Slow Down To Do More: “Constantly being rushed is a state of stress.”

Slow Down To Do More: “Constantly being rushed is a state of stress.” with Dr. Colleen D. Cira and Ashley Graber

Constantly being rushed is a state of stress. And chronic stress comes with all sorts of negative consequences because it fires up our sympathetic nervous system, which floods our body with adrenaline and cortisol, and too much of those chemicals too frequently, can have all kinds of harmful effects. The Mayo Clinic lists these specifically as longterm effects of chronic stress: Anxiety, Depression, Digestive problems, Headaches, Heart disease, Sleep problems, Weight gain, and Memory and concentration impairment. Quite a list huh??

As a part of my series about “How to Slow Down To Do More” I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Colleen D. Cira. Dr. Cira received both her Masters and Doctorate from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology and has been practicing in the field since 2001. Dr. Cira is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Founder and Executive Director of Cira Center for Behavioral Health, PC a boutique group practice with locations in Chicago and Oak Park that specializes in Women’s Issues/Health and Trauma. Dr. Cira is a trauma and anxiety expert, clinical supervisor, writer, speaker, consultant, activist, wife and Mommy to two little ones.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

That’s an excellent question with a big and complicated answer! I think a lot things I experienced in my life brought me to the field of Psychology. Generally, I experienced a number of traumatic events during my pre-teen and teenage years (sexual abuse, a cancer diagnosis, the death of a great friend, etc) that made me interested in better understanding what leads people to struggle or thrive. Specifically, after my own personal battle with cancer and then one of my closest friends dying of cancer, I started a non-profit to raise money for cancer research. As Founder and President of that 501(c)3, I gave presentations at different high schools sharing my story and fundraising for my charity. After I would present, so many kids would come up to me and tell me their story — deeply personal, upsetting and/or uplifting stories about their experiences with cancer. And I remember feeling so honored and humbled that people who didn’t even know me would be willing to share their story with me. That just witnessing their pain, formed a connection between us that seemed to feel good for us both. I knew I wanted more of that and becoming a Psychologist felt like an organic and natural path to pursue.

According to a 2006 Pew Research Report report, 26% of women and 21% of men feel that they are “always rushed”. Has it always been this way? Can you give a few reasons regarding what you think causes this prevalent feeling of being rushed?

Life is busy, now more than ever! And while l’m sure that people have felt rushed since the dawn of time, the age of the internet and smart phones has the impact of increasing our perception of rushing because there is no true downtime anymore, at least that is easily accessible. Perhaps before we had the internet and phones to access it 24/7, we would get to the bus stop or restaurant early and just…WAIT. We would sit there and look around, people watch or get lost in our thoughts for a few minutes. How often does that happen now…? We are always on our phones, constantly absorbing mass amounts of information that overwhelms our brains (and sometimes our emotions) so even if we are not necessarily always rushing, we FEEL more overwhelmed and are far more distracted these days than ever before.

Based on your experience or research can you explain why being rushed can harm our productivity, health, and happiness?

Constantly being rushed is a state of stress. And chronic stress comes with all sorts of negative consequences because it fires up our sympathetic nervous system, which floods our body with adrenaline and cortisol, and too much of those chemicals too frequently, can have all kinds of harmful effects. The Mayo Clinic lists these specifically as longterm effects of chronic stress: Anxiety, Depression, Digestive problems, Headaches, Heart disease, Sleep problems, Weight gain, and Memory and concentration impairment. Quite a list huh??

On the flip side, can you give examples of how we can do more, and how our lives would improve if we could slow down?

When we’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off, it certainly doesn’t feel good, but it also makes us far less productive and successful because we’re in survival mode. And all we can do in survival mode is just that: survive. In order to be happy and successful, we need to get out of survival mode and stop living in a catch as catch can kind of way.

When we slow down, we give ourselves the permission to wake up and be deliberate about what we’re doing, rather than simply putting out fire after fire in this sleep-walking kind of way. For instance, if we’re so busy that we just rush around all day then we wind up totally exhausted. So we fall into bed and might snooze our alarm clock a bunch of times the next morning due to exhaustion. But then we finally wake up and guess what? We’re late! Now we’re rushed all over again and the cycle continues. This way of living doesn’t allow for a whole lot of conscious choice or deliberate decisions because we’re just trying to stay above water. I have lived most of my life this way and I gotta tell you…there’s a better way.

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We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed. Can you share with our readers 6 strategies that you use to “slow down to do more”? Can you please give a story or example for each?

