I use these two little words over and over throughout the day. I use them when I find myself in front of the refrigerator or cabinet about to mindlessly shove some food into my mouth. I use them when I’m in the car and someone cuts me off or when I’m stuck in traffic and panicked about being late. I use them at work when I’m stuck creatively and imposter syndrome is creeping in. I use them when my muscles are tense and my neck is stiff. I use them during training and racing when it feels like my body can’t go any further. And I use them during yoga when I think I can’t possibly hold a pose for one more second.
These two words are my go to mantra.
A mantra is a word, phrase, or even just a sound that is repeated in order to take the mind into a different state, often to aid in concentration. It can be used during meditation as a focal point to still the mind. But it can also be used to interrupt negative thought patterns during stressful situations, or any time in which you find your thought process to be hindering your well being, productivity, or creativity.
This mantra that I use works in all of these various situations because the words act as a buffer. All of these circumstances that I mentioned are all about one thing.
Reaching my limit.
Stress and anxiety happen when we are approaching or reaching the limit of what we have learned to tolerate thus far. This causes a stress reaction triggering our fight or flight response, releasing adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones, giving us that feeling of urgency and constriction.
When I can recognize this happening, I say to myself “create space” and it gives me that slight pause I need to stop and question what I want my next move to be. Rather than impulsively acting and regretting later, I now have a buffered moment where I can choose how I want to respond to the stressful situation. Saying these words helps me create space around my thoughts that are racing, and space around my muscles that are contracting.
For example, when I find myself in front of the kitchen cabinet reaching for the bag of trail mix out of boredom or habit, I can say “create space” to myself, and it allows me to stop and recognize that this urge I’m feeling is not about hunger. I’m not going to get any satisfaction or relief if I take a handful of trail mix. In fact, it will likely lead to one more handful and soon half the bag will be gone and I’ll feel really shitty about myself.
If I can pause long enough to get through that thought process, usually it’s enough to stop me from reaching into the bag.
And it all came about from those two little words “create space”.
Let’s take the example of someone cutting me off in traffic. My impulsive, knee jerk reaction is to get angry, annoyed and honk my horn furiously. But wait…repeat the phrase…
Now my mind has shifted gears. I am looking at all these cars on the road and realizing we are all just trying to get to our destination. We all have to share this space. Isn’t it nicer if I can create a space in the road for this person, rather than inching her out, and honking loudly adding to the chaos and anxiety that is already here?
It also just feels better to create space in this situation. I enjoy the fresh perspective of the realization that we are all a community and that this person is not trying to hurt me or disrupt my day. In fact, this person is likely so engrossed in her own small world of reaching her stress limit that she is not aware of cutting me off.
Getting caught up in the anxiety of the moment, narrows our world. It shrinks our perspective to the limited scope of our own ego. When we create space in our mind, we open our field of vision. We can soon recognize how silly it is to fight through these small annoyances. Instead, we can step back and realize that pushing ahead and getting angry is not teaching that person a lesson nor is it allowing us to get to our destination any faster. Cultivating space in this moment, alleviates the stress and opens the heart.
Whether you’re a working professional, a creative artist, a student, or a new parent, I am willing to bet you have encountered the feeling of being an imposter. It’s that feeling that at any moment someone could discover that you have no idea what the hell you’re doing. You have been going through the motions and pretending that you’ve got it all worked out but in reality you are doubting and second guessing yourself every step of the way.
I get this feeling every time I start a new project, sit down to write an article like this, or toe the line at a race. Doubt and fear creep in no matter how many times I’ve done something. It’s the ego trying to protect itself, trying to hold me back from perceived failure. If my mind were the ocean in this situation, it would be a storm of 10 foot waves crashing violently to shore. To reset my mind, I repeat the same mantra:
Now I envision an ocean of calm and tranquility. The waves have receded and the water gently laps into the sand. The ocean is much easier to navigate in this state. Unsurprisingly, my mind is as well.
