Monday, 27 April 2015

Stress, how to deal with it, and what I learned about it through martial arts

Divorce, moving house and the death of a loved one, not necessarily in that order, are thought to be the most stressful things that can happen to us.  What about smaller stresses, though?  The confrontation with the driver of the other car, the argument with your loved one and problems at work, make up just a part of your day.  Surely their effect on our stress levels will be minimal?

The small stresses can be much worse, in a way.  We may be unaware of the cumulative effect of the many minor issues which face us each day, and yet we find ourselves irritable or easily upset by things which, in the grand scheme of things, shouldn't matter.  These are the emotional indicators of accumulated stress.

Anyone who has a career or hobby that requires an awareness of their body - a dancer, for example - will develop that awareness.  I have no doubt that those who attend yoga or pilates classes will be similarly attuned to external and internal physiological cues.  I hesitate to mention martial arts, but let's accept that martial artists are similarly concerned with movement, and will necessarily be in tune with their physiology to some extent.

Every Thursday, I would attend the jujitsu class.  The twenty five mile journey to the leisure centre, mostly on unlit country roads, had a meditative quality.  Nevertheless, the stresses of the day, or indeed the week, were still there when I arrived at the class.  I was dimly aware of the effects of the stress, though I didn't pay it much attention.  The nature of the jujitsu class made it possible for me, if I was wound tightly enough, to become an immovable object or simply overpower a training partner.  I was using stress to my advantage.  At the end of the class, I was wound considerably less tight, but the process of accumulating emotional tension, until I could get back to the class the following week, would start all over again.

Eventually, the strain told.  I started to realise that the way I felt after each jujitsu class should be my default mode, rather than feeling constantly uptight.  I started to learn methods of stress relief, and came to the conclusion that slowing down, meditating and practising mindfulness were particularly effective.

Through jujitsu, I learned that physical exertion is also key to reducing stress.  The fight or flight response, often mentioned in connection with heightened anxiety, is not always appropriate.  Trouble at work, for example, must not be resolved by attacking a colleague or running from the building.  The stress hormones - adrenaline, cortisol, homocysteine and others - prepare us for those reactions, and regular exercise is a more acceptable way to reduce their effects.

I sometimes don't spend as much time managing my stress levels as I should, or I've had a particularly difficult day or week.  Wing chun is somewhat different from jujitsu, and is made much more difficult by the presence of tension.  By the time I recognise the signs, however, I am already taking part in the class.  The first sign is that even novices are able to take pot shots at me.  As the class draws on, I realise that my thinking has become clouded, and I'm not really able to take in much of anything that is said.  In the worst cases, as happened this week, my difficulty with being in a room with more than about three other people makes an unwelcome return.

Apologies if I sound too much like a psychology student, but I have, unfortunately, attained a programmed conditioned response to martial arts classes, especially when being tested in that environment, and that response is muscular tension.

Given that I usually arrive early at the class, it is possible for me to do some chi kung, yoga or even meditation before the class begins.  I remember that one of the older students in the class used to do tai chi before the class began, and I understand that now.  Hopefully, I can be more effective, and more consistent, in the future.

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