Monday mornings…not the most favorite time of the week judging by most start-of-the-week groans. I’m pretty indifferent; “It is what it is,” as they say. I had done my weekly preparation the day before; cleaning up and organizing my email box for a new week’s onslaught, preparing lunch and planning meals for the evenings, reviewing calendar commitments, setting out and ironing outfits so I could jump out of bed in the early mornings to bang out some emails and nearly simultaneously get ready for my day before my toddler awoke. Most days of the week are carbon copies of the others, and on a particular Monday, it was going as usual until, within an hour after awakening, a spark flared in my inbox and it seemed to ignite situation after situation and eventually, the firefighting was in full effect before I even arrived at the office. It was not even 9am and I felt mentally and physically exhausted.
During my morning commute, I was listening to the epilogue of the audio version of The Hunger Games “Mockingjay” (because reading an actual book or even an eBook doesn’t have much of a nook in my lifestyle). I had already figured the series would end as I had expected, and in the final minutes of the audio book, I felt a sense of annoyance in the complete emotional confusion and desperation of the main character, Katniss. After hours of listening to the series, I was left dwelling on Katniss as an emotional head case who couldn’t decipher up from down or reality from woeful dreamstate. The strength of her reputation throughout the series was coming down to a few minutes of character-defining legacy in that epilogue. I reminded myself that she had only been 17 years old and serving as the central symbol of a futuristic nation’s mutilating rebellion, so what did I think she was capable of?
While I had figuratively donned my own helmet, boots and oxygen mask for a Monday of firefighting, I knew that running from these fires was not an option, so how did I want to go about facing them? Because at that moment, I myself was feeling like an emotional basket case fuming and ranting in the driver’s seat of my car. I was ready to wallow in my misery because I was sure I could get some empathizers to feel my pain of having to solve other people’s problems, yet again! Considering that I dislike pity parties thrown for me, wallowing was out. What else? Maybe finishing the Hunger Games at on Monday morning was a most appropriate way to begin the week because right then and there I was relating to the emotional drowning of Katniss, reminded that was not her theme throughout the previous 47 hours of the series. Nor was it how I wanted to emote or impress myself onto others. I quickly tugged my headspace back into reality; I had a choice to make.
In martial arts, we often make reference to the “fight or flight” syndrome. It’s a physiological reaction that occurs when one feels threatened or is attacked. A whole bunch of things start to happen upon this realization: pace of breath quickens or seems to stop, sweat ensues, muscles tighten as if they are frozen, the eyes may narrow to tunnel vision or eyesight blurs. With the adrenaline pumping, the individual will either freeze (flight) or take action (fight) to deal with the situation. It’s why some people go mute when verbally attacked while others scream back going “toe-to-toe.” The person being attacked has to be aware enough of these physiological signals in order to make a choice for himself to fight or flee, to move them beyond this stress reaction if he wants to “save himself.”
Even in the most mundane situations, this fight or flight choice is presented to us as a choice to be made when it comes to our behavior. When things don’t go as planned, it is a sure-fire way to test one’s emotional mettle. When I jerked my mental headspace away from considering how to form a misery-loves-company team, I had opted to fight; to maintain collectedness about myself and my state of emotions. Inside my brain, I fought throughout the day. I did this by imagining myself in a pleasant place, like being on my yoga mat, in a warm room, finding grace in stillness, focusing on even breath, growing stronger, finding relaxation. I sought an evenness and non-reactive stance. Some moments were completely indicative of a Bikram class. The temperature was hot and I was pushing and pulling myself as if in standing half-moon. Push your hip out! Pull your shoulder back! Lift out of your ribs! Drop your shoulders! And Push! Push! Push! Whew! I was practicing my arts in action, within the sphere of my ethereal capacity. There it was again; an acknowledgement of choice. I pulled myself back to center. Maintain your cool, give consistent direction and advice. Each moment for the remainder of my day met my non-reaction. Moments of anger, anxiety and frustration fell flat against the wall of my breath, stillness, mindfulness, and sound approach. The moments when I rely upon my yin (yoga) and yang (martial arts) training always reward me greatly. There is an innate peace within each of us, and if we acknowledge it, it reminds us that we have everything we need right within us.
Ultimately my opinion about Katniss changed, after I marched myself to the dojo an hour before teaching class in order to release the valve on my brain penting up the day’s emotional clutter. The heart needs this type of adrenaline pumped through it too, and releasing endorphins brings us back to our more normal selves. When I finally reflected upon the chain of events that Monday, I went back to Katniss. Her story tells of courage in making choices, how her judgments of others, including herself, have a profound effect in the way she chose to live and risk her life. When you are faced with what seems like an unbearable set of issues, or you are threatened or attacked, know that you are not victim to the circumstances, that the choice lies right within you.
Quick tips for preparing your fight or flight response:
– Acknowledge the physiological changes in your breath, saliva, pulse, stomach, eyes, feeling on your skin and in your muscles. What’s changed?
– What is your gut telling you? Whether you can decipher or analyze a situation quickly or not, your gut is steering you towards making a particular decision.
– Work out. Even a 5 minute heart pumper will get your system to prepare for the big stuff when it happens by releasing energy, regulating breath and clearing your head space.
– Repeat a word or mantra to relax the impacts of stress.
– Breathe. Focus on your breath – lengthening your inhalations and exhalations, how the breath moves into your body, into your lungs, and how it exits the body.