Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Stress Buster: Escape Hatch!

It's my secret weapon in hard times: a piece of paper that has 81 little boxes on it. Some of the boxes have numbers in them. Some are empty.

I scroll over the boxes with my freshly sharpened pencil, making notes, filling in numbers where I can. Slowly the boxes fill up. I take sips from a fresh cup of coffee or tea beside me as I work. Occasionally I glance out the window, seeing something only visible to me. For a brief period of time, my world is these boxes filling up with numbers -- everything in its place and the steaming cup and the dance of the trees outside.

Fifteen minutes later, every box has a number in it. I am smiling. Smiling as I get up to do the next task. Smiling as I address the next problem. Or smiling as I drift off into a cozy slumber for the night.

What's my secret? Sudoku.

When my life is busy and pressing, I can become overwhelmed by all that I must do, all that I haven't done, all that I can't get done. I can lie in bed at night, eyes wide open, staring into a dark ceiling, with the things pressing in on me while sleep is far away. I can't turn off the machine in my head that runs my life. But that's not all. I'm tense all day, so that my shoulders and back ache when I sit. I'm carrying burdens. Yes, even if I try to hand them over to God in prayer.

This is just the way it is.

But one day, I discovered a small escape hatch. When I immerse myself in a joyful activity for 5-15 minutes and become absorbed in it, my body settles down. The tension leaves. During periods of high stress, I use this escape hatch several times a day -- between tasks, before sleeping, even before my devotions. It lowers my stress level so much that I no longer have headaches and backaches, I no longer burst into tears when things are too much, and I no longer struggle with mental distractions. Most of all, I maintain perspective while under pressure.

How could a small break do this much?

I don't think it's just the power of a Sudoku puzzle. I've used other activities, too. Part of the reason this works so well for me is that I go away completely to another place. When I escape, time stops for me and so does my world. I do things that are truly restful, that fully occupy my attention, and that feel like a mini-vacation.

My escape hatch is also my portal to joy. The activities that work for me are joyful. They help me to be aware of the beauty of my world and the simple blessings at my feet. Joy releases me from the stickiness of the demands and pressures of my life. It re-connects my heart to God, who is the center and the strength of my life. The stress melts away.

I try to end my little escapes with a short prayer and quiet moment before the Lord, before moving into the next task. This "resets" my focus and helps me start fresh.

What's your escape hatch? If you don't have one, can you think of something that might work for you? I want to hear about your ideas!


  1. What a cute post! I couldn't figure out what in the world you were talking about at first. ;-) But I should have, because Sudoku has the same effect on me as you. As a matter of fact, I just packed up my book of them as I prepare to go sit in a waiting room this afternoon.

  2. "Escape hatch" is a great term. I just discovered mine recently, and it's made a *huge* difference in my mood and ability to carry on. Silly as it sounds, the secret, for me, is old music videos on YouTube. Music pretty much defined me in my teens and twenties, and sometimes I miss that part of's been surprising how much revisiting my old favorites has lifted my spirits. I guess in part because it's mine alone--it has nothing to do with kids or keeping a home or education--all of which are my primary focuses, and I wouldn't have it any other way. But when I start feeling a little "burnt," knowing that I can enjoy some listening time after the kids are in bed is a huge motivator. It reminds me of when I'd come home from school and put on my headphones and just unwind...same story 30 years later, only with different media.

    And yes, if the kids are occupied, I have been known to sneak a listen mid-afternoon. The average song is only 3.5 minutes!

  3. Kathi-

    That's a great idea!

    Lisa -

    I didn't know we had Sudoku in common!


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