When life is unusually stressful or when you've been through something that has taken a lot out of you – like surgery, a concussion or another trauma of some kind – it's important to understand that you don't necessarily bounce back right away. You need time to recuperate and get your feet back under you.
Today I want to tell you about something very simple that can help you to restore some of the energy for self-control and willpower that can get depleted with stress, and which you need in order to get on with the tasks and responsibilities of life when you've been overwhelmed or knocked about in some way.
I've written about how willpower works like a muscle; it can be depleted with use in the short run and strengthened with consistent practice in the long run. One of the things that you can do when you've been thrown off balance, or have been working hard, making decisions and running low on willpower "juice," is to make sure you have eaten well and had enough rest.
But there's another activity that research has shown to bring a sense of renewal, a feeling of recharging your batteries: watching a familiar episode of your favorite TV show.
I know. Just last week in "A Simple Piece of Advice" I was telling you that TV can cause a lot of problems and that it's good to limit how much you watch. That's still true; but what you watch matters a lot. When you watch the news you are watching the worst of what's going on everywhere in the world; that can make you feel as though all of this awful stuff is happening to you right there in your living room.
When you've been through a lot, or you're tired and feel low on energy and willpower, watching a TV show that you're familiar with, and an episode that you've seen before, can be just the thing. It doesn't have to be a TV show; watching a movie or reading a book can have the same effect, just as long as you've already seen or read it before. It's the familiarity and pleasure that matters; you feel the enjoyment of the story and since you know the characters and you already know what will happen, you don't have to think very much.
I don't usually go around advising people not to think very much. I'm quite an advocate of thinking. But when you've been through the ringer, when you've been hurt, when you're tired, when you've been making decisions and taking charge of situations your willpower needs a rest so you can get back up ready to use it some more.
You can plow through when you need to; we're not that fragile. But as a lifestyle and a habitual way of living, it's important to rest so that you don't feel consistently overwhelmed and so you can work and live at your best.
When you watch or read a favorite, familiar show or book, you already know the characters and enjoy how they interact with each other. You know the dialogue and you know what will happen. This makes it enjoyable but restful as well. A story that you have not seen with the same characters may be fun and interesting but you will not get the restful benefits from the new story.
This is also good advice for nighttime reading. I don't recommend watching TV before bedtime, particularly if you have trouble sleeping, as doing so can raise your cortisol levels and cause less relaxing sleep. But when choosing what to read at bedtime after a particularly stressful day, a favorite familiar story can help you to let go of the troubles of the day and get to sleep more easily. This is probably why kids like to be read their favorite stories over and over at bedtime. It's comforting and relaxing.
All of this is probably similar to the comfort and benevolence that we can feel just having quiet time with the people we love. But sometimes there is complexity to our relationships, or some conflict, and what we need is just to relax and feel the familiar without any complications. That is where episodes of a TV show or movie you've seen or a book that you've already read and enjoyed can play a surprisingly important role.
This is important to know because there are often stresses in life that we don't even recognize. If we did, we could take better care of ourselves around them and thus be more effective.
These days, with the economy as it is and the uncertainty about America's future, it's important to remember that you cannot do everything today. There are things that you can do, certainly, to pursue your goals and solve the problems that face you. Spend your time on those.
But there are many things that you have no say in. If you are waiting to hear back from somebody about an opportunity, or to see what decision someone has reached that will affect your life, or who will win the election, or what kind of tax or regulation will increase your workload this year, then you know what I mean.
You can't control these things. They are largely out of your hands. You can do what you can do – communicate well, approach all situations with integrity, vote – but then it's out of your hands. When these are things that affect your life and the lives of your family members it can wear on you, especially if you haven't separated out what you can do from what you can't.
The first step, then, is to see if you are trying to control what you do not have control over. If you are dependent on another person's decision, you can persuade, but you cannot control them. You cannot make someone like you or love you. You cannot make someone decide in your favor if they do not judge it that way. You cannot make someone win the election.
You can be friendly, you can use good arguments with sound reason presented persuasively and you can be resolved to do whatever you can do. You can vote and you can express your views clearly and effectively. But you cannot make another person be the way that you want them to be, decide the way you want them to decide, or vote the way you want them to vote.
Accepting the truth of this can be liberating; you can let go of the burden of an impossible feat.
But if the outcome will affect your life, it will still stress you out to some degree. That is where spending time in familiar and pleasurable territory comes in. Make the distinction between what you can do and what you can't. Do what you can to the best of your ability. Then if you have people available who you feel comfortable and good with, spend time with them.
If you don't, or even if you do but they're busy, give yourself some time with a familiar story – on TV, in a movie, or a book; and if you are recuperating from something more physically intense, give yourself some time to relax and recuperate with some familiar stories. The sense of renewal will be well worth it.
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