Meditation, life management and a sensory deprivation tank: Idealog puts anti-stress techniques to the test

In the middle of last week, a particularly hectic one, Idealog digital editor Jonathan Cotton stopped sleeping. The problem, according to his doctor, was stress. He went searching for some solutions that might help him – and others.

By most people’s standards, I don’t have a particularly pressure-filled life. Sure, I have a busy job with deadlines and targets. But I’m not operating on people’s brains here. I’m just stressed. So I don’t know where it came from, but come it did: three sleepless nights and my back muscles balled up, my teeth started grinding and I was shuffling through the day like an extra from The Walking Dead.

And I’m not the only one. Stress is reaching epidemic proportions in the western world. One in five Kiwi workers has issues with it, according to a Statistics NZ survey, and it turns out that those everyday stresses – working a busy job, commuting, being a family man or woman and the general challenges of day-to-day life – can mount up, with pretty terrible results, according to the Stress Management Health Centre. Symptoms of stress include low energy, stomach troubles, aches and pains, insomnia, chest pain and rapid heartbeat, ringing in the ears, dry mouth, grinding teeth and loss of sexual ability.

Closer to home, 14 New Zealand farmers committed suicide in the last six months of 2014. Stress resulting from plunging dairy prices was a major culprit.  

So maybe it’s time we talked about it a little more.

I’ve tried several things in the past to combat my own issues: massage, self-help tapes; foul-tasting-and-expensive-placebo Rescue Remedy. Nothing’s really worked. Like most people I can’t just quit my job to go on a month-long retreat.

I needed real, practical solutions, and I needed them quickly. So what are the options for the busy but stressed-out urban professional? What’s a guy to do when he needs some inner peace and he needs it by Friday?

This is what I tried:

1. Red Seal Executive Stress B

Ask any naturopath or internet blogger and they’ll tell you: if you’re feeling stressed, diet is the first thing you need to address.  

A friend recommended taking a stress B supplement – she swears by it – so, curious and obedient, I got some Red Seal Executive Stress B, $8.99 for 30 (on special), one daily with food.

There were no immediate effects following my first dose, nor after a few hours, nor after a few days. It’s been a week now and I can’t say it’s made any difference. Maybe I was already flooded with B vitamins, maybe my stress levels are just too high.

Time to take things up a notch.  

2. A life coach 

Ask any armchair psychologist and they’ll tell you: you've got to get to the root cause of your problems. 

Enter Eclipse Life Coaching, which promises ‘clarity and direction’. Perfect! 

Owner Kris de Jong's style is a brand of cognitive behavioural therapy, a kind of psychotherapy that aims to change unhelpful thinking by examining how emotions, thoughts, and behaviours all influence each other, and then coming up with strategies to cope with them. Think Pavlov’s dogs for neurotics.

De Jong told me not to expect miracles from our one hour session – most people he sees are taken though a long-form course lasting six to eight weeks.

“The bottom line is it’s all about thinking problems,” he said when we met. “Emotions don’t arise automatically. Thinking comes first and the emotion follows. Change your thinking, and you can change your emotions”.

De Jong says that you need to recognise when you’re thinking in an irrational, destructive way, and that requires conscious effort. 

“It’s not positive thinking,” he says, “its rational thinking.”

The first half of our hour was de Jong asking me a series of (very) direct questions. In hindsight, the questions weren’t really that probing (if you think about what we were trying to achieve), nevertheless, being asked repeatedly how you “really feel” about something you don’t feel very good about can be pretty darn confronting. By the time it was over I felt a strange combination of exhaustion, vague embarrassment and cathartic relief.

When we were done, de Jong scribbled in his notebook for a few minutes then summed up my issues: Using “catastrophic language”, making unrealistic demands, “fortune telling” (or imagining worst-case scenarios for hours on end) and “self-labelling”.  

Which, I've got to be honest, seemed like a lot. 

The first thing I needed to address, he said, was to stop using such extreme words to describe situations, because using exaggerated language contributes to those situations’ emotional content i.e. you feel worse about them. Don’t  say “Oh, how I loathe Mondays to my very bones!”, says de Jong, instead say: “Oh, how I don’t enjoy Mondays as much as I do other days of the week”. That sort of thing.

Likewise, making unrealistic demands of yourself and the world, and blaming yourself and other people when things don’t go according to plan, stops you accepting responsibility for the things you can control and learning from the things you can’t. Cut yourself a little slack, de Jong says, and cut others some too.

Meanwhile, ‘fortune-telling’ – where you run endless worst-case scenarios over and over in your head is a huge source of anxiety for a lot of people and a thoroughly pointless waste of energy.

Finally he described self-labelling, which is just what it sounds like – using negative words to describe yourself – as the most destructive type of thinking there is – and something we all do.

“You wouldn’t sit down and write a mean letter to yourself,” he says. “But that’s exactly what you’re doing when you’re self-labelling.”

De Jong said he’d email me an action plan that I could tweak later myself.  

He had warned me not to expect too much from a single session, but by gum, if I didn’t feel better after that meeting. There’s something about talking about the more loathsome stuff in your life to someone who won’t get bored or offended, or just think you’re a royal killjoy, that really is liberating. 

De Jong did indeed send me an action plan based on our meeting and some excellent-looking literature with general principles, which I intend to read. Soon.

3. A mindfulness coach

Ask any hippy and they’ll tell you: You’ve got to simplify, man! And the best way to do that may be the ancient but thoroughly trendy art of mindfulness.

I had tried to meditate before, but, having experienced thoroughly counter-productive results that time, I was curious as to what some decent guidance could offer me. The interwebs pointed me in the direction of the lovely Dianne May of Mindfulness Auckland.

