Yesterday I had to drive somewhere, which I don’t do much anymore, and it was a fascinating experience.
I kept checking in on my body, and finding myself clenched, as if ready for an attack.
My entire torso would be tensed, my neck and shoulders were scrunched up, my face was tight. For no good reason other than I had to react to a lot of cars around me.
And so, noticing this, I was able to relax in that moment. Straighten up, let my muscles stop clenching themselves, breathe, smile. Instant calm, because I knew there was nothing actually attacking me.
This is a skill I’ve been getting better at, though I’m far from perfect: becoming aware of when my body is tensed up. It’s a cue, something that indicates what’s going on in my mind, and a way for me to look into what I’m stressing out about and decide whether I really need to be in fight-or-flight mode.
Some of the cues I’ve learned about myself: a clenched jaw (happens a lot), face is scrunched up (eyebrows like I’m mad, mouth is frowning, cheeks tensed), neck and shoulders tensed, sometimes entire torso tensed, legs might be stiff like I’m bracing myself, hands might be clenched sometimes.
And so, during the day (when I remember, which isn’t always), I will check in on these cues. And very often I’ll see them tensed up.
This tells me something’s going on, so I check in with my mind: what are you stressing about? And often it’s something like other cars or people getting in my way, or I’m getting competitive in laser tag or go carts (my daughter’s birthday celebration yesterday), or someone is frustrating me, or someone on the Internet is being less than enlightened (I know, that’s pretty rare).
So when I see that going on, I can see that I have an ideal, an expectation, that other people or life in general aren’t living up to. And I realize that’s a completely made-up ideal that I don’t need to hold on to, and I can just accept this moment. And when I do, nothing is so bad. (Read a short guide to dealing with stress.)
Or sometimes I just relax my body, unscrunch my face, unclench my jaw, breathe and smile, and that’s all I need to get the world in order again.