  1. Batch your tasks: Before I began living more deliberately, I felt like email and social media for my business consumed my life. I felt like my nose was constantly buried in a phone that pinged at me constantly, nagging me for my attention. And trying to catch up felt like a Sisyphus battle: I could work incredibly hard to stay on top of it only to wind up buried just a few minutes later. It was exhausting and demoralizing. But then I started to batch both of these tasks. Every morning to start my work day and every evening to end my work day, I allowed 30 minutes to work on each of these tasks. I wouldn’t even look at my email or social media accounts throughout the day because I know it’s a black hole. It’s not a perfect system. There are times when I can’t finish both of those tasks in the 30 minutes I have allotted and then I get behind. But then I simply remind myself to put a bit more time in my calendar for these tasks the next time and I catch up. And now my email and social media accounts are (usually) in good working order and far less overwhelming than they used to be 🙂
  2. Own your calendar. Michael Hyatt would say that if you don’t own your time, other things and people will. So get clear about how you’re spending your time, down to every single waking minute of your day. Here’s what my calendar looks like:

I know it looks a little insane because every hour is filled in with something, but it’s so incredibly helpful because not a minute is wasted trying to figure out what comes next. And be specific! Don’t just say “Admin Time” or “Self-Care”. Figure out what your priorities are — figure out what you need — and then have those show up in your calendar.

3. Develop a daily meditation practice: One of the number one things that helps me to feel centered and grounded is starting every day with just 10 minutes of meditation. And I’m not alone in this feeling. Research is clear that one of the few ways to change your baseline levels of happiness over the longterm is a regular practice of meditation. We can change lots of things: our schedules, our behavior, our calendars, etc, but if we don’t change our MINDS, it’s going to be very difficult to sustain the external changes. We have to get more control over our thoughts. Even if our bodies are slow, and I would say especially when our bodies are slow, are when our minds tend to go into overdrive. Meditation is a way to learn to sit with distress, focus on the present even with our brain (and possibly environment) is constantly trying to distract us and connect with the very core of who we are.

4.Put away your phone. Smart phones are a constant distraction and most of us aren’t using them in a way that actually helps us and in fact, may be hurting us and/or our relationships. But we’re also in too deep to do away with them either so let’s set up some good ground rules so they don’t wind up ruling our lives.

  • Phones go away when we’re with people who we enjoy and want to invest in.
  • Phones go away as soon as we come home from work.
  • Phones go away while we’re at work if we don’t need them for work.
  • Phones go away at least 15–30 minutes before we go to bed (all blue light screens for that matter.)

The bottom line here is that we should be intention about how we use our phones. Because if we’re constantly on them, then we’re constantly distracted and getting behind in more important things…like RELATIONSHIPS and RELAXATION — the stuff true happiness is made of.

5. SINGLE-task: Multitasking, once hailed as one of the things you can do to be more productive and successful, is a bad idea. We know that now. Multitasking makes us all feel crazy because our attention and concentration is so divided which makes us irritable and makes us less productive in the end because we can’t do anything exceptionally well when we’re trying to do everything. So do one thing at a time. You won’t believe how good it feels 🙂

6. Develop a daily practice of gratitude: Sounds simple right? But I’m not talking about trying to feel good about the basics: I’m grateful for a roof over my head, food on my plate, etc. It’s GREAT to be grateful for that stuff, but the basics don’t often inspire the actual feeling of gratitude because for a lot of us, it’s simply more expected. And it’s the feeling of gratitude that we’re going for. So every day, try to conjure the feeling of gratitude. What happened today that made your heart swell? What happened today that brought you absolute joy? What did you marvel at today? An unusually tight hug from your toddler? An absolutely gorgeous sunset? A super sweet text from your partner? The first semi warm day after a brutal winter? A meaningful and moving conversation with a loved one? Stop and think and try to put yourself back in that moment. Feel the warmth spread across your chest. Feel your heart open with love. Feel the smile spread across your face. That’s it. That’s the feeling. Make it a point to feel that every day, even if the moments require some detective work to find. When we take the time to feel grateful for what we already have — when we slow down to treasure those moments, even if fleeting — we do our brains and bodies a wealth of good and we’re less apt to run around chasing stuff that doesn’t matter.

How do you define “mindfulness”? Can you give an example or story?

Mindfulness is the simple (but not easy!) act of being present. It often involves using your five senses to really engage in the moment RIGHT NOW. Mindfulness can be done as a stand-alone practice, similar to meditation, but can also be done every minute of every day. It’s just hard to do 😉

I’m practicing mindfulness right now actually! My day started in a really crazy way. I’m in the process of hiring for my company and a candidate that I thought was practically a guarantee, emailed me to let me know that she was dropping out of the process. That was enough to send me spiraling. But I also have the flu. I also have 2 other candidates who I am trying to court and needed to schedule meetings with. And I needed to get the kids ready for school. Bottom line: there are a TON of other things I could be focused on right now that could be distracting me from the task at hand. But I did what I needed to do to a) take care of my kids and b) mentally put these other work related issues on the back burner for now so that I can focus on this interview. And that involves feeling the keys click as I type, hearing the keyboard going crazy with my stream of consciousness style writing, carefully reading each question and truly thinking about it, taking a moment here and there to sip (and truly taste!) my lemon ginger tea, to feel the warmth of my mug and take a conscious deep breath whenever I need to in order to re-focus on what I’m trying to do.

Can you give examples of how people can integrate mindfulness into their everyday lives?

There are so many ways to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life. The first step though is to recognize that you need it 🙂 So make a habit of checking in with yourself. Many of us are in our heads, worrying about something, without even realizing that we’re doing it! So start checking in. Identify some behavioral marker that will remind you that you should check in with yourself. Perhaps it’s every time you eat or every time you go to the bathroom. Something that you do several times a day that also might afford you just a minute or two to reflect. Then ask yourself: How am I doing? Am I stressed? Happy? Present? And what has caused me to feel this way? Once you’re in the habit of checking in with yourself, which will allow you to genuinely know yourself, then you’re better prepared to utilize mindfulness.

