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Play the long game

Mental fitness is like physical fitness. It requires time, commitment, repetition, and respect.

I have a chronic illness – depression and anxiety – for which I’ve been in treatment for 25 years, and expect I always will be. Managing stress levels is for me like monitoring blood sugar or pressure is for someone living with diabetes or a heart condition.

Mental illness, DNA-verified and witnessed in generations of artists, writers, activists, and inventors in my family, is my birthright; I was born vulnerable to it. My mother was an alcoholic. Her addiction created a family environment steeped in constant stress – fertile ground for my vulnerability to emerge and thrive. While I know those circumstances were beyond my control, I still struggle not to blame myself for not being stronger, tougher, and beyond the reach of that birthright.

When I realize I’m expecting this of myself — that inner voice a bit too shrill, berating me for being the problem causing any and all difficulty in relationships, work projects, you name it – I now know that life stressors are surging the banks and literally, getting the better of me. Toxic stress pushes us to our default settings, and self-blame is mine. It’s important to know yours. This requires self-awareness – which is not self-indulgent navel gazing. It’s hard work, and it’s the only way to recognize your stress triggers and tells before they land you in a world of hurt.

Imagine you’re a child, and you look up to your caregiver and say, “I’m hungry. May I have something to eat?” And the caregiver says, “No. You’re not hungry. Run along.” 

What do you feel? Hurt (“Why is she being mean to me?”).  Anxious (“When will I get to eat? Will I EVER get to eat?”). Angry (“I said something important! I even asked nicely, and she’s ignoring me!”).

It’s a good bet that your child-self might then say, “Fine. I won’t ask nicely anymore. I’ll throw a 1000-watt tantrum, so maybe then you’ll listen.” Invariably, it happens in the grocery checkout line, or in the airplane aisle when the drinks cart is coming … you get the idea.

Similarly, when your mind and body – so profoundly synced – are stressed, they will team up to make your conscious mind listen and take action. When all are working together, this is beautiful! You feel balanced and secure, capable of managing life’s hurdles. When you don’t feel this way, chances are you’re not acknowledging a source of toxic stress, much less your own self’s call for help. You’ve probably got a tantrum brewing. 

Mental fitness is like physical fitness. It requires time, commitment, repetition, and respect. To schlep heavy luggage, you build muscles and flexibility. To bear up under stress, you need to build mental strength and resilience. 

If the mind can’t articulate its distress, the body will tell: headaches, tight muscles, bad skin, upset tummy, cravings, you name it. Be aware. Not just to fix the ailment but to understand what your body is telling you that your mind cannot.

Take time. 

Rushing is stressful. Telling yourself you don’t have time to listen and protect yourself compounds stress, not just by letting it run rampant but by validating the idea that you should be – as if you even could be – invulnerable to needs and wants. Stop.

Pay attention.

Turn up the light and put on your specs. Examine your body, your thoughts, and your feelings with compassion (remember the hungry child). Meditate – and this doesn’t necessarily mean sitting still and counting breaths. I meditate while walking, or doing a task like folding laundry or sweeping the porch – anything that provides a soothing, repetitive motion to which I can calibrate my breath and just be.

Take note. 

Journal it, sketch it, sing it, argue it into your phone’s voice recorder. Study your thoughts, feelings, and symptoms, just like you did to learn new material in school. Imprint your findings in your mind and muscle memory. You’ll soon be able to anticipate stressful situations, recognize your stress tells, and take preventive care. Before long, you’ll do this without even thinking, mind and body working together to protect your peaceful balance.

Sweat.

Stress is toxic. Get it out. Blood pumping, lungs sucking, sweat rolling – physical exertion voids the crud, activates rejuvenating hormones, and promotes healing rest. Think of it like cleaning a wound or airing out a dark, moldy basement; if you don’t, the crud will fester. 

Make a change.

Whether your toxic stress comes from work, family, environment, or the kitchen sink, use your awareness findings to make changes that reduce its source or limit its access to you. Support yourself: leave encouraging notes in strategic places and set calendar reminders for your mental fitness exercise. You know how it’s easier to eat healthily if healthy snacks are available? And if they’re not and you’re stressed, you default to unhealthy snacks – even as you beat yourself up for doing so? It’s the same principle: make sure your mental equivalent to healthy snacks is ready for you.

Recover. Learning to manage stress takes energy, and the Catch 22 is that energy is often in short supply when stress management is most necessary. It’s as tough as any marathon. Acknowledge and take care of your stressed self – with kindness, not coddling. Be firm, yet gentle. Take naps. Spend time with animals. Take your time. Remember – you’re playing the long game.

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