How to Avoid Building Up Bodily Tension and Consistently Feel Relaxed
“The stiffest tree is readiest for the ax.” -Bruce Lee
A few years ago, I was working as a telemarketer. I’d make around 250 calls a day to angry, volatile strangers who would consistently yell at me, cuss me out, and berate me for bothering them.
I was drinking 6–8 cups of coffee every workday (then slugging 2–3 drinks after work to calm down). I would wake up sweating in a panic in the middle of night. Every day at work felt like I was walking around with a gigantic black, nasty cannonball of stress in my gut.
I’d see my therapist, and he’d ask me how work was going. I’d say how hard it was to keep it all together. He would sometimes interrupt me and ask why my shoulders suddenly tensed, or why my hands were suddenly balled into fists. I’d look down in surprise and tell him I hadn’t even noticed.
Here’s an interesting fact about nature: if a gazelle successfully escapes from a hungry cheetah, it doesn’t just trot back to its normal life and pick up right where it left off. No, the gazelle will spend up to an hour after the chase in a trance-like state, swaying back and forth, eyes rolling, mouth open, their body releasing the explosion of sheer adrenaline from running for their lives.
After that, the gazelle is fine. They rejoin the herd as if nothing happened.
Humans respond very differently after incredibly stressful situations. What do you after a stern lecture from your boss about your mediocre performance? Or after a near car crash? What do you do after a public humiliation or an intimidating confrontation?
Most people just go back to what they were doing without releasing any of the tension. All that jaw-clenching fear, white-knuckle adrenaline, energy, and anxiety isn’t released; it stays in the body, and is always expressed in constant bodily tension.
Sadly, this is how many people live their lives. They experience constant extreme stress, but they hardly notice it. They rarely release it in productive ways (bingeing on TV and alcohol don’t count). They walk around with the world on their shoulders, pretending everything is fine.
I still find myself stressed out and anxious, sometimes incredibly so. I still walk around with tense shoulders and a flexed stomach without realizing it.
But through intensive therapy, I’ve learned how to calm down, and stay calm. I can relax more easily and fully. Difficult conversations with intimidating people don’t leave me a frayed bundle of nerves (usually). I know how to release extreme stress and go back to my day — something I could never do before.
Here’s how to avoid building up bodily stress and consistently relax more.
How to Avoid the #1 Body Stressor
“The main way you generate bodily tension is by turning attention back on yourself in self-concern, curling yourself up so tightly that you feel all knotted up.” -David Deida
A preoccupation with the self is a guarantee to create bodily stress and anxiety.
I’m not talking about healthy self-care or introspective reflections on your life; I mean obsessive worrying and endless thinking on the problems in your life.
This bodily stressor is often caused by:
- Obsessing about your competition (instead of your own progress)
- Focusing on avoiding worst-case scenarios (instead of seeking best-case ones)
- Making decisions based on fear (instead of on opportunity)
- Constant self-loathing (instead of self-love)
I’ve done all these. I still do at times.
For instance: the other day, I went tuna fishing for the first time. I went out on a big boat with my father-in-law and his expert sportfishing friends.
We caught several big tuna, yellowfin, and rockfish. I’d been lake fishing before, catching little 3–5lb trout; these tuna were 80lbs. The rods were different and foreign to me. In the middle of waiting for a small rockfish to bite, I realized my knuckles were white from griping the rod so tightly.
I didn’t want to mess up — lose the fish, look stupid, or (god forbid) accidentally drop the expensive rod in the ocean! I was tense, nervous, and more focused on not messing up.
That scenario reflects how many people live their life — afraid, tense, and terrified of messing up. So they go through life often unaware of how tense and coiled-up they are.
During a counseling session with my therapist, he taught me a lesson I’d never forget. There’s fight and flight, but there’s also freeze. This is how someone reacts when they’re too scared to even move.
That described me for most of my life. I was terrified of fighting against my bullies and aggressors, and too afraid to even run. So I’d freeze. I’d constantly be flexing my abs, haunching my shoulders, and tensing my jaw. Constantly.
The ancient stoic philosopher Seneca once wrote:
“A man who suffers before it is necessary, suffers more than is necessary.”
Your worrying is literally killing you. All this unreleased bodily stress negatively influences your relationships, quality of work, sleep, health, mood, and attitude.
The solution? Stop worrying about yourself and focus on helping others instead.
