“Looking for peace is like looking for a turtle with a moustache: You won’t be able to find it. But when your heart is ready, peace will come looking for you.” – Ajahn Chah
Restlessness seems to have peaked in our current times as we are faced with continued restrictions and loss due to the ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, feeling restless in not uncommon and has contributed to distress even before this restrictive time began. For example, restlessness is commonly reported as a symptom of anxiety and can involve difficulty sitting still or relaxing. It is also evident in certain personality types and cognitive styles. Likewise, it can be understood as a defense mechanism as we unconsciously work to avoid pain or discomfort by staying active or distracting ourselves. Lastly, our society tends to encourage an approach to life that can lead to constant striving and an outward focus on success and achievement.
When I entered graduate school, I was determined to be the best student. I worked hard to stand out and demonstrate my knowledge and understanding of the material. Overall, I was fairy success in my goals. I readily obtained an offer to work as a teaching assistant for a professor I greatly admired as well as a part-time clinical position in the private practice of a senior faculty member. I also became actively involved with an internationally recognized Adlerian psychologist, which led to conference presentations and two publications. My ego grew larger as I began to view myself as more advanced or skilled in comparison to my peers. I was successfully striving and accomplishing all of my goals.
It wasn’t long before I was faced with the challenges of a competitive doctoral internship, relocating to a new city on the east coast, and the birth of my daughter. However, the biggest challenge was the challenge to my striving ego and defenses, which arrived when I witnessed my graduate intern colleagues obtain prestigious post-doctoral fellowships at places like Harvard and Emory University. In contrast, my plan was to take a year off and care for my daughter, while my partner completed her doctoral internship in yet another new city. After I completed my training and defended my dissertation, my life changed fairly dramatically. I now had long days with an eight-month-old little girl. Although I loved my new role and will always cherish this time with my daughter, I also struggled immensely to settle my restless mind and striving ego. It was during this year that I began to wake up to the ways in which I was driven by my needs for validation as well as the difficulty I had with stillness and uncertainty. I had been swept up and intoxicated by my external success, while also avoiding my anxiety and discomfort. I felt very uneasy when the long journey of graduate school was complete. I found myself in a new world without my armor.
I began to realize how long I had been carried along by the flow of habitual and unconscious states of mind, striving to avoid discomfort through distractions and experience happiness and satisfaction through my accomplishments. I slowly and somewhat reluctantly began to admit to myself that my next goal involved letting go, waking up, and teaching my heart to stay present; to abide at ease with how things unfolded around me and remain present with the full range of my internal experience.
Perhaps you have experienced a similar period that challenged your habitual ways of navigating life or managing uncertainty? Perhaps you have found yourself facing an unexpected challenge without your armor? Most certainty you have experienced times of restlessness.
Restlessness often leads to fatigue and can manifest as feeling tense or agitated. It can also impact sleep and make it difficult to function well at work or in school. Restlessness can lead to alcohol abuse, overeating, excessive exercise or any number of unhealthy attempts to cope. At high levels, restlessness indicates an overactive fight or flight response as your body reacts to stress, anxiety, or past trauma. Depending on your experience and acuity, it might be most helpful to get professional support. For more moderate levels of restlessness, the following strategies and perspectives can be helpful.
Acknowledge and accept your fears – Fear and uncertainty are a part of life. When we acknowledge and work to accept this reality it can become less overwhelming. Seeing it for what it is allows us to also see that it is temporary. Rather than focusing on how you want things to be different, attempt to make peace with reality.
Practice compassion – Practice connecting with a sense of compassion for others. This can be done through conversations or acts of kindness. When we are practicing compassion and caring for others there is much less focus on ourselves and our worries.
Connect with others – Western society often promotes individualism. Yet, our survival depends on one another and our natural state exists as a collective. Practice taking a step back and reflecting on the interconnection you have with those around you and beyond.
Meditation – Practicing meditation can take a little as five minutes. Simply begin by sitting comfortably and focusing your attention on the natural rhythm and flow of your breath. The practice of meditation involves bringing your attention back to your breathing, again and again, as your mind naturally wonders off. It is also the practice of non-judgmental awareness as our mind will inevitably wonder and critical thoughts will likely arise as we work to maintain our attention in the present.
Mindfulness – One practical way of practicing mindfulness is to incorporate mindful moments throughout your day, such as pausing for a minute each time you sit down at your computer. This practice is especially helpful if you benefit from a structured approach. You can also pause at any point and practice bringing your attention to the present by noticing the sights and sounds in your environment. Likewise, you can practice mindfulness simply by bringing your attention to your breathing. Practice remaining present and with whatever arrises throughout your day.
Each of us has unique qualities and accumulated tendencies that impact our perception and experience of thoughts, feelings, and the external world. When we feel restless and uncomfortable, we are often tempted to move on to something else to feel better or focus on our next goal. If we don’t like what is happening, we reach for the remote control or leave the room. When we are restless, we eat, drink and attempt to be merry. Yet, when we are able remain present with our restlessness and pay attention to it, we might begin to see how our thoughts and feelings are temporary. When we remain present, we also open ourselves up to the messages brought to us by our emotions and our deeper sensibilities. In this way our restlessness can be viewed as an opportunity to practice acceptance and patience, so that we can be steady, rather than swept up in our shifting moods and states of mind.
Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Visit us at lindquistpsych.com
Sign up below to receive our weekly blog to your inbox