A nice way to practice mindfulness is when you are eating. This is a really great way to begin your mindfulness practice because eating becomes so much more fun this way! The idea would be the next time you have a meal, just have your meal. No eating while browsing Facebook or Instagram. No chatting with coworkers. No working while eating. Just. Eat. And don’t just throw food in your mouth. Take a bit, chew slowly and pay attention. What does it smell like? How does your food taste? Salty? Sweet? Sour? What’s the texture like? What other flavors do you notice? How does it feel in your mouth? Really focus on the experience of eating your food. Even if you managed to do this for just 10 or 15 minutes, your lunch hour would be transformed.

Another great place to practice mindfulness is during your commute to work. It doesn’t matter whether you walk, drive or take public transportation. Actually be there. Read/listen to a book and get all caught up in it if you’re on the train or bus. Put on some of your favorite music and rock out if you’re in the car. Put your phone away and look up and around you if you’re taking a walk. Just truly be wherever you are.

Do you have any mindfulness tools that you find most helpful at work?

I have a few specific ones, but anything that engages your senses can be used as a mindfulness tool. Stress balls are a nice thing to keep on your desk. The squeezing can perhaps help manage some frustration or uncomfortable energy, but just the act of focusing on how the ball feels can be helpful for anchoring to the present moment. Rocks and/or stones are another way to do this, especially having a variety to notice the difference in texture and temperature. One thing that we offer clients who need to stay grounded in the moment during tough parts of therapy is basically scented, adult play doh by the name of Pinch Me Dough. Between the texture of the dough and the lovely scent, this is a nice way to get focused in the here and now. (Plus, every purchase helps pay a soldier’s stress management training so that should make you feel good too ;))

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to use mindfulness tools or practices

Best Year Ever by Michael Hyatt is a wonderful book both in terms of inspiring you to make some changes to live life more deliberately as well as offering specific behavioral changes you can easily incorporate into your life.

Insight Timer and Calm are both apps that you can use to practice meditation and/or mindfulness. They both offer sessions that are simply timed with gentle reminders to come back to the present moment or guided sessions that offer the opportunity for guided meditation. Both are lovely and developing a daily practice of mindfulness and/or meditation is instrumental in terms of slowing down.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it”. I became aware of that quote by Charles Swindol at a very dark and difficult time in my life. I had just recovered from a teenage battle with cancer and one of my closest friends, and main supports when I was in my fight with Hodgkins Lymphoma, was now dying of cancer. We were both 15 years old. I held onto this quote — this idea — like a life raft. It served to remind me at a time in my life when everything felt completely out of my control, that I still had choice…I still had agency…I still had power. It sat in a frame on my wall for as long as I can remember.

But here’s what adult life (and a career as a Psychologist) has taught me about this quote: just because you have choice about how you react, doesn’t make it easy. Instead of being used as a rescuing device, this quote can easily be used as a weapon…a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality that only serves to invalidate people’s experiences and negate very real barriers. Barriers like racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. And when bad thing after bad thing keeps happening, it only makes sense that we would struggle at some point to react the way we’d ideally like to. So yes, never forget your power, your voice, your choice. But also be gentle and kind with yourself. You’re only human. You will fall. There are aspects of life that make it hard to do the things you want to do. But please, by all means, keep fighting.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want to spread the word about the prevalence of trauma and how many of us are affected by it. Most people think of trauma as this awful thing that happens to a relatively small percentage of people, but that’s simply not true. Broadly defined, trauma can be anything that is so stressful that it overwhelms our ability to cope, in that moment and in the future, and makes life seem harder than it ought to be, showing up as depression, anxiety, relationship problems, occupational difficulties and low self-worth. Trauma can be having a parent with a substance abuse problem. A caregiver with a major medical condition. A loved one crippled by Major Depressive Disorder. Witnessing domestic violence and or unhealthy, toxic romantic relationships. And when we think about trauma that way, how many of us identify as survivors?? But because we don’t typically think about trauma in this broad way, many of us are seriously struggling…and we have no idea why. So we blame ourselves, try medication after medication, or suffer in silence when it doesn’t have to be that way! When we’re able to connect the dots and recognize that our struggles may be related to traumatic experiences from the past and work through those experiences with a trained professional, magical things happen. We own our voice, our experiences, our LIFE. Relationships become more fulfilling. We experience less sadness and worry. We start actually dealing with difficulties rather than getting ourselves into trouble by trying to escape all of our problems. Life just gets easier. Take this quick assessment to see if you’ve experienced trauma that you have simply never thought about in that way: https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/ If you mark a 1 for any of these questions and you’re struggling with anxiety, depression, low self-worth, relationship problems or occupational difficulties, you might benefit from seeing a trauma-informed therapist. Learn more here: www.ciracenter.org

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!


Slow Down To Do More: “Constantly being rushed is a state of stress.” was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.