Lower the Pressure

Lower the Pressure

Is it truly urgent?

The Practice:
Lower the pressure.

Why?

Things come at us with so much urgency and demand these days. Phones ring, texts buzz, emails pile up, new balls have to be juggled, work days lengthen and move into evenings and weekends, traffic gets denser, financial demands feel like a knife at the neck, ads and news clamor for attention, push push push PUSH.

On top of these external pressures, we deal with internal ones as well. These include all the inner “shoulds,” “musts,” and “have-to,” like: “I gotta get this done today or my boss will get mad.” Or: “I must not look bad.” Or: “I can’t leave the house with dishes in the sink.” A pushy sub-personality prods us to be better, do better and have more. Harsh, often unfair self-criticism cracks the whip to keep us going and avoid its lash. Also, we form rigid ideas – often unconscious – of what we just have to have to be successful, look good, own the right car, etc. We develop similar kinds of insistence about how it needs to be for others or the world (e.g., how one’s children must do in school, how the country has to be run).

Whether the pressure comes from outside or inside us, it activates ancient motivational circuits that use the neurotransmitter, dopamine. In a nutshell, dopamine tracks expected results (e.g., emails finished, sales goals attained). If the result actually occurs, dopamine rises, which helps us feel relieved while other neurotransmitter systems such as natural opioids give us a sense of pleasure. But here’s the catch: on the way to that desired result, dopamine levels sink some, which brings an unpleasant sense of stress, unease, pushing, and pressure . . . and if we meet delays or roadblocks or flat-out failure, then dopamine plummets, which feels like a disappointment, frustration, even despair. To avoid the pain of dopamine dropping, we drive hard toward our goals, caught up in wanting and desire.

This dopamine system – and related but more evolutionarily recent and sophisticated emotions and thoughts layered upon it – was very effective in keeping our ancestors alive in the wild. And it works well today to keep us motivated during emergencies or necessary marathons of effort, from finals week in college too long runs of advocacy on behalf of a loved one.

But even at best, there is inherent collateral damage in being motivated by need, urgency, and pressure. It narrows the focus to a particular goal in the cross-hairs of tunnel vision. It feels tense, contracted, and uncomfortable – and usually triggers the stress-response system, whose chronic activation has many negative consequences for long-term health and well-being. Many goals are just not reachable – so we feel bad if we are fixed on attaining them – and even if we do get the desired result, its gratifications are often less than promised, and in any case, they fade eventually from awareness like sand slipping through the fingers of consciousness.

And at worst, inner and outer pressures drive us to pursue goals and desires that are bad for us and others. There we are: trying to live up to unrealistic standards, comparing ourselves to others, feeling like we’re falling short, putting the work-life balance on tilt, looking for love in all the wrong places, being hard on oneself or others, pushing to the edge of capacity, and sooner or later running on empty.

Whew. Enough already. Time to ease off the pressure!

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How?

(There are lots of ways below to take the pressure off. Just find one or two that you like – there’s no pressure in dropping the pressure!)

Remind yourself that you can act incompetent, honorable, and successful ways even when there is no sense of pressure. You can give yourself over to wholesome aspirations, letting them carry you along with resolve and passion, staying true to your own North Star without straining and stressing along the way. You can be prudent, love others, rise in your chosen work, and nurture our planet without feeling like there’s a stick at your back.

When things come at you – phone calls wants from others, a fevered pace – try to get a sense of a buffer between you and them, a kind of shock absorber, like you are seeing them through the wrong end of a telescope. Slow things down a beat, a breath, a day. Offer yourself the gift of time – time to figure out if this is really a priority, and when it really needs to get done.

Listen to your body. Are you getting that pressed/squeezed/driven feeling again? Listen to your heart, like it’s a wise sweet being who loves you: what’s it saying?

Be aware of the “shoulds” and “musts” muttering – or shouting – in your mind. Are they really true? And are they really you rather than an internalized parent or another authority figure. What would happen if you dialed back one bit, slowed down by one step, or got one less thing done each day? Let it sink in that there’d be no disaster at all. In fact, probably no one but you would ever notice!

Be easier on yourself. Lower your standards a smidge – unless you’re doing brain surgery or something similar, you can likely afford to lighten up a little.

Be realistic about how long things really take, and how often there’s a slip ‘twixt cup and lip in the affairs of mice and men. Try not to make commitments that will be hard to fulfill; don’t write checks with your mouth that your body can’t cash.

Remember that you are a fundamentally good person. Even if you lower the pressure and a few things get done more slowly or not at all, you are still a good person.

Keep coming back to this moment – in which things are probably usually basically all right. Not perfect but consider the Third Zen Patriarch’s teaching that enlightenment means (among other things) no anxiety about imperfection. At this moment, you are likely safe enough, fed enough, and loved enough.

You can lower the pressure.

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Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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