Every now and then I wake up with a knot where my neck meets my left shoulder. I usually figure it’s one of the hazards of being a side and stomach sleeper, so I take some ibuprofen and move on with my day.
Recently, though, the pressure that started out in one spot slowly moved across the full width of my shoulders—and stayed that way for several days.
I sat one night with a hot water bottle on my neck, venting to my husband about how crowded my brain felt. I rattled off a dozen to-do’s and half a dozen worries, and then I ended by saying:
“I guess I need to de-stress. Dial it down a bit.”
In that exact moment it occurred to me that maybe the hot water bottle on my shoulders and the stress I was describing weren’t separate, weren’t incidental.
Maybe my body was playing out the stress that originated in my head.
Does this happen to you? Do you ever barely register what’s going on in your mind until you start feeling it in your body?
Whenever it clicks in my head that what I’m feeling is an unhealthy level of stress, I do a handful of things to de-escalate it. If you struggle with stress, I suggest asking yourself these questions next time you feel weighed down by it:
1. Whose feelings am I absorbing?
I think women are especially prone to this. Most of us are the heartbeats of our home; we’re continually monitoring everyone’s feelings, and it’s almost impossible for us not to pick those feelings up and carry them as our own.
Psychologists describe this as being “enmeshed.” The things people say and feel go straight into our core. It’s a draining way to live, and it often sends us careening from “enmeshed” to “disengaged” (your Netflix habit?) and back again.
So when you feel stress in your body, push yourself to identify whose feelings you’re carrying. Is your kid upset because he can’t quit piano? Is your spouse anxious about a proposal he’s presenting at work? Are two of your friends in an argument? The world needs us empaths, but sometimes we have to make sure we’re not letting others’ feelings rest too heavily on us.
2. How is this stress affecting me?
How is it manifesting itself? Have you been short-tempered lately with your kids or friends? Are your shoulders tense, like mine were? Maybe you’ve been watching more TV than normal or browsing too much social media in hopes of escaping it.
The more you recognize the damage your stress is doing, the more willing you’ll be to release it.
3. What is within my control, and what is without?
It feels amazing to pinpoint a couple of things you can do right away to reduce your stress. And it also feels amazing to identify a few things that are beyond your control and to loosen your hold on them. Do both. Often.
4. Will anything change if I worry about it?
I love the Swedish proverb, “Worry gives a small thing a big shadow.” Too often the issues that seem large and looming when we’re in the middle of the worry end up not even materializing. Ask yourself how much joy you’re missing out on by planning for the worst.
5. What can I set down for a season?
On a practical level, if you’re stressed, you probably have a few too many balls in the air.
While life is short and deserves to be lived fully in the time we have, I like to let myself off the hook by believing that life is also long—long enough (or at least, I hope it will be) for me to do everything I want to do.
Setting something down for a week or a month or a couple of years doesn’t mean you’ll never pick it back up again.
“If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer
6. How can I fill my tank?
Step one: strip away some of the stressors. Step two (equally important and arguably more so): pour on the self-love. Taking care of yourself isn’t just something to do; it’s a way to live. It’s a continual process of valuing yourself—your time, your energy, your worth. It’s essential to balancing out the pressures of day-to-day life.
I’m close to enough people who are continually plagued by stress and worry to know that that’s not how I want to live. It takes a lot of self-checking to keep it at bay, but I can tell you this:
It feels so much better to walk around with relaxed shoulders.
Who would you want around you in your last moments of life? The more you simplify, the more you see what—and who—really matters.
“I have too many balls in the air, but I can’t set any of them down.” Read this when life has ballooned to something unmanageable.
Thoughts swirling? This is the surest way I know of to calm them, leaving you with more clarity and peace.
I believe we lead happier lives when we know ourselves. 10 questions to help you uncover your values and intentions.