Monday, May 29, 2006

stress management: managing stress is simple

My kind of meditation: managing stress is simple—once you put your mind to it.

During a recent checkup, my blood pressure registered slightly high and my doctor blamed stress. Weeks later, my massage therapist got straight with me: "There's nothing physically wrong with you," she said. "You just need to learn to manage stress."

Manage stress. A simple phrase. A verb and an object. But such an oxymoron. If stress could be managed, it wouldn't be stressful, would it?

The realization that I wasn't managing stress very well immediately spiked my anxiety. I started reading up on stress, and each article ended with tidy bullet points: Meditate. Visualize. Repeat a mantra. Imagine your boss in a clown suit. The advice seemed helpful but somehow incomplete.

But I give the techniques a try anyway. I'm at the office and my eyes are closed. I'm breathing like a Lamaze instructor (puff, puff, puff) because I'm not quite sure how I'm supposed to be breathing. And I'm picturing the seashore. A wave comes in. Swish. A wave goes out. Swish.

Then a creature flutters next to my vital organs. It's my pager. Two seconds later, a head appears over my cubicle wall: My boss (code-named Dilbert, because of a striking physical resemblance) is following up on his page in case I missed it. The seashore vanishes, and my neck muscles make tiny fists.

I decide to consult the most reliable source I can reach before Dilbert opens his mouth: Microsoft Bookshelf Basics. Meditate: To reflect on; contemplate. To plan in the mind; intend. And so I learn meditating isn't about going blank or pretending to be somewhere else. It's about using your mind.

This appeals to me. I like my brain. It has served me well most of my life, and I feel more comfortable using it to fight stress rather than trying to shut stress out. My brain hits the "pause" button, and Dilbert's looming head is momentarily suspended in my mind.

"So what exactly are you feeling right now?" my brain asks me, as Dilbert lurks outside my cube.

"Hmmm, I'd says it's ... tremendous time pressure," I answer myself.

"What's he asking for? Something urgent? A defibrillator?"

"A report."

"A report. No wonder he's excited. And what are you going to do about it?"

I'm finding that often the answer to that question is "nothing." If, as Shakespeare wrote, sleep knits up the raveled sleeve of care, then meditation orders the cluttered closet of life. More often than not, just mentally picking up my raveled sleeve and hanging it somewhere is all I need to do to de-stress. For example, most of Dilbert's manufactured crises now go in a drawer labeled "Artificial Emergencies."

The process of meditation took conscious effort at first but now comes almost naturally. And although the seashore visualization technique didn't work, I did develop a mantra of sorts of my own. It's sbbbbbb.

In my mind it's the soothing sound a mother makes to hush her fretful baby. And, when stress levels rise and Dilbert's face pops into view, it's a reminder to be quiet and listen. The inner voice might have something to say.
SAMANTHA BALDWIN is growing more reflective in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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