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Using Exercise to Relieve Stress: My 6-Step Strategy

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I have a client named Meghan who is a highly successful photographer. Meghan loves to exercise and especially enjoys the rejuvenated, energized way she feels after stretching. Her story shows how a seemingly unrelated issue can be dealt with during exercise by using questioning, retelling of your story, and exercise to “spread” skills from one area to another to create balance.

Step 1: Identify the Problem by Listening to Your Body

During a recent session with Meghan, she started telling me how tight and tense her neck was feeling, like the weight of the world was on her shoulders. When I dug a little deeper, Meghan told me about her highly critical and demanding boss. She rattled off a whole laundry list of bad feelings that were triggered around him: jittery, anxious, tense, edgy, agitated, distressed, paralyzed, afraid, and so on. These feelings were signals that wanted to be heard.

Step 2: Gain Clarity and Perspective

I pointed out that the negative experience was something Meghan could change: “You have the power to delete those negative thoughts and translate those feelings into positive, empowering emotions. It’s time to stop unnecessarily giving your boss your power. It’s time to take it back,” I told her. “Your feelings create loaded thoughts, but you have the choice to buy into them or not.”

I went on to explain that all human beings are made with minds that construct thoughts based on what we experience. Most people don’t know that they have the power to choose which thoughts to discard.

Step 3: Dissect the Issue

“But he’s always rapid­firing questions my way, and even though I can answer 95 percent of his questions, there’s still 5 percent that I can’t,” she countered.

I pointed out that 95 percent was quite high, and maybe she was being too hard on herself. Meghan agreed that most of the issues she couldn’t respond to related to photo shoots that hadn’t happened yet, so she couldn’t possibly have had the answers.

Step 4: Investigate Positive Possibilities and “Tell a New Story”

Next, I had Meghan investigate her boss’s intent. Meghan told me that being a photographer for a major paper in New York was an intensely deadline-driven job. After giving it some thought, she admitted that her boss was probably just trying to be efficient and that his brusque style wasn’t personal. “I guess he is just respecting how busy I am and trying to rapidly fire off questions to save time,” Meghan told me. We decided that this would be the “new story” she would adopt. Meghan responded that she could already feel her stress dissipating.

Step 5: Spread the Physical to the Mental

By this point you might be asking yourself, “What the heck does this have to do with exercise?” Remember I mentioned at the beginning of Meghan’s story how great she felt after stretching? This physical sensation can be “spread” to the mind-based experience she has with her boss.

Meghan and I agreed that the next time she met with her boss, she would schedule a few minutes before the meeting to do stretches.

Step 6: Follow Through

The following week, I checked in with Meghan to see how her new tools were working. “We had a meeting yesterday, and just as we discussed, I reminded myself that my boss’s intention was to not waste my time, to be efficient, so I took five minutes and did the stretches we agreed on, then I headed to his office. Bam! He fired off questions just like always, but I remained calm, cool, and confident throughout. I wasn’t distracted by my shoulders and neck tensing up, so it freed my mind. And I even heard myself offering suggestions and answers before he had thought to ask about them. I could tell he was impressed and pleased. And I even raised some issues he hadn’t thought to address,” she said.

Meghan had quickly learned to identify the relationship between body pain and mental tension, and she was able to shift her perspective by tapping into her mind’s ability to tell a new story. Meghan also learned to use stretching to relax mental tension and prevent future body tension. Incorporating these skills helped her increase her resilience and empowered her. At later sessions, we were able to move to more advanced work because we had resolved the true cause of her neck and shoulder issues.

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