In today’s world, stress is a daily companion

By Barbara Gutierrez

In today’s world, stress is a daily companion

By Barbara Gutierrez
Two University of Miami experts offer a few solutions on how to cope and deal with stress, pointing out that self-care is the most significant step.

The coronavirus is spreading. President Donald J. Trump has been impeached and partisan politics is raging. Miami was rattled by the aftermath of an earthquake that struck the Caribbean.

These are some of the recent morning headlines that kicked off our day.

Never mind that kids need to get to school, rent needs to be paid, emails need to be answered, and morning meetings await.

Today’s life is hectic. Stress seems to surround us.

But there is relief. Scott Rogers, director of the Mindfulness in Law program and lecturer at the University of Miami School of Law, has devoted his professional career to studying the mind and how to redirect it.

Gus Castellanos, a retired neurologist and sleep specialist, teaches an eight-week program at the Miller School of Medicine titled Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. He also teaches the class at the Herbert Wellness Center at the Coral Gables campus.

The two professionals address how to deal with stress. 

What are some of the ways we can cope with stress in our daily lives?

Castellanos: It begins with awareness that you are under stress. If you are not aware of what is happening to you, it is hard to do something about it. Then, practice self-care and anything that is appropriate for you. Remember, you deserve to take care of yourself.

Take a break, take a few deep breaths, and get away from the situation, if you can. Go into nature.

Socialize with healthy people. Also, eat right, exercise, do yoga, and listen to music. Whatever resonates with each person, that is what they should do.

Rogers: Given that most of us experience a good deal of stress, it is important to have go-to strategies to manage it in our daily lives. Pillars—such as getting a good’s night sleep, meditating, eating nutritious food, exercising regularly, and engaging in supportive social interactions—are hopefully on everyone's mind. Still, stress canbe overwhelming at times. To self-regulate during such times, it canbe helpful to take a breather from external stimulation by engaging in a period of solitude. 

One definition of solitude I find helpful is "a state of mind free from the input of other's minds." This allows us time to process information and our experiences and to wind down. Ways of cultivating solitude that can be nurturing include: taking a walk by yourself; journaling; sitting back at your desk and inviting your mind to daydream; reflecting on that for which you are grateful; taking a series of slower, deeper breaths; or just soaking in the silence. 

As we become increasingly connected through andto our external devices, moments of solitude are no longer as readily available, andthey need to be cultivated. We may be slowly forgetting the inherent value of our internal devices and reflecting on solitude is a reminder of this crucial aspect of our humanity, so fundamental to our productivity and well-being.

Does internet use and iPhone addiction cause stress?

Castellanos: Digital devices have a catch-22 factor to them. Social connections are good, but doing social connections all the time may not be so healthy. Using a phone is important, but misuse and abuse of the phone can become unhealthy. Common sense tells you that if you feel agitated, then step away.

Rogers: Podcasts, reading, conversations, internet surfing—no matter how wonderful and interesting the content—all involve the input from another’s mind. And so, while such input can be useful and even necessary, it is important to establish time and space to allow the mind and body to process its own content—and to settle down and recharge.

What can we do about it? Is there a maximum amount of time that we should be on these devices?

Castellanos: No one can say what amount of time is healthy. This really has to be thought of on an individual level. If it’s a technical guy in Silicon Valley, his use of these devices has to be different than a retiree in Jupiter, Florida.

Some of my students are college students and it is impossible for me to tell them that they can only be on their devices for 20 minutes. We do not want to create more stress by saying “you can only do 20 minutes.”

Rogers: There is a lot to be done about it. The challenge is that so many of us know what to do, yet have difficulty doing it. I expect a recommended amount of time would be different for everyone. To offer a simple and more actionable response, let’s circle back to the answer to the first question—solitude. Perhaps a doable recommendation to be online is “a little less” and to replace that time with a period of solitude.

That can be a good place to start. Consider curating a little more solitude in your day, finding time—even if just a few minutes here and there—to free yourself from the input of other’s minds. You don’t have to go anywhere or take extra time to shift into this mode. It’s an internal state you cultivate by deliberately and smartly directing your attention in a way that allows you to be with yourself. Because it can be challenging in today’s world to be alone with ourselves, it can be useful to have something to do, drawing upon our own intrinsically beautiful and compelling nature. Cal Newport offers helpful insights and tips on solitude in his book, “Digital Minimalism,’’ and Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin, in their book, “Lead Yourself,” offer stories of great leaders who found solitude to be crucial to their lives and fundamental to their capacity to lead.

Does mindfulness help? And how so?

Castellanos: It helps with stress because mindfulness is being in the present moment and it requires meditation to get good at it. You can be in the present and think about the past or future. But it is when we begin to ruminate that we get in trouble.

When we begin to ruminate in the past, you get depression and if we ruminate too much about the future, you get anxiety. So being conscious of your body and being present in the moment is helpful.

Do meditation and exercise help?

Rogers: Yes, exercise and meditation—two of the pillars noted at the outset—can be immensely helpful, perhaps crucial. Since most people probably have a good idea of the value of exercise and ways to implement it, I’ll focus on meditation, and close by integrating the ideas of solitude and meditation. Before I do, note that exercise can be practiced in solitude, which is available in the gym, even with dozens of other people around. Turn off the TV, put away the cell phone, and just exercise. Allow your mind to wander—and perhaps experience moments of wonder.

There are a variety of meditations, many of which can be helpful for reducing stress and establishing a more relaxed state. A mindfulness practice known as focused attention can be helpful for feeling less stressed and more focused. It also may help establish a state of mind and body that help bridge your good intentions to engage one or more of the other primary pillars of health and well-being with action. This involves focusing attention on an object like the breath and, when you notice that your mind has wandered, returning attention to the object. It’s that simple. It’s also highly generalizable to daily life. Listening to someone, reading an article, writing an assignment, even taking a few slower breaths, all involve focusing attention on an object with the intention to keep it there. The challenge is that it does not stay. That is not a problem; rather it is the reason for the practice. Regular practice of 3, 5, or 10 minutes a day will likely result in your being better able to remain focused—and, more importantly—to notice when attention strays. Even now, should you lower or close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath for a minute or so, you will be bringing together mindfulness and solitude in a way that reclaims a way of being present, one that is all too quickly slipping away.