may be thinking. Please continue reading.
Let’s be clear, the idea of “slowing down” the pace of life does not necessarily mean moving slower physically…although we may decide to actually slow ourselves down when walking or take more time to make decisions for example. When we talk about slowing down the pace of life, we’re really signifying the idea that many of us try to cram too much in our daily lives—too many unimportant things. Have you ever caught yourself thinking that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything on your to-do list? Most of us operate under the false pretense that in order to accomplish all of our tasks we need to hurry up to do more. And just like that, without even realizing it, our brains kick into hyper speed, our body engages our Sympathetic Nervous System (which is responsible for our fight-or-flight response or acute stress response). According to the site Stress.org, when our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is activated, our adrenal glands release a flurry of hormones including adrenaline, nonadrenaline and cortisol which result in an increased heart rate, higher blood pressure and a quicker breathing rate. While this fight-or-flight response is helpful for making us take quick action when faced with an imminent physical danger or even helping us to perform under pressure when meeting a deadline or while public speaking for example; if this function of our nervous system is chronically being activated, it can put us at increased risk of a large number of physical and mental health problems. According to researchers at the American Psychological Association, having a chronically activated SNS can lead to anxiety, depression, muscle tension and pain, digestive issues, headaches, heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep problems, weight gain, memory loss and problems with concentration as well as other illness and disease. You can see where this is going right? If you are living with a constantly engaged SNS (also known by some professionals as Sympathetic Nervous System Dominance), it can lead to a whole host of health issues, which will of course impede your ability to function proficiently daily. Therefore, it’s evident that as we speed up our pace of life to try to accomplish more, we are living in a state of chronic stress and thus hindering our overall performance and efficiency.
Now for the good news! You do not have to live with a SNS on overdrive. You can actively engage the part of your nervous system called the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) which is also referred to as the relaxation response. It’s the opposite of (with directly opposing physiological responses) from the SNS. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the Parasympathetic Nervous System is a “network of nerves that relaxes your body after periods of stress or danger.” Engaging and/or stimulating your PSNS can result in a sense of calm and relaxation. Some of the best-known practices such as meditation, yoga, yogic breath work, Tai Chi are examples of practices that will activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System leading to a greater sense of calm and peace. Not surprisingly, each of these activities involve…you guessed it…slowing down the pace.
10 Ways to Slow Down
Now that we have a better understanding of how slowing down can have an enormously positive impact on your health and well-being, you may be wondering how to begin. Here are 10 techniques to help you slow down:
Literally. Turn off your cell phone and laptop or at the very least, put them in another room and take a break from looking at them. Often when we take a break from our busy day, we reach for our phones and start scrolling—news, social media, shopping sites—we think we are taking a brain break when we do this, but what we are in fact doing is filling our heads with even more stimuli. There’s too much information on the internet and our smartphones offer it up all too conveniently. What we need instead is to disconnect our minds every now and then and discontinue overstimulating our brain with too much information.
2. Try Guided Meditation
Having just stated that it’s beneficial to spend less time on our phones…if you are going to spend time on your phone, at least use something to benefit your health. Rather than reading the news, consider downloading an App intended to help with relaxation. There are several out there—Calm, Breathwrk, Simply Being and Headspace are some popular options. Our favorite is Insight Timer which features 3,000 free guided meditations in addition to hundreds of free music tracks, sleep-inducing nature sounds and music, guided breath work and a variety of timer options. Turn the use of your phone into something that’s actually good for you!
3. Spend Time in Nature
This is hands down one of my favorite techniques for de-stressing. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers and philosophers—Emerson, Thoreau, Einstein, Aristotle, John Muir, Lao Tzu, Isaac Newton, Van Gogh—they all understood it and expressed it in their own individual manner, that time spent in nature is never wasted. Indeed, getting outdoors is one of the best ways to slow down. An article published by healthline.com in 2022 outlines how spending time in nature can help people feel more relaxed and focused especially when they took the time to notice their surroundings. By observing nature through one’s senses—the sound of birds or a babbling creek, the smell of flowers, the sight of trees or the clouds overhead in the sky and the feel of the sun’s warmth on your skin—these are all examples of how one can absorb the healing benefits of being immersed in nature. While simply sitting and relaxing in nature is beneficial, when you partake in a slow-paced activity such as hiking in the forest or kayaking on a lake, you magnify the health benefits considerably. Those who already know the profound effects of spending time in nature, will tell you that spending time in this manner has a way of making you want to simplify, consume less, slow down and leads to a greater understanding of what really matters in life. Not only is getting outdoors profoundly impactful in helping to slow down, it’s also easy—simply step outside.
