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Slowing Down

The Idea:

So this article is going to be a very simple and direct reminder of something we all, across the board, forget to do. Which is to slow down.

Now, that’s often put out as a general injunction, as a “way of living,” or as a way of encouraging mindfulness and reflectivity and calm. Fair enough.

But I want say “slow down” as a literal injunction: don’t move your body as fast. Consciously retard movement. Not internally, not speech, but with your big muscle groups and gross motor actions. I.e., physically, slow down.

What you’ll notice is that when anxiety or depression arises, we tend towards a speeding up, but for different reasons. With anxiety, we are having a sense of danger, registering a sense of something that is threatening, but don’t immediately know what to do about it. So the way we are designed, our nervous system revs up to deal with the perceived threat, and we find our thinking becomes agitated or hyper-focused, our body is more jittery, and our gross movements tend to be more jagged, less fluid, more “twitchy” or speedy.

With depression, we speed up for a different reason. Feeling an impending collapse, or a actual sense of collapsing, then (assuming we are not already full into that “pulling of the plug”) we will speed up, because that feels like a defense against the threat of being dis-abled. We start feeling that we’re on a shale slope above a cliff: if we don’t speed up and scramble away from the edge, we’ll fall off and be harmed (sink into a depression). So we speed up spastically, become busier, more active, but in a rather manic, agitated, unsustainable way. Eventually, in this mode, we’ll burn out that “caffeinated” energy and fall off the cliff.

With both anxiety and depression, we have to learn pacing, for the reason above: manic, agitated energy is unsustainable, because it burns through reserves faster then they are replenished. Coffee energy always runs out. Whereas paced (whether that pace is rapid or snail-like) self-replenishes, or at least burns out in a measured, controlled way. It’s not reactive or fear-driven.

We can, actually, slow down at all our levels, all our systems—at the levels of thought, emotion, body sensations, relationship interactions, speech, and movement. But the last, movement, is the easiest to act on and influence. (You will know, for instance, how hard it is to slow down thoughts directly if you’ve ever been on a meditation retreat…) And since all of our systems are interrelated, and affect each other, then shifting the state of one is going to (sometimes in big, sometimes small and hard-to-notice ways) shift the others.

The (very simple) exercise:

So, when you notice that you are revving up, try mindfully slowing down. If you notice you’re reaching for your stapler in a jerky, over-energized way, double the time it takes to reach out and pick it up. Notice what happens (again, mindfully, reflectively) when you literally, physically slow down. Does your anxiety go up or down? Does the sense of threat from depression diminish or increase? Do you feel emotions more acutely or not? Does something else happen in another part of your body? Do your other senses dim or brighten?

Or, if you are walking down the street and notice yourself rushing, without actually needing to hit a deadline, then slow your pace by half, and again, see what happens, how your experience changes. What actually happens?

Then you can experiment with changing the pacing. If you reach for the stapler at quarter time, or walk at three quarters the pace, what then happens? (You can also try, for contrast, what it’s like to move at double time.) The body actually likes certain pacings, and not others, is soothed by some, is agitated and scared by others. See if you can find, when agitated and moving fast, what your body likes in the moment. It doesn’t mean that you get stuck at that speed. It means you are listening more closely to this basic level of self (and of the nervous system), being curious, responding with actual shifts (rather than moving reactively, only), and experimenting.

This may seem like a kind of kindergarten exercise—a lot of you have been working with anxiety and depression a long time, and with great sophistication—but simplicity can have great effect. If you watch very accomplished martial arts practioners (for instance), what you will see is stunningly simple actions that have what seem like disproportionate effect and power. Simplicity, when mindful and embodied, is powerful.

Plus, there is also a level where, when the body is respected in terms of its pacing, is allowed to move as it wants, rather then as our heads think it should move, it likes that. In an analogous way, the body is like a child who wants to be recognized and respected for where it is at, and gets agitated when its not. If you can know, and match, a child’s pacing, it will generally feel soothed, and then ironically, allow itself to be “moved around.” In other words, accepting our body’s desire for a certain pace does not trap us there, but actually opens up (through invoking a greater sense of soothing/safety) possibility for more action/speed/productivity, but from a base of stability and sustainable energy.

So give it a shot, as an experiment: move slow and see what happens.

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Marty Cooper

Marty Cooper

Marty Cooper specializes in working with depression and anxiety. He helps clients gain insight but also practice skills for overcoming depression and anxiety.

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