What you focus on, magnifies. You attract what you are.
You’ll Never Win the Comparison Game. Do This Instead.
“Most people think in terms of ‘I have to do what my colleague/neighbor/family member is doing’ instead of ‘I have to do what’s best for me.’” -Grant Cardone
Every moment you spend being jealous is a moment wasted.
We don’t have much time in this world. The most successful and renowned individuals have often commented later in life how surprisingly fast it all went.
You don’t have time to be jealous.
If you constantly look to the actions of others, you rarely act like yourself. Your values and behavior have a harder time aligning, making you unhappy and empty.
In the words of author Ryan Holiday:
“Ignore what other people are doing. Ignore what’s going on around you. There is no competition. There is no objective benchmark to hit. There is simply the best you can do — that’s all that matters.”
Instead of wasting away in mediocrity playing the comparison game, choose to spend that time working on yourself instead.
I once heard being jealous and resentful is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I thought that was an eerily accurate description.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard on this topic was four simple words:
“Stay in your lane.”
It doesn’t matter how much faster they’re going. It doesn’t matter how much faster you’re going. If you keep looking at other lanes, you’re going to crash.
Focus on you. Learn all you can. Experiment, fail, discover what works.
Soon, you’ll build momentum. And one day, you’ll look around you, and marvel at just how damn fast you’re going.
As long as you’re trying to be something for the sake of someone else, you’ll never be able to fully relax.
Cut out jealousy. Spend all your spare time learning and growing.
“If your lifestyle does not add to your healing, it will subtract from it.” -Benjamin Foley
Don’t Be So Emotionally Rigid. Be Flexible and Gracious With Yourself.
“It would be a great violation of humanness to be rigidly perfect in conduct. The repressive vigilance such white-knuckling requires does not signify an achievement but a self-defacement.” -David Richo, How to Be an Adult
The world is not black-and-white. Neither are you. You are a complex being, existing with a full spectrum of simultaneous emotions and truths at every moment.
Most people think in terms of a single judgement:
- I am depressed
- I am a great father
- I’m an introvert
- I’m a piece of crap
But this emotional rigidity doesn’t integrate the full spectrum of who you are. These single judgements don’t allow the full truth. You are many things. Once you realize this, the constant stream of stress from attempting to sustain an unsustainable reality will dry up.
One of the most powerful truths I learned from my many years of counseling was that the world isn’t black-and-white, and neither am I. The world is full of gray areas that incorporate both.
Instead of single judgements, phrase your life like this:
- I am depressed, but I’m still a loving, caring friend working through a difficult emotional problem
- I am a great father in a lot of ways, but there are also times when I am controlling and selfish with my kids
- I am an introvert, but sometimes I’m a huge extrovert
- I feel like a piece of crap, but I’m also a reliable, trustworthy friend and colleague
You can be both. Emotional rigidity and the white-knuckling that comes from trying to be perfect isn’t an achievement, it’s a tragedy.
In a letter to his friend, Bruce Lee wrote:
“Alive, a man is supple, soft; in death, unbending rigor. All creatures, grass and trees, alive and plastic, are pliant, too, and in death all feeble and dry. Unbending rigor is the mate of death, and yielding softness, the company of life.”
Unbending rigor resembles death and stress; fluidity and flexibility resemble a healthy body. Embrace your flexibility and full spectrum of emotions, and you reduce stress mightily.
“What kills a soul? Exhaustion, secret-keeping, image management. And what brings a soul back from the dead? Honesty, connection, grace.” -Shauna Niequist
You don’t need to work in telemarketing to build on extreme bodily tension. You don’t need to be a surgeon or stockbroker or police officer.
All you need to do is continue living the toxic way most people do — obsessing over image management, your self, and pleasing others instead of doing what you need to do for your own goals.
It’s deceptively easy to become a hypochondriac for your own emotional well-being. Most people are severely ill-equipped to deal with the extreme stress they constantly experience. It’s no wonder recreational drugs, alcohol abuse, TV bingeing, and other mind-numbing activities have become so prevalent recently.
Living a life where you constantly have to fight with yourself about your choices, actions, and behaviors is incredibly exhausting.
If you want to reduce extreme bodily stress and consistently feel relaxed, focus on doing what you need to do, not what others want. Embrace your imperfections and gray area. This way, you avoid falling in the endless rat-race of comparison and perfection most people are in.
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