4. Try Visualization
Even when you can’t get outdoors, taking some time out of your day to daydream can be helpful in slowing the mind down and taking it temporarily away from racing thoughts. Try to visualize being in a calming place—whether that is on a warm beach, in a fragrant garden, surrounded by trees in the forest, listening to the waves of the ocean or in the mountains in solitude—imagine yourself in that space and really try to feel what it would be like to be there right in this moment. Notice afterward how you feel. Exercises like these can give you a greater sense of calm and will help you to understand the importance of taking breaks during your day to imagine or daydream.
5. Savor the Moment
Simply put, when we learn to slow down and savor moments in life, we enjoy life more. When you’re in the middle of something you find enjoyable—listening to music, playing a game with family, making a delicious meal, laughing with a good friend—whatever it may be, pause for a moment and savor the good feelings that you’re experiencing in that very moment. You can also reflect back—look at old photos you’ve taken and bring your mind back to fond memories. Enjoy those moments captured in time to bring back positive emotions from the past.
6. Do Things that Fill up Your Soul
What makes you feel alive? When was the last time you even stopped to consider that? If you can’t recall, now if as good a time as ever to rediscover those activities in your own personal universe that fill up your soul. This will be different for everyone and unique to each of us as individuals. For me, that means spending as much time in nature as possible. Since I love to hike, I think of my hiking goals and make a list of the various regions of my state, areas of the country and heck, even places around the world that I’d like to explore and which trails to hike. Start by making a list of those things that you love doing, perhaps hobbies that you used to enjoy before life got too busy. Even if you start small by adding a hobby/activity every six months, just do it and gradually start carving out time to do things that make YOU happy.
7. Practice Yoga & Breath Work
Contrary to what most Western yoga studios would have you believe, yoga is not about contorting yourself into a pretzel or who can hold a handstand the longest. Having originated out of Eastern philosophies and traditions, Yoga, in its truest form is about slow, gentle movements and slow, controlled breathing. Unfortunately because our American society is so highly competitive and conditioned to perform better and stronger than the person next to us, the true meaning and practice of yoga is lost on most people. But when you let go of the need to compare with everyone and everything outside of yourself and turn your attention within, you can begin to absorb what yoga is really all about. It is indeed slow which forces us to become more comfortable with stillness and let go of the need to constantly be rushing to the next thing. This slowing down, if practiced on a regular basis, can help us feel more centered, grounded and calmer. And because the breath work involved in yoga practices involves slowing down the breath, it activates our Parasympathetic Nervous System, which as explained previously, helps reduce cortisol and other stress hormones.
8. Get Connected with the Earth
Maybe you’ve heard about Earthing or Grounding? Maybe you’ve been intrigued by this concept that making physical contact with the earth (literally making the human body touch the earth) offers numerous health benefits or perhaps you shrug that off as a weird “new-age” concept. The fact is, it is not a new-age concept at all. It’s something our ancestors were quite familiar with…we’ve just lost the old ways in our modern day society. According to the National Library of Medicine, Earthing/Grounding, which involves making contact with the earth, such as walking barefoot in the grass or working your bare hands in the soil, can improve sleep, regulate day-night cortisol rhythm, reduce pain and inflammation, assist in faster wound healing, reduce blood viscosity, increase heart rate variability and you guessed it…shift your nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic activation. If you stop and think about it…most of us are surrounded by artificial light, sitting in an office and indoors on man-made surfaces for a good portion of our daily lives. What would it hurt to go outside and walk around barefoot in the grass whenever possible?
9. Detox Your Stress
Physical detoxes are wonderful and highly recommended but what I’m referring to here is more of an emotional detox. Recognize the areas of your life that are causing you excessive stress. We all have to work but are you taking on too much at work? Do you have a healthy balance of work and personal time? Do you know how to draw boundaries or say no to unnecessary obligations? Maybe it’s time to take a step back and gain new perspective on areas of our lives where we can create healthy boundaries to preserve our own peace of mind. Saying “No” to certain requests or not engaging in constant people-pleasing is not selfish…it’s essential for self-growth. Detoxing your life also involves shedding those connections with others that no longer serve us…this includes relationships and/or friendships. If a relationship with someone leaves us feeling drained, negative or exhausted, maybe it’s time to reconsider that relationship. Focus on making connections with people with whom our interactions leave us feeling positive, uplifted and energized.
10. Reflect & Set New Intentions
Starting with a clean slate and setting up new goals or intentions for your life path is always a great way to gain perspective and focus on the important things in life. When we slow down enough to take inventory of where we’ve already been in this life, we recall experiences that have positively shaped the person we are today and we hopefully have learned from the negative experiences as well which have helped us grow stronger and wiser. It's all part of the journey. After you’ve carved out some time to reflect, set some solid goals: eat healthier, take more adventures, be kinder, learn new skills, exercise more, be a better listener, hike more, practice more self-care, practice daily gratitude…whatever your new intentions are for this new year, realize the benefits of slowing down enough to set these new life goals. And remember, whether it’s January or June…today is always a good day to begin! ~ KM
“Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself and others is to hit the brakes and slow down.” ~ Regina Brett (American Author)