By: Cynthia Akrill
Yesterday a client of mine had an “aha”—she realized she actually feels physical tension across her chest as she gets out of her car to go into work. Yikes! This is not a great way to start a day that will take all the energy, focus, emotional intelligence, and positivity she can muster!
And before you say, “She just needs to change jobs,” you need to know she loves her work and is good at it—almost too good at it. There is just too much of it, and she’s a professional high-achiever, always driving herself to do better.
The thing is, it took months for this automatic reaction to percolate up to her awareness. Meanwhile, her stress has been silently sending her energy down the drain every morning! Her mental/emotional dread has been tapping her physical and spiritual resources until her body had to step in and say, “Ouch!” to get her attention. She is not alone! There are numerous physical signs of too much stress, some of them deadly.
How often is this happening to you? How often do you spend your precious energy, focus, health, and happiness on the same stressors? On dread? On “bracing” against certain situations or people? On replaying the same negative thoughts and expectations, instead of finding another response to a well-known trigger?
It’s almost like a dance—a very well rehearsed one. This dance is a brain habit, learned quickly to keep you safe. It’s quite often subconscious, the initial trigger story forgotten or now entwined with other stories.
We so love to think of ourselves as aware, intentional, rational. We like it so much we create stories to validate our thoughts and actions. We practice powerful denial and deflection skills. We even forget that other people can’t really hear our inner critics, and so we even brace to defend ourselves from ourselves.
Awareness is the antidote to this automatic stress.
- Disrupt your busy to check in. This will take a system to create the habit of shifting out of automatic and asking yourself how you really are and what you need. This is presence.You can use phone or computer apps (like Calm), set a few alarms during the day, make a habit of checking in before you do certain actions (brush your teeth, leave your office, get in the car), or keep a little log.
- Notice. What automatically ramp up your frustration? Who/what drains your energy, or sends your thinking in circles? Why?
- Get curious, instead of frustrated. When you notice any tension—mental, emotional, or physical—ask what information it is bringing you? See if you can turn off your automatic judgment just long enough to wonder if there is another way to tell your story. Is there a different conversation you need to have?
- Explore and experiment. What if you try something different? (Take a few deep breaths and set an intention before entering the office or walking in the house at night?) Play with different reframes. Play with challenging unrealistic expectations. (I know, it’s hard to give up perfectionism, but whom are you kidding?!) What you would tell your best friend to do or think? Get creative—how can you find instead of lose energy in front of your well-known triggers? What can you learn?
Yes, this is mindfulness—waking up from your automatic to choose how you want to spend your attention and energy. And yes, it takes practice, from developing the awareness to exploring and implementing other choices. But the payoffs are incredible. You can end your days with more energy, more health, more happiness, and the deep satisfaction that comes from being more intentional and productive.
And remember, you never have to do this alone! We all have messy spaces between triggers and reactions. They lend excellent opportunities for coaching. As a friend of mine used to say, “It’s hard to be us and see us.” Coaching can help you ramp up your awareness, dig under the stories, find your wisdom, and explore your possibilities with safety, creativity, and accountability. Together you can find the mystery in the mess. I loved helping my client move from her automatic tight-chested morning to a more empowered, energized start to her day—I am so proud of her!