I could be walking. I could be writing. I could be talking to a friend. Wherever I am or whatever I’m doing, I always catch my shoulders creeping towards my neck.
When I’m stressed or anxious my neck and shoulders tighten up. It’s like I’m subconsciously trying to be a turtle and bring myself back into my shell, where it’s safe and comfortable. This happens a lot. So much in fact, that throughout the last year, I’ve had tension headaches from my inability to loosen up.
So I’ve developed a few mechanisms for dealing with stress and anxiety. The first and most important is the use of outlets. I have two primary ways in which I work out my stress. The first is physical. It’s jiu-jitsu. I feel utterly relaxed and calm once I pull on my gi and step onto the mat. And the physical exertion of drilling and sparring goes a long way to releasing some pent up energy.
The second outlet isn’t physical, it’s mental, it’s creative. It’s writing and journaling.The outpouring of thought and ideas lightens the load.
I do a few other things as well as training and creating. I meditate and practice mindfulness. Not that I’m very good at it. But I sincerely try. And doing so helps me catch myself time travelling, to stop myself living in the past or future, and focus only on the moment, on this moment.
Related to meditation is the awareness of noise. Not measured in decibels, but in incoming information. The noisier I allow my environment to get, the more I seem to succumb to stress and anxiety. Which is why I limit my time on social media and have severely lowered my media consumption habits over the last few months.
Another exercise that is useful is gratitude. The act of looking at my life, at the world and saying thank you. Showing appreciation for my friends, for my family, for the opportunities and resources available to me, for the people whose life and work has touched my own.
The final thing that helps me handle stress is sleep. If I sleep deep enough and long enough I’m less stressed.
Physical and creative outlets. Meditation. Monitoring noise. Practicing gratitude. Handling my sleep. All these things are good and helpful and have changed my life. But they’re not enough.
Imagine you’re in a boat. One of those idyllic wooden that you might take out into a lake on a summers day. As you put it in the water and start to row out into the lake, you discover something. There’s a leak somewhere. You’re taking on water.
Now, you have two choices. You can either use a container or something similar to chuck out the water faster than it’s coming in. Or you can try to plug the leak.
When it comes to stress, I’ve been chucking the water over the side. Which can work. For a time. But wouldn’t it be better if with every problem I encountered, rather than choosing the temporary solution, I went straight for it’s heart? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to plug the leak, instead of frantically flinging the water over the side? I think so. So from now on my aim isn’t to solve problems and handle stress. It’s to stop them from taking root in the first place.