There are times in each cycle of the year that I find myself feeling particularly stressed and anxious. While the weather is changing in a very positive way (I struggle with cold and cloudy winters), I enjoy getting outside, grounding myself in the earth and watching nature wake up. As many people are looking forward to the end of another school year and some time to wind down and have some fun, my role at work requires me to lead a team that is responsible for Summer School, a very large and complex program serving approximately 8000 students throughout the summer. I am fortunate to have an amazing and talented team of leaders and teachers to carry out the tasks, but the idea of having two months to recover from the school year is not possible. It can feel like I am running on a hamster wheel, never able to slow down or take a breath. One way that stress manifests in my life is that I carry all that tension in my body. Without a way to release it, the tension grows until I either break or release it all at once, sometimes explosively, and almost never with a positive outcome.
That’s why I’ve been exploring mindfulness meditation as a way to help me manage stress and find some peace amidst the chaos of everyday life. This week as I was exploring my anxieties and stresses with a trusted therapist, she asked me to explain what that tension looked like and felt like in my body. The best comparison I could find was that it felt like I was an archer, drawing a bow and never being able to release it. It is feeling like you can never exhale.
The tension on a bow is necessary for building momentum and energy to propel the arrow forward. But sometimes, it’s better to slowly release the tension and not let the arrow fly. In the same way, the tension we hold in our bodies can be a powerful force that can drive us towards our goals and aspirations. However, it’s also important to learn how and when to release that tension mindfully, so we can avoid making rash decisions or hurting others. Remember when I said that sometimes I release the tension all at once? It is like releasing that bow. Only instead of letting an arrow fly, I tend to make impulsive and life altering decisions which then require a lot of repair.
So, how do we help our bodies to lessen the tension, rather than quickly letting it go? And what are the ramifications of letting that arrow fly?
Let’s start with the first question: how can we release tension mindfully? For me, the key has been learning how to focus on my breath and observe my thoughts without judgment. When I’m feeling stressed or anxious, I often find myself caught up in a spiral of negative thoughts and emotions. But by taking a few deep breaths and simply observing those thoughts without trying to change or control them, I’m able to create some distance and perspective. I can learn to trust myself, to trust that I am able to let go just a little and that the world will not come crashing down if I do. Sometimes, exhaling has to simply be a choice.
One of my favorite mindfulness techniques is a simple breathing exercise called the 4-7-8 breath. Here’s how it works:
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whooshing sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely and slowly, releasing all the air for a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
By slowing down my breath and focusing on the counts, I’m able to quiet my mind and release tension in my body. This technique has been a game-changer for me, especially when I’m feeling particularly stressed or anxious. By being aware of my breathing, I can feel where that tension lives in my body, and then can teach my body how to relax it. The beautiful thing about it is that I don’t have to be able to identify why it is there, just that I need to release it. Being less wound up allows me to approach conflict or challenging decisions with intent, and not simply as a rash reaction.
But what are the ramifications of letting that arrow fly? When we’re feeling stressed or angry, it’s easy to react impulsively and say or do things that we later regret. For me, it might mean that I react with unkind words or I might write an email and not wait to hit send (I am fortunate to have a friend and colleague who often reminds me to wait 24 hours before sending an angry email). It may mean that I run from an important conversation instead of staying in the room and working out a conflict. It may mean an impulsive purchase or actions that do not align with my highest values. But by learning how to release tension mindfully, we’re able to avoid those impulsive actions, as well as the negative consequences, and make more thoughtful, intentional decisions.
One of the biggest benefits of mindfulness, for me, has been the ability to create some space between my thoughts and my actions. Stress ignites my inner critic. And I have a tendency to believe my thoughts. I am learning, however, that my thoughts are not always telling me the truth. When I’m feeling stressed or angry, I tend to react immediately, without thinking through the consequences. But by practicing mindfulness, I am learning that I am able to pause and consider my options before I act.
Another benefit of releasing tension mindfully is that it allows us to tap into the power of that tension in a positive way, and to use it for good. Sometimes, the tension and stress that draw the bow are necessary to enact change, to fight injustice, or to motivate us to do something that could be good for us. By learning how to harness that energy and use it in a positive way, we’re able to accomplish great things while avoiding the negative consequences of impulsive behavior. Mindful practice helps me to determine when it is better to gradually bring down the tension, and when it is absolutely necessary to let that arrow fly.
So, how can you start incorporating the bow and arrow metaphor into your mindfulness practice? Here are a few tips:
- Start with the breath. As I mentioned earlier, focusing on your breath is a great way to release tension in your body and quiet your mind. Try practicing the 4-7-8 breath exercise or other breathing techniques to help you calm down when you’re feeling stressed or anxious.
- Observe your thoughts without judgment. When you’re feeling tense or stressed, it’s easy to get caught up in negative thoughts and emotions. But by simply observing those thoughts without judgment, you can create some distance and perspective, which can help you make more thoughtful, intentional decisions.
- Practice self-compassion. It’s important to be kind and gentle with yourself as you learn to release tension mindfully. Don’t beat yourself up if you find it difficult at first – it’s a skill that takes time and practice to develop. I am learning and practicing this skill daily.
- Embrace the power of tension. As I mentioned earlier, tension and stress can be a powerful force that can drive us towards our goals and aspirations. Instead of trying to eliminate all tension from your life, try to harness that energy and use it in a positive way. Being angered at the injustices of the world, the hatred I see people showing toward others simply because they don’t want to understand, the small-minded bigotry that results in some people feeling superior to others…these are reasons to let the power of tension propel us forward.
- Be patient and persistent. Mindfulness is a skill that takes time and practice to develop. Don’t expect to become an expert overnight – be patient with yourself and keep practicing.
Learning how to release tension mindfully, we can avoid negative consequences and make more thoughtful, intentional decisions. And by harnessing the power of tension in a positive way, we can accomplish great things while still taking care of ourselves and those around us. So take a deep breath, pick up your bow, and aim for the target with intention and purpose.
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