Today I want you to think about how often you feel tense in your mind and your body?
The reason I’m raising this with you is because I’ve got a hunch that many people are more tense than they realise.
We can be so caught up in our heads and so consumed with the demands of modern day life, that unless we’re reminded to check in with ourself and actually tune into what’s going on in our body in the present moment, we don’t even know we’re feeling tense and holding ourself in that state – both physically and mentally!
Here’s an example of how you can be in a tense state for a sustained period of time (in this case 45mins) and what you can do about it…
Earlier this week, and through no fault of my own, I was running late after having been in a meeting which over-ran. Then, you know how it goes when you’re tight on time and trying to get somewhere? … Yep: everything seems to be slow and delayed thereafter!
Well that’s exactly what happened to me!
The taxi driver got the pick-up point wrong, then once we were in the car every traffic light went red on the way to the tube station, then when I finally got to the station I missed the train waiting in the platform by a matter of seconds.
Fortunately, the Victoria line on the London Underground is really fast and they arrive pretty much every minute. So, I wasn’t worried. I knew I was cutting it fine by this point with only 20minutes to get to the store before they closed, but the tube journey would take maximum 10mins and then I had a 3min walk to the store, so I felt confident it would all be okay.
I perhaps should mention that the urgency was because I needed to return an expensive pair of shoes that I’d realized I didn’t want to keep but it was the last day to return them for a full refund!
So the next train arrived one minute later and everything was going to plan, until it didn’t leave the platform! We waited on the platform for a few minutes, at this point I was starting to feel really tense.
My mind was now panicking and going to the worst-case scenario – that I wouldn’t make it and I’d be stuck with a expensive pair of shoes that I didn’t want!
The driver then announced that we’d be held on the platform until further notice due to problems with a train a number of stops in front of us!!!
Having lived in London and been using the tube for years now, I know that this can mean major delays ahead.
I quickly thought of what else I could do to get to the store on time – but if I’d tried any other route there’s no way I’d have made it in the 15 minutes I had left.
I started to feel increasingly stressed out and annoyed at myself for allowing the previous meeting to over-run.
Now, it’s at this point I pause, get self-aware and kind of step outside of what’s going on for a moment and recognize I’m feeling really stressed and that there’s nothing I can do about it right there and then.
I remind myself that I don’t like feeling anxious, stressed and tense and I know it’s not good for me on a number of levels and so I decide to do what I can to reduce my stress levels and the tense, on edge feelings that I am experiencing…
There are two ways to tackle this – physically and mentally – also taking into account I’m on a busy train so can’t lie down or get into a yoga pose!
I start by taking slow, deep breaths through my nose, making the exhale longer than the inhale. As I’ve said before, deep breathing through the nose activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which automatically puts you in a relaxed state.
The reason I do this first is because being relaxed means you can then think more clearly.
I also check in with how I feel in my body. You’ll usually find that when you’re tense, you’re clenching your jaw, your shoulders are raised (even if only a little), you’re hunched forward a little and your stomach and pelvis are pulled in and feel tight.
So, I consciously relax my jaw, drop my shoulders, open my chest, relax my stomach and pelvis … whilst I do the deep breathing.
Although it reads like that’s a lot of stuff going on, you can actually do all of this in a matter of seconds when you know what you’re doing.
Next, I got my thinking straight…
In the grand scheme of things this was not a matter of serious worry. I even turned it around and thought perhaps I was meant to keep the shoes.
I said to myself that if there was a way for me to make it to the store on time to please make it possible – I ‘gave it up to God’ … or whatever you personally relate to in the sense of a higher power.
I also asked myself, what’s the lesson here? I came up with quite a few learnings from the whole situation that led me to get to that point – the main one being to trust my gut, which funnily enough is often a recurring lesson for me in life!
I started to feel quite a bit better and I completely let go of control after assessing all of the options available to me and accepting that I simply couldn’t do anything to hurry things along at that point.
I then decided to focus on something else in that moment. For me it was the exciting conversations and ideas that I’d had in the earlier meeting. But I could have focused on something in the train carriage for a moment of mindfulness – for example the colour and design of the seat fabric, someone’s shoes, all of the noises I could hear, the marks on the floor – something to get me totally into my senses and out of my thoughts.
To my relief, at 18.48 the driver said we’d be moving!
Yet I knew it was really cutting it fine by now! All being well, it would be approximately 18.58 when I arrived at my stop, and then I would have to literally sprint out of the station to the store!
Plus, often when there is a delay on the tubes you can be slow moving through the following stations due to the backlog of trains!
So, the anticipation as we passed through each station could have left me feeling completely on edge, but I purposely maintained my calm state.
I was actually very lucky, and we reached my destination by 18.57!!
I raced up to street level and I’d already got the store’s phone number ready so that I could call to say I was on my way and ask them to wait for me to arrive before closing. They were just locking the door but were happy to wait for me, so I ran there, arrived at 19.01, and was able to return the shoes no problem!
Phew!!! You can imagine I came out of the store feeling like I needed to sit down and celebrate after all that!
The reason I share this story is so that you can see what’s possible when you check in with yourself, find that you’re tense, and what you can then do to alleviate that tension and stress.
I also want to point out that this isn’t simply about feeling ‘better’. This is about getting your system into a calm state so that you can think more clearly – which therefore enables you to make better, more realistic choices.
From a physical perspective, you also want to work to calm your system down so that you lower your blood pressure, get more oxygen going around the body by breathing properly, relax your stomach muscles which aids digestion and lower your stress hormones.
In my story above, I’m describing a specific high-stress moment, and depending on how you manage your time, you may experience this kind of thing on a regular (maybe even daily) basis, or perhaps only when unforeseen events happen – as they do for everyone.
But I want to highlight the fact that most people are in a tense state for the majority of their day!!
Check in with yourself when you’re sat at your desk working. Especially when answering emails…
Notice if your jaw is clenched, your shoulders slightly raised, you’re partly holding your breath and tensing your stomach…
Or this could be happening whilst commuting to work on the train, tube, in the car or navigating the swarms of people on busy city streets.
Or when in a meeting, or stuck in traffic.
There will be moments in your day and life where this is normal; For example when giving a presentation, going for an interview, waiting for the result or answer to something that is of great significance to you. When watching, listening or reading something that leaves you in suspense.
But what I want you to do, is to be really tuned in to whether or not you’re in a tense state for MOST of your day.
What I recommend to my clients, is that they check in with themselves regularly throughout their day. This could be every time they get up to go to the toilet, get a drink or go to the printer.
Or even better, you could set a reminder for every 30minutes on your phone or computer to check in with yourself and your body. If you do feel tense, simply follow the techniques I’ve outlined above – taking some deep breaths and relaxing the body … and if there’s mental anguish going on, also work on calming the mind and putting things into perspective.
For me, I was lucky that I made it to the store in the nick of time. Yet the point here is that I’d got myself into a state of calm where I knew and felt that everything would all be okay even if I didn’t.
P.S. The good news is that this will become second nature if you keep at it. You’ll naturally begin to check in with yourself regularly throughout the day and be able to bring yourself down into a more calm state every time.