Guest Writer: How to Reduce Stress at Work

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Work can be stressful although it doesn’t have to be. Even black belts can’t be super calm and relaxed at work all the time. Once in a while I sneak in a little taekwondo practice in my office (yes I’ve done a spin kick in a dress). Other times I look for more traditional ways to bring a sense of calm to my workday.

I found these tips from the blog at ClickTime helpful and great reminders of simple things we can do to reduce workplace stress:
How to Reduce Stress at Work: 12 Strategies to Handle Stressful Careers

 

 

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How Martial Arts Can Help You Succeed in the Working World

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It’s either this or punch a hole through the monitor.

I’ve been in the corporate world for roughly 15 years, and much of that time has been spent in healthcare. Taekwondo has been a major influence in how I carry myself, how I handle stress, how I communicate, and how I prioritize.

You don’t need to be in martial arts to reap its benefits and kick ass at work because I’ve done the work for you! I’ve compiled a list of articles that can help you successfully handle the ups, downs, challenges, and changes of the working world. Enjoy!

Communication and Teamwork
Learning to Be Human
How Punching People Made Me More Empathetic
Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two
How I Would Teach a Taekwondo Class: a Parody

Change
The Poomsae Series: Koryo, or, Managing Change Like a Black Belt
Closed Door, Open Window: How Adversity Can Hone Adaptability
Can We Pause for a Change?
What’s Your Span of Control? The Answer May Surprise You!

Conflict and Stress
Sparring Multiple Partners
Guest Post: How Martial Arts Can Help Reduce Work-Related Stress
When Life Takes a Swing at You
Don’t Be So Defensive—Unless Somebody is Trying to Punch You in the Face

Leadership
To Lead or Not to Lead
What I’ve Learned from Coaching Children and Business Leaders
True North
The Jyo Kyo Neem’s On You: First Days as a Black Belt

Prioritization
It’s All Cookies and Crackers
In Defense of Complacency
Defending Your Work-Life Balance
Why I Chose to Pursue a Black Belt Instead of a PhD

A Surprising Way to Snap Out of It

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Sup, tornado! Wanna fight??

Sometimes, for reasons that make sense and just as often for reasons that don’t, I get sad. The feeling can overtake me in a flash. It’s not dissimilar from the Texas storms that mark the beginning of spring (and more pointedly, tornado season): suddenly the sky turns greyish-green, the tornado sirens are wailing, the rain starts pounding sideways, and the household lights flicker. It can be terrifying and paralyzing, and then just as quickly as it began, it’s over.

Recently I was hit with one of those emotional “rain squalls” and found myself hunched at my dining table with my head in my hand and tears streaming silently down my face.  It just happened, and while I knew it wasn’t for a rational reason, I gave in and let it take over for a few minutes. I knew it would pass, but it was agonizing.

Then I popped up out of the chair and did something I’ve never done before when I’ve been upset and overwhelmed:

I did a taekwondo form.

I stood in ready stance at one end of my living room, took a deep breath, and launched into what we call “Koryo One” at my dojang. This is a rarely practiced form that is different from the well-known and universal “Koryo” black belt form. At our school a student learns Koryo One as a bo dan in preparation to test for first degree black belt. To read more about “Koryo One” click here. To read more about the universal “Koryo,” click here.

Anyway, our Koryo One is a short but powerful and interesting form. It has eye punches and face smashes, and you can’t get much better than that in a form. Going through the form only took a minute or two, but I immediately felt better. The tears had dried, my breathing was steady, and my mind was calm. I decided to see what happened when I tried another one.

I did Koryo Two, or what is better known as the universal black belt form “Koryo,” and was especially forceful with the knee breaks and throat grabs. I played around with the timing and tried to incorporate some of the things I’d been tweaking earlier in the week in class.

Not bad. I was feeling a little better.

I kept going through a short list of my favorite forms that are especially strong and beautiful: Keumgang (yes, really, after all the confusion of learning, it I love it), Palgwe Chil Jang, and Palgwe Sah Jang.

As I was going through the forms I thought about the advice I had given some younger students the night before: “Make it look powerful. Don’t just walk through it; you’re in a fight. Make it POP!” I remembered how I demonstrated power to the students: as I was glaring at them out of the corner of my eye to make sure they paid attention, I lunged forward into a front stance and snapped my fists forward into a double gut punch. I let out a sharp exhale and imagined clocking someone in the sides. POP!

When my emotions tried to take over again, I fought harder against my invisible enemy. My blocks were strong, my kicks were sharp, and my transitions were smooth. I was light on my feet (mostly so I wouldn’t disturb my downstairs neighbors) and highly alert. There was no feeling of terror or paralysis as long as I was kicking my mind’s butt. The flash flood was over.

It felt appropriate to end my little cool-down session with Palgwe Pal Jang, a form that according to taekwondo tradition, symbolizes a return to earth and a sensation of becoming grounded. By the time I finished my set I even had a little smile on my face.

I stood still for a moment as my breathing slowed and realized that my mind was completely quiet. I didn’t feel drained as one might after a good long crying session. I felt more that I was cleansed. Out of curiosity I tried to muster up the stress and anxiety I had been feeling earlier, and I simply couldn’t. My mind was too quiet and empty to put forth the effort.

