“I DON’T HAVE TO ENJOY SOMETHING TO DERIVE JOY FROM IT:” USING PERCEPTION TO MANAGE STRESS

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” — Lena Horne

In my last (gigantic!) entry, I discussed cumulative stress, the differences between stress reduction and management and a preemptive tactic of stress management that I find highly effective:  absolute responsibility.  I briefly mentioned that I would be writing a future entry on the interactions between stress and perception.

While it is true that stress is cumulative (the body only sees stress as stress and reacts to total stress-load, no matter the source) there are some stressors that are negotiable and some that are not.  What I mean is that some sources of stress will effect us no matter what, and others will effect us depending upon our perception of them.  Things like lack of sleep, inflammatory foods, over or under exercise are non-negotiable stressors, they effect us no matter what.

Other sources of stress can be influenced by our perception of them.  For instance, our workload in school or at our jobs, our interpersonal relationships, emotional factors, competition etc. effect us depending upon our perception of them as stressors.  Take competition, as an example.  Personally, I really enjoy strength training.  For me, lifting is a stress reliever as a form of meditation; it is also philosophical, it allows me to physically explore ideas of strength.  It’s philosophical side and examples of my own progress are exciting.  I also enjoy being strong and able to fully engage with my life, feeling limitless, pushing to see what I’m capable of, seeing my health improve.  These are all the reasons I train, I have no real desire to compare my strength to anyone other than myself, I am not a competitive person by nature.  In fact, I find competition highly stressful.  I have competed in the past and found not only the competitive event, but all of the preparation and training that led up to the event, to be stressful and extremely unenjoyable.

Other people thrive on competition.  For them, training for the sake of training seems pointless, maybe boring.  They may feel that they need an endpoint like competition to motivate them in their training.  The approaching event infuses everything they do with feelings of anticipation and excitement.  Sure, there may be some nervousness on the actual day, but they mostly feel inspired and ready to compete.

So, is competition stressful?  Clearly, it depends.  And what it depends upon is perception.  Do you see competition as an opportunity to showcase your hard work, to measure yourself against others and clearly define the end result of your training, an opportunity for self-expression?  While the excitement, anticipation and event-day nerves will have an impact of stress on your system the positive benefits you gain will mitigate and possibly even reverse some of this impact.  If you’re like me, you perceive competition as stressful.  Even if you were to win, overall the effect of worrying, feelings of pressure and even resentment creeping into training sessions and robbing you of enjoyment will not be reversed by that win.

Clearly the intersections of eustress vs. distress and perceived stress can make the management of our recovery pretty complicated.  Even if you are a competition-motivated person you still have stress to manage (effect of training, recovery quality, after-effects of emotions from competition, etc.).  So, even if you enjoy one of the stressors that can be effected by perceptions, it can still come with a stress-load that needs to be managed.  But, as previously discussed in past entries on this blog, stress is unavoidable which is what makes stress management (as opposed to stress reduction) so important.  You could choose to not engage in competition, but competition is not the only perception-effected stressor.  Are you really going to choose to not engage in interpersonal relationships with family and friends, to not have a job or go to school, to never push outside of your comfort zone in any way?  I suppose you could, but if you do you’re probably not even reading this blog.

The key to the intersection of perception with stress is in a term I used earlier:  negotiable.  Things like lack of sleep, inflammatory foods, over or under exercise are non-negotiable stressors, they effect us no matter what.  However, these other stressors, the ones effected by perception, are negotiable.  We get to negotiate, to influence, to push back into the stress and actually have a relationship with it.  And what this negotiation can ultimately effect, possibly even more importantly than overall stress-load, isexperience.  Because, really, what else are we doing this for?  Why are we engaging with others?  Why are we going to work, to school?  Why are we competing?  Why are we pushing out of our comfort zones?  It is in order to fully engage with life, to have the experience of living, whatever that means to us.  Yes, there are parts that are not enjoyable, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value.  As I like to say about training, and other things that I hold dear:  I don’t have to enjoy something to derive joy from it.

The truly amazing thing about this negotiation is that it is, well, negotiable.  We have the power to change our perception of events and that can change the effects of that event in terms of stress and overall experience.  We can find ways to change our perception from negative to positive by exploring our opinions and preconceptions.

The last time that I competed in anything fitness related was actually in yoga.  Yeah, competitive yoga, it’s a thing.  I’m going to stop you before you make some sort of “is that about who can be the most…calm?” joke because I’ve heard them all already.  Just think “competitive gymnastics floor routine” if that helps you imagine it, because that’s basically what it is.  For me, my entry points into fitness were hiking, bicycling and yoga.  Yoga was the most difficult for me, so I pursued it unrelentingly (and this can tell you a lot about me as a person and what I find rewarding).  I eventually became a yoga teacher and then was encouraged to compete in order to in turn, encourage my students to compete and push their practices in a new direction.  I competed because of a feeling of obligation and so didn’t enjoy the process, which is not surprising.  For me, the pressure of competition colored the entire training process.  I could have found the pursuit of improving my postures and routine enjoyable, after all that was what I initially found so attractive about yoga practice, but the pressure felt external and I am, typically, an internally motivated person.

I was able to manage a small amount of negotiation on the day of the regional competition.  I had trained with two other male competitors for the three months prior (this was in Kentucky, competitions in places like California and NYC have many more competitors).  One of my fellow competitors was in much better shape than me, much more dedicated with a longer history of practice and much more invested in the competition in general.  I was certain he would win.  This was a “fact” that I just accepted.