With a relaxed state of mind, I can recall that I have been creative in the past.
I can recall the small steps I have taken to get there.
I can take one small step at a time.
I can breathe deeply.
Most importantly, I create a barrier from the storm of my thoughts and allow space to increase my threshold of anxiety.
Getting through imposter syndrome usually does not require working longer, trying harder, or thinking more. It usually requires the opposite.
Taking a step back, relaxing the mind, and calming the breath are usually what it takes to produce the freedom to create and move forward.
THE PHYSICAL BODY
Stress in the body can be particularly troublesome because it can be sneaky. I tend to hold my stress in my shoulders, which can lead to stiffness in my low back, which then leads to tightness in my calves and ankles. It can be difficult to isolate the root of the problem because the body is connected from head to toe.
The impulse when I feel pain in my body is to stop moving or to fight against it by forcing a stretch which can lead to further damage and discomfort.
Repeat the mantra:
I like to imagine breathing into the tightness or stiffness.
Breathe air to the constriction in the chest.
Breathe air into the contracted shoulders.
Breathe air to the shrunken spine.
Soon I can feel my shoulders pull back as my chest releases. I keep a foam roller and a foot massage ball in my office to physically create space in my muscles. Rubbing eucalyptus essential oil on tight muscles or peppermint essential oil on your temples for a headache can also aid in creating space in the tension.
Simply saying these words does not release all the tension in my body. But they serve as a conduit for allowing the stress to dissipate. I still have to take active steps to alleviate it but the words open the door to reduce the resistance. As Carl Jung famously said, “What you resist, persists”. The very idea of creating space contradicts resistance.
BEFORE CREATING SPACE
The magic of these two words is not actually magic at all. And it’s not even about the two words. In fact, the words could be anything that works for you.
These two words work for me because the visuals that these words conjure in my mind help interrupt my destructive patterns long enough to make a choice rather than just react. (By the way, sometimes I still make the destructive choice.) But first I have to recognize that I am feeling stressed and falling prey to my impulsive, reactive instincts. This can be challenging.
Starting in the lower stress situations, like driving in traffic, are good practice in learning what cues your body gives you when you are heading for anxiety.
Next time you’re sitting in traffic, notice how your body feels. Are you gripping the steering wheel? Is your breath short or shallow? Are your shoulders hunched up next to your ears? These cues will likely repeat themselves in other stressful situations, so start by gaining that awareness.
A regular meditation practice is another way to develop these insights.
An efficient hack when you are still learning the signs, is to write down CREATE SPACE or your mantra of choice on a piece of paper, and have it posted in your kitchen, your car, or any other stress triggering locations. Seeing the words can serve to create a new brain pattern where you conjure calm and relaxing versions of the stressful situation thereby breaking the cycle of fight or flight response.
Both these words seem to be at a premium these days. Creating anything in an overly busy, uptight, and chaotic world can seem like a luxury. Just as trying to find space in an overcrowded, hurried, and frantic society is nearing impossible.
If we all took a few moments a day to cultivate both, we just might find some much needed peace and calm in our lives. And the cumulative effect it would have on society as a whole would be profound.
Update November 2018: Since writing this article just over a year ago, I have found that the magic of these words have lost their luster. The brain has a way of habituating repetition so it can focus on other things. This can happen with mantras. The words can become empty or rote and we forget why they meant something in the first place.
Re-reading this article has helped reignite the meaning in these words for me. It reminded me how important it is to consistently reflect on the meaning of things in life.
Sometimes reflection is enough to keep the meaning alive in the words of a mantra. Sometimes the words have done their job and new words take their place. In either case, the mantra can only do its job when the intention is recalled and fulfilled.
It’s not as much about the words as it is about the interruption of negative patterns and the injection of a positive replacement.
What’s your favorite mantra that helps you reset and relax in stressful situations? Let me know in the comments.