We do not have to become terrified or paralyzed when feelings of sadness, anger, stress, or fear loom over us like a storm cloud. We can observe the emotions for what they are (a passing storm), and let the rain wash through us as we stand strong. I regained my power through my forms. For others it might be prayer, meditation, a deep breath, or a long run that helps them refocus and regain a sense of calm. Whatever it is, find what grounds you, and stand strong.

En Garde!

“Hold back, slow down,” Grandmaster said when I threw an axe kick at a young bo dan during a sparring class a few months ago. The command to fight had barely dissipated and I thought I’d try something different–jump in aggressively and take the offense. “He’s high-ranking. You don’t know what he’s going to do. Watch him and then respond.” That bit of coaching changed my entire outlook. The kid still got in some nice hits, but I felt much more relaxed and calm during the match.

Taekwondo is not about going out and looking for a fight. In fact, sparring is the only time that is officially sanctioned for us to deliberately beat the daylights out of each other. On the street you don’t go around bragging about your black belt or goading the loud guy at the bar into fisticuffs. If you come across someone bragging about their fighting skills there’s a strong probability that they’re the biggest chicken in the room. Your confidence and calm demeanor in the face of conflict should speak for itself. If it gets physical then you have every right to defend yourself. May I suggest an elbow to the side of the head?

The same calm cool mindset should be adapted to how we handle interpersonal conflict. What usually happens, though, when the adrenaline is rushing and our higher mental functions shut down, is pure lizard brain panic.
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“My hackles are up…but in a gentle positive way,” I assured a coworker after I sent a cautiously-worded and thorough response to some changes that popped out from around a corner. (Don’t they always tend to do that?) Over the years I have learned through trial and error and a few burns and scrapes to be protective of myself, my time, my sanity, and my limits.  When a mandate is handed down from upper leadership in the office I counter with questions and logistics, albeit respectfully. In my personal life I object when I am met with disrespectful or questionable comments about my personality, looks, or way of doing things. I speak softly and infrequently, but I am a force to be reckoned with.

It hasn’t always been like that.

Sometimes I strike before the first blow has been dealt. Since childhood I was a doormat, weakly protesting ridiculing and insults with frantic tears and desperate screams long after the other person’s proverbial foot was squarely planted on my neck. I suffered through more than one verbally and emotionally abusive relationship. I let friends bully me, partially because I could do nothing more than be a docile cow, and partially because in the end I couldn’t care less about salvaging those friendships so I didn’t put forth the effort to have a crucial conversation. At work I snarked and protested behind backs but never addressed the problems face-first. When offered the chance to voice my concerns I shut down and my anger continued to simmer.  People I trusted and wanted to please punched me the hardest. I didn’t think I deserved better.

It took many years to start respecting and loving myself enough to realize that the way I was being treated wasn’t cool, and the only one who was going to save me was myself. I’m still getting my sea legs with this whole confidence thing, though. Sometimes I take feedback as a fight to be picked. Sometimes I don’t recognize that an insult or insensitive comment is about that person’s insecurity and unhappiness, not a reflection of my supposed poor performance as a human being. Sometimes I unleash a tornado when only a gentle yet firm breeze is required. Sometimes I still revert to being the trampled on, ridiculed helpless victim. It’s very difficult to unravel the deeply entrenched habit of letting my mind run wild with conflict fantasies, which is a really unpleasant and unproductive way to pass the time. Last week I was caught off-guard with some heavy-duty topics in my personal life that deserved more time than the 10 minutes I had before I had to leave for work. I had a difficult time processing them throughout the day, vascilating among bits of silent rage, wounded victimhood, and wobbly but defiant and scrappy self-assurance that I was indeed just as awesome as I’d kept telling myself I was. I couldn’t tell if it was a fatal blow being dealt or just an invitation to engage in discussion. In the past I have reacted so swiftly that the damage could not be undone. I get paid to talk with people about conflict management and still struggle with it on a personal level. Physician, heal thyself.

Am I so worried about getting hit that I snap in the winds of change?

“Relax!!” an instructor called out during a more recent sparring class. I was sparring with another instructor, a fourth degree black belt who was intent on pushing my limits but not going past the level he thought I could handle. There was nothing to worry about. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to perform well and use all the technique he had taught me or was more concerned about avoiding a nasty kick to the ribs. (I did avoid those and have the forearm bruises to prove it). It was too much for my lizard brain to handle. I must have been pretty tense for my instructor to pick up on my stressed-out body language as I look like a  marshmallow in my sparring gear. I consciously loosened my shoulders and tried to be a little more mindful during the rest of the match. While you don’t want to be slack during sparring (really folks, hold your hands up; look at what happened to Anderson Silva), it is possible to be fluid and relaxed while clocking someone. Sparring is a dance. It’s a two-sided conversation. The trick is to listen. It took concerted effort to relax, though, and made me wonder how often we’re walking through life in a metaphorical sparring stance, anticipating an attack from everyone who crosses our path.

Is the hand extended towards us balled in a fist or offering an olive branch? Are we so blinded by our assumptions and past experiences that we can’t tell the difference? Can we destroy entire relationships in the blink of an eye? Is there hope that we can rewire our brains to relax, thoughtfully assess the situation, and respond rather than react? That can make all the difference in the outcome.

Here’s a really advanced yoga posture that will not only help you relax but remain confident in the face of adversity:
Raise the left corner of your mouth.
Now raise the right corner of your mouth.
Hold and breathe.
🙂