On the day of the competition I was able to finally meet all the other male competitors.  This was in 2009, before I had begun strength training, my self-confidence and self-perception of my body were quite low.  I saw myself as a scrawny, skinny-fat, short little weakling and the appearance of all the other competitors just reinforced this for me.  In my mind, it was me vs. four tall, muscular, fit master yogis who would make me look like a total klutz in comparison.  And this is where my negotiation happened.  I got very excited because it suddenly didn’t “matter” how well I did.  I believed I was destined to lose and so no matter how hard I tried there was no escaping that fact.  And for me this freed me to just enjoy the event, to do my best and show what I was capable of because of my training and to not care about it being a competition because there was “no competition;” in my mind I had already lost.  I latched onto the idea that there were “ordinary yogis” like me in the audience, that they would see me, just this sort of chubby little dude out there in his tiny yoga shorts, trying his best and they might think, “well, if he can do it…”  What had been a stressful process full of resentment from my perception of obligation suddenly became my chance to inspire others by just being myself on stage.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget what it was like being on stage for those few minutes.  It sounds cliche, but it’s true:  time slowed down, everything got quiet, I was utterly enthralled by flow.  I had never before, and never since, felt that sort of focus in my practice.  It was just me, my sensations, my body, my communication with the audience.  Every moment I was giving a gift to anyone who wanted to receive it:  my practice and my message that anyone could do this, anyone could choose to prioritize their health through a slow and steady practice of movement.  I had been able to take something that had stressed me out and change my perception of it into this very calm, clear moment of beautiful expression.  It felt like just the right way for me to negotiate that moment into what I needed it to be.

And then, I won.

Really, I’m not kidding.  After we all did our routines and got on stage for the announcement of placing I heard names being rattled off for third place, then second and as I heard the names they didn’t make sense.  I was hearing names that I had assumed would gain 1st or 2nd place relegated to 2nd and 3rd.  There were only five of us up there.  I did a quick process of elimination in my head and then I felt my stomach drop and all I could think was, “No, no, no, this is notsupposed to happen…”  And then my name was called.

I slapped a stupid grin on my face and accepted my trophy when all I wanted to do was shake my head and refuse everything.  Do you think I’m crazy?  I won, I should’ve been happy, right?  But all I could was think was, “now I have to go to Nationals and do this all over again!  I’m going to look like an idiot there, I have to represent my home state and I’m going to fail and everyone is counting on me!”  It was pressure and obligation all over again!

(If you’re wondering how I ended up winning, it was because of technicalities.  Competitive yoga has lots of technical rules, like falling out of a posture, aka losing your balance, results in a half score, or speaking during your routine other than calling out the name of a posture takes off points.  The reason I didn’t know I was going to win was that I didn’t get to see the other routines where almost all the other, more experienced competitors fell out of at least one posture each.  I was the only one who didn’t fall, so I won.)

There are so many other ways I could have handled this, of course.  I could have thought, “Excellent!  Now I can bring the idea of the ‘ordinary yogi’ to Nationals, I can represent people like me who just want to do their best!”  That mental negotiation I made with the stress of competition was unfortunately short-lived.  The next four months were nothing but an escalating pile of anxiety for me.  I ate a lot of cookies.  Stress cookies, that’s also a thing.

As I got closer to Nationals I poured my focus into one fact, that a posture I had never in 4 previous years of practice been able to fully express was now possible due to my training for competition.  All I wanted was to be able to express it on stage that day, and I did.  I also fell out of my last posture but I didn’t care, I had at least done the one thing I wanted to do.  In fact, my teaching mentor came up to me as I left the stage and asked, “Why did you give up?”  (Competitors are allowed a second attempt, which they can call out if they fall and then take half points on the posture.  I chose to not take the second attempt.)  I answered, “‘I’m not giving in, I’m finished.’

I don’t regret the experience of competition at all, in fact, I think that day marked the end of obsessive pursuit in my yoga practice because I had done the thing that I wanted to do.  And that allowed me to move on to other things and continue evolving as a person and an athlete.  I’ve had enough similar experiences to know that I use pursuit as an end in itself and often the accomplishment of a goal is less important to me than the act of attempting it and the mannerin which I do so.

One of my favorite quotes about pursuit is this:  “The path is the goal.” — Mahatma Ghandi

In the end, I was able to squeeze a little joy out of something that otherwise caused me no end of stress.  But not enough to justify pursuing competition for competition’s sake, it’s just not my jam.  However, the process that I went through in that pursuit was highly educational for me.  It showed me how important having a “higher purpose” is to me.  I am motivated so much by the idea of inspiring others, but not much by being a “winner” or the center of attention.  Actually, I’m de-motivated by those things!  My close friends know that while I do an amazingly life-like impression of an extrovert capable of working a crowd, telling wild stories and cracking jokes, that there is nothing I love more than to simply be left alone or to spend quiet time with one or two good friends.

And while I can elect whether or not to participate in other competitions I don’t want to opt out of things like my relationships or pursuit of bettering myself as a trainer, coach and business owner, or trying to climb mountains or lift a certain amount of weight or do a handstand or any of the other crazy goals I come up with.  Pushing out of the boundaries of my comfort zone is terrifying and it is absolutely necessary for me to feel alive.  I am so thankful for the experience of that competition and how it showed me that a focus on the “higher purpose” is what can really drive me as well as make the pursuit manageable for me.  Keeping my eye on that prize helps me to mitigate the stress.  That’s my negotiation.  It’s how I change my perception of myself as being crushed by an event to becoming a conquerer of it.

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Thank you so much for reading!  If you have a similar experience of negotiation with stress to allow yourself a fuller experience of life I would love to hear about it, please drop a note in the comments below.

Elias Gross