Managing Chaos

Hi, I’m Hrefna and I’m a workaholic. I deal with anxiety, can’t seem to master the art of mindfulness and if you were to ask me how I’ve been, my answer would probably be: I’ve been busy.

In this lifelong race of finishing tasks before deadlines, our to-do lists can seem never ending. Studies show that a third of the Danish and Icelandic population is dealing with anxiety. However, modern day life has never been better, and the 2017 World Happiness Report states that we live in some of the happiest countries on earth. So why are we so damn stressed?

I’m a student at Kaospilot, a school with students who share the goal of wanting to make a positive societal change. It is therefore inevitable that the place gathers quite a number of highly ambitious people. But in a school where students learn how to pilot life’s chaos, how do they cope with the stress and workload?

Ana Milbo is a student from Team 23, who is currently taking a gap year. She wanted to prolong her studies and use the time to dig deeper into her first year at the school”. “I have experienced post-traumatic stress and high levels of stress in the past,” she says “most recently, I experienced a mild anxiety attack when I started at the Kaospilot.”

Ana experiences anxiety as a cycle of thoughts which happens subconsciously. “When you become most aware of the thoughts, the anxiety is much harder to handle.“ Ana says it is important not only to focus on anxiety once an attack occurs but to tackle the stress as soon as small symptoms arise and also to understand why the anxiety is there in the first place. “My thoughts and mindset is what causes my anxiety,” she says. “It can be because of something about myself, someone else, something that has happened or something I’m scared might happen.”

Ana’s biggest passion is facilitation and she is a facilitation consultant. To cope with workload she writes so-called free writing journals, a method from ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron. It is a way of writing for a certain amount of time without stopping. “In the first few minutes, I write down many of the thoughts I know are already there.” Ana continues, “and then suddenly, after a while I start writing thoughts that are unconscious but perhaps bad for my energy.” Ana says this helps her shed light on feelings of bad conscience, which she finds is a big cause for stress.

Ana also uses Trello, a planning software, which she says helps her get an overview of her work. “I write down everything I need to do, so I can use my mind to think instead of using it to remember things,” Ana says. “It also helps me notice what I have done because I find, in a stressful situation, it’s easy to focus only on the things I haven’t done.” Ana says it’s important to be realistic when setting goals for the day because setting too ambitious goals causes disappointment. “Everyday, I ask myself, what is the most important thing for me to do today, in order for me to leave work feeling satisfied?”

Guillermo is a student from Team 22, who has researched how to deal with anxiety through cooking. Whenever he felt bad, he would start to cook and realised that was his way of meditating.

Guillermo is currently located in Japan where he is further exploring the subject of cooking as a way of relieving stress. He says that cooking forces one, in a way, to be present and in the now. “I believe that being mindful can help relieve anxiety almost immediately,” he says, “you follow a little process that you are in control of, you work with all your senses, and you have in general a lot of opportunities to be present.”

Guillermo during his third year project in Japan

Guillermo has experienced anxiety from a very young age. “I think my anxiety stems from the fear of disappointing others, or to present to others an image of myself that I believe they will perceive as mediocre.” Guillermo continues, “I believe anxiety is all about projecting into the future, it’s never about the present, it’s a lot about ‘what-if’s’.” Guillermo feels most stressed when he believes he is being evaluated on something. “With a project, with my family and friends. And the worst is that I know this only exists in my head. But that’s hard to change.”

I believe anxiety is all about projecting into the future, it’s never about the present, it’s a lot about ‘what-if’s’

Emily from Team 24 has been practicing yoga and meditation for seven years, as well as teaching it. She has explored the topics of workload and stress since she experienced burnout, firsthand, eight years ago. Her Tedx talk is not to be missed.

“When I started doing yoga, I was totally addicted to it as a fix for stress and anxiety. It was something I strived to do every day.” Emily continues, “In time, I started to realise that yoga is much more than just physical poses and that I can practice without stepping into a studio and onto my mat.“

Emily says that her practice now is more about present moment awareness and about giving space to exactly what it is she is experiencing as she’s experiencing it, without trying to change or fix it. “When I’m able to do this, feelings that I might perceive as unpleasant usually soften or pass entirely, without a struggle. In this way, I’m able to be more in tune with my needs, which has changed how I experience my external world and how I experience myself.”

“To go to a yoga studio to practice can be a two hour long commitment, getting there, practicing and then traveling home.” Emily says meditation became a big part of her life once she realised it was something that could fit in smaller ways into her everyday life. “Meditation can especially be effective in moments of feeling stress or anxiety, taking even three minutes to sit still can work wonders for moving ahead with more clarity and ease.”

In time, I started to realise that yoga is much more than just physical poses and that I can practice without stepping into a studio and onto my mat

We live in a world where being busy is considered admirable. However, why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to be overworked and why do we pride ourselves in being workaholics? Erlend, a student from Team 23, has explored the philosophy behind work. He is inspired by philosopher Andrew Taggart and his take on meaningful work. “Throughout history, the concept of work has been that you work to sustain your life.” Erlend says, “Meaningful work wasn’t even a thing until about forty years ago.”

Erlend during his outpost semester in Barcelona. Photo by Andreas Thorell.

Erlend explains we live in an age of total work and that we use work to define, who we are as human beings. “I think it is dangerous for people to create meaning around themselves with the work they do,” he says. “It creates stress and is also not a sustainable source of meaning in life, you can get fired or retire.” Erlend is interested in the way we use our language around work and what we categorize as work in daily life, outside of our jobs, “What is work for us? Is it working out? Working on a relationship? Working on our identity?” he wonders.

Erlend divides his activities into three categories: work, leisure and free time. He makes a list of suggestions rather than a to-do list so that they are not seen as obligations. Work can be anything from DJ’ing to taking out the trash, while leisure can be reading or writing. His free time is however for relaxation, spending time with friends or going to the beach. “This system has really helped me focus because it creates clarity around when I am actually working and when I am doing other activities. “ Erlend explains, “Some leisure activities can definitely be difficult but they are still not work.”

What is work for us? Is it working out? Working on a relationship? Working on our identity?

Erlend’s way of avoiding stress is making sure not to work too much, which he says the category method helps him do. “People would probably say that I am a busy person because I work a lot, however technically, 50% of what I do is not work but leisure.”

One method of coping with stress and workload, popular to many Kaospilot students as well as Aarhusians, is Vikingeklubben Jomsborg. It is a winter bathing community of over 9,000 members, who enjoy outdoor sea bathing facilities and warm saunas. Bettina from Team 24 is a frequent user of the club. She finds jumping into the ice-cold water and then relaxing in the sauna a way of becoming more present.

“If I’m stressed I can quickly sense it physically, with a headache or stomach ache,” she says. “I therefore feel most relaxed when my body is calm.” Bettina prioritizes going to Jomsborg and makes sure to put time aside for going there. “The culture there is so relaxed and you can really be yourself,” she says. “You don’t have to perform in any way and everyone is welcome.” Bettina finds the calm atmosphere a fast and effective way of calming down when feeling stressed. “It is a community and everyone comes there for more or less the same reasons, because it is adding something valuable to their everyday lives.”

While exploring the subject of anxiety, I’ve noticed how incredibly common the feeling of stress is within all of us, and ironically, it relaxes me knowing I am not alone. Even though stress pushes us forward, after a certain threshold it’s effect becomes counterproductive and it creates an unnecessary feeling of fear. It seems that different methods of coping with stress works for each of us and it’s comforting to know that with some work, we can change our negative mindsets. And if nothing helps, it’s okay to take a break, lie in bed with a tub of cookie dough and watch Netflix. There’s always tomorrow.

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