Stress: that ever-present, life-span shortening, ulcer-inducing, pull-out your-hair condition that is part and parcel of our modern lives. If there is one issue that I seem to talk about with every client, this is it. Stress has an immediate impact on our well-being and is therefore one of the most vitally important things to learn to manage as well as we possibly can. This article will help you to learn more about what stress is and how to work towards minimizing its negative impact on our lives and our health.
We just (somewhat recently) rang in 2016 and while I don’t personally do the whole New Year’s resolution thing, I do appreciate it as a cultural phenomenon. As a licensed professional counselor, I am in the business of helping people change and therefore am interested in how to capitalize on the pro-change vibe that the New Year brings. So while it is not necessarily a resolution, this year I have challenged myself to take on the new adventure of writing a blog.
Please allow me to introduce myself (and my blog)
This blog will be, very broadly, about behavioral health issues. I will likely post about a wide variety of topics and issues but all will be in the vein of topics that relate to wellness and behavioral health. This initial post is both an introduction to the blog and a topic in and of itself: trying new things.
We learn by learning
Overall, we are beings who thrive when presented with challenges. As children, we are learning new things all the time:
- learning facts and skills at school (like how to read, write, add and subtract, how to use money, and where Lithuania is on a map)
- learning life skills at home (like how to make our bed, how to wash dishes, how not to bite our sibling when they make us mad, and how to be kind and loving to others)
- learning about the world by playing outside (gravity makes us fall off the monkey bars, how physics relates to kicking a soccer ball, and how it smells bad if we step in dog poop)
- learning social skills by playing with our friends (people get mad if we don’t play nicely, our culture ascribes gender roles in that boys are expected to play certain games and girls are expected to play others, and that there is a pecking order of dominance and power when groups of people get together)
Sadly, as adults, we often get to the point where we aren’t learning much new stuff anymore. Sure, there is the saying “we learn something new every day,” but that pales in comparison to the immense amount of learning that we do as children on a daily basis.
“What’s the big deal if we are not learning?” you may ask. Excellent question! It is actually a pretty big deal. Think of any muscle in your body. It gets stronger the more that you use it and it atrophies (or weakens) if you neglect to use it. In a way, this is the same with our brain. You can see how this is acknowledged in the recent suggestion for elderly people to do things that challenge their brains (like crossword puzzles or Sudoku) or in the popularity of sites like lumosity.com. There is a bit of a “use it or lose it” dynamic with our cognitive power.
Not only is learning beneficial for our brains but it is also beneficial for our psyche. A lack of trying new things can lead to us feeling stale and stuck. In fact, many of the people who come to see me in my counseling practice are looking for ways to get out of a rut that they have been in for some time. Life seems lackluster and dull for them. As we work together to get them out of this state, it is typically through efforts to try new things which will challenge them to learn new things that improvement occurs.
Failure is always an option
I love the show Mythbusters and one of their sayings is that “failure is always an option.” They seem to embrace failure as a reality and are not discouraged when it happens. To them, any outcome, even if not what they were hoping for, is informative.
I would recommend taking this approach to your attempts at trying something new. You are likely to try something that you think will be engaging, fulfilling, and invigorating. But what if it isn’t? What if the thing you have tried is dull and uninteresting to you? Should you hang your head in failure and not try anything else because of this “bad” outcome? Absolutely not! Instead, I would encourage you to focus on what you learned from this experience.
For one, you crossed one potential activity off of your list and that means that the odds of one of the remaining items being successful has now increased. You know that this attempted thing is not going to work for you for whatever reason. If you can identify why it was not a good fit for you, you can apply that knowledge to the next activity that you choose.
The main thing is for us not to get discouraged and give up on our pursuit if we “fail.” We can learn from our attempt and apply that new understanding as we continue moving forward.
New perspectives on old stuff
Another benefit to trying new things is that it provides us with new perspectives. We can learn new things about ourselves, our interests, our capabilities and limits, and the world around us. The really great aspect about trying new things is that it can lend a new luster to the other things in our lives. Even that thing which has become dull and routine for us can have new life breathed into it by the fresh outlook that newness can bring.
In this way, the benefits of challenging yourself to try and learn new things is twofold. On the one hand we have the obvious direct benefits of the effort made and the enjoyment that can come from new pursuits. On the other hand you have a generalizing effect where all other areas of your life will enjoy the spillover benefits of these efforts. This is the value of living a balanced life. We are better able to handle setbacks and stresses when we are feeling fulfilled in all areas of our lives.
So what to try?
If you are with me in seeing the benefits of taking on new challenges but are unsure of what exactly to do, I’ve got some good news for you: there are no wrong answers. You can literally try anything. As we discussed in the “failure is always an option” section, even efforts that do not succeed are beneficial. It is more about the process of attempting new things as opposed to the outcomes.
Keeping in mind that the process is the more important factor, I did want to give you some ideas as far as specific things you could try.
- Pursue an active activity: try a new sport (or resume playing one that you used to play), go on a hike, go for a bike ride, get into a daily walking routine, etc.
- Get into a hobby: paint, learn an instrument, go to an art museum to learn about art, tour a winery to learn about wine making, take a pottery class, get a camera and start photography, learn to play chess (or checkers if that is more your speed), take up adult coloring, get into cosplay, learn to juggle, fish, read comic books, etc. (more ideas at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_hobbies)
- Find an opportunity to volunteer: at your local food bank, a local soup kitchen, hospitals, the Red Cross, United Way, a local school, library, YMCA, an animal rescue facility, etc.
- Take on a challenge: commit to a 5k run, start a blog, write a book, learn to cook, take a college course, etc.
In taking on something new, recall that ideally there is a balance between challenge and enjoyment. In fact, there is even a term for this ideal state when undertaking a new venture and it is called flow. Flow is a term that is widely used in positive psychology and refers to the state where one is fully immersed in and absorbed by what they are doing due to an ideal balance between challenge and pleasure. As defined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (I dare you to try to say that one out loud!), flow is a state of mind associated with both physical and mental health benefits.
- Our cognitive ability is enhanced by providing novel challenges to our brain.
- Tackling new challenges prevents life from getting stale and dull.
- Any attempt at new things is successful even if it ends up being a “failure.”
- The process is more important than the outcome.
- Flow is the state where we are absorbed by the challenge that we are taking on and this is a very healthy state of mind.