We met at my office and found a quiet spot.

May subscribes to the Jon Kabat-Zinn school of thought (Kabat-Zinn is a microbiologist, and founder of MBSR, or mindfulness-based stress reduction).

Mindfulness isn’t about stopping your thoughts,” she says, “it’s about coming to be with your experience”.

“If you’re stressed, you can keep on winding up, telling yourself stories about how stressed you are, but that will be painful and will keep snowballing. With mindfulness, what we do is turn toward what we’re experiencing as a result of that stress.

“Being mindful means we’re paying attention, but we’re doing it a certain way. We’re doing it with intention and without judgement.

“Most of us live on automatic pilot,” she says. “We’re a hundred steps ahead of ourselves, into the past and into the future, but we’re never in the moment, so we’re losing all of these precious moments of our lives.”

To do that, you start by focusing on the body, she says.

May took me through some exercises starting with the question “How does your foot feel right now?” Describing how your foot feels is harder than it sounds. Go ahead, try it.

“Bringing your attention to the body helps integrate the mind and the body,” says May.  “Because sensations in the body are less problematic than thoughts and emotions, the body is more stable and not as charged as your thoughts.”

Next, a short breathing exercise, where May urged me to turn my attention inward, noting the shape of my body, the internal and external sensations, the sounds outside, the thoughts coming and going.

“Just allow them to come and go,” she said. “If you let them, they will.”

When your attention starts to wander, bring it back to your breath, without – and this is the important part – getting frustrated.

Staying all stoic like this is actually quite difficult – it’s frustrating when your brain won’t do as it’s told – but apparently over time it gets easier.

“Mindfulness is actually really simple. It’s just hard to remember to do it. And the great thing is, you can do it anywhere. If you’ve got time to go on Facebook, you’ve got time to meditate.”

May recommends incorporating some mindfulness life-hacks into your daily routine. For example, get a sticker and put it on your computer. Any time you notice the sticker, take a few mindful breaths. Similarly, every time you stop at a traffic light, try taking a few mindful breaths.

I came away from the lesson feeling pretty darn good and like I’d gotten some handy tools for dealing with day-to-day frustrations. It’s not about getting rid of your problems. It’s finding a more equanimous way to be with them.

And if you don’t agree, well, I’m fine with that.

4. A sensory deprivation tank

Anyone who’s ever seen Altered States will tell you: if you want to change the way you’re thinking about things you’ve got to ‘get out of your own head’ and one way to do that is a sensory deprivation tank.

And I’ve got to admit: I was quite excited by this one. Because what if I could do more than just cure my stress? What if I could achieve full-blown inner peace? (In product development, they call this ‘scope creep’.) 

Maybe, just maybe, a big dose of nothing was what I needed to break out of my rut.

So I arrived at Float Culture full of expectation. The waiting room was nice, clean and smelt a little like a public pool. While I waited, I read some literature that had been left out: The Book of Floating. It says not to have a big meal before you go into the chamber, but nothing about being over-caffeinated. I was good to go.   

I was greeted by Anton Kuznetsov, the friendly chap running the show. I filled out the form saying I wasn’t crazy and I didn’t have diarrhea, and was shown into a room. There stood the pod, an enormous, space-age looking jellybean, worth $40,000 apparently and stocked with half a ton of epsom salts and half a ton of water. The water is about 30 centimetres deep and around 35.5 degrees centigrade.

I took a shower, stuffed in some ear plugs and jumped in, naked as the day I was born.

It’s nice in the pod. It’s dark, and because of the high salt content you bob up and down on top of the water like a cork. Seriously, you couldn’t sink if you tried. I tried.

So what was it like?

Well to be frank it was a little boring in the beginning. Frustrating, even, as my to-do list for the rest of the day rattled around in my head. Then after what may or may not have been half an hour, something seemed to click. The worries of the day evaporated, and I was lost in my own little world of quiet contemplation.

It’s a strange thing, the human mind. Over the course of an hour I seemed to experience a vast range of mental states: calmness, anxiety, boredom and maybe even something like bliss. It was almost as if my mind was fighting as hard as it could to hold onto…things, any things, all the things. Worries, itches, ticks, discomfort, the way I was breathing, the sound of my heartbeat, all these things seemed to amplify at one point or another. Amplify, then subside. It was almost as if my brain’s desire to focus on petty things eventually just wore itself out and by the time the session was over I was well on the way to getting ‘there’, wherever ‘there’ may be.  

“It works best with multiple sessions,” said Anton after I was dry and dressed again. “People say that when they do multiple sessions they seem be able to pick up where they left off.”

I believe him. As I was leaving the centre, it was hard to believe only an hour and half had passed – I could have sworn it had been days since I’d walked in. It was an odd feeling, as if I’d control+alt+deleted myself and was freshly rebooted, like the best night’s sleep you’ve ever had.

As I checked my missed messages ­– urgent deadlines, mistakes that needed to be corrected and calls I needed to make – I could feel the old tension worming its way back in, but it was different. It seemed smaller, more contained. It was what it was. It wasn’t everything. And that was something.

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So that was my week of trying to go from hyper-compressed to de-stressed. The verdict? Well, yes, I do feel better, and yes, I’ve started sleeping again. 

But if there’s one thing to be learned here, I think it’s this: lots of things work, but nothing works unless you work it yourself. Getting good advice, learning some clever technique or locking yourself in a bath with a lid on it for an hour isn’t going to cure you of anything if you don’t stick at it and exercise some discipline.

And that’s the plan for this week. 

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