I used to get massages pretty regularly, but not at a set interval. Sometimes I’d go a several weeks, others it felt like I needed another one a week after my last massage. I would call and book an appointment when my body (especially my neck and upper back) were tight, stiff or sore. The variable frequency had nothing to do with the quality of the massage I received. It had everything to do with the amount of stress I was experiencing on a daily basis.
While driving home one day, I realized my neck and upper back are a fairly reliable barometer for my current stress level. During this drive, I wondered why our bodies
don’t come equipped with a dashboard to give us a status report and alert us of any troubles. Why they don’t come with owner’s manuals that tell us how to perform preventative maintenance and troubleshoot error codes.
But they do. Just like with our car’s dashboard, we have to learn to read our body’s signals. We have to write our own owner’s manual.
I started thinking about other indicators of my stress level. Areas of my live that demonstrate obvious changes when I’m more stressed.
My neck and upper back: when I’m stressed they get tight and sore
My mental bandwidth: in the car I listen to audiobooks and podcasts on professional development topics (leadership, business, resilience, psychology). When I’m stressed, I switch to novels or music because I don’t have the mental bandwidth to attend to a podcast or non-fiction book
My food choices: I generally eat whole foods prepared at home. When I’m stressed I go for more convenience foods because I feel too rushed to cook healthy meals.
This information populates my stress dashboard. I can check in anytime and increase my self-awareness on how stressed I am feeling. I can ask myself “what am I listening to in the car;” if I’m listening to my regular podcasts or audiobooks, I’m in the green zone. I’m good. If I’m listening to music, I’m probably more stressed than usual. This gives me key awareness that will let me intervene. I can insert more self-care, set better boundaries, and ask for more help. This information becomes my owner’s manual.
The owner’s manual for a car provides two key tracks of information. Preventative maintenance (this is how you operate the vehicle and how you take care of it so it keeps running well) and troubleshooting (these are the common errors and issues with the car and some basic fixes you can do, including when to take it to a mechanic).
Just like I should do a tune-up before a long drive, I can take proactive steps when I know I’m going to be expecting more stress than usual. When I worked as a Master Resilience Trainer for the Army, we taught 2 week long courses that were pretty intense for students and instructors. Long days, meetings, bringing your A game for all of it. Before each course would start, I would lay out my clothes for all ten days, batch cook food so my lunches and dinners were already prepared, and I would warn my friends and family that I’m going to drop the ball on things like cleaning and hanging out. I would also plan something fun and energizing over the weekend like a hike. These strategies wouldn’t change the fact I was going to experience stress from pushing myself hard for the two weeks, but they helped me survive it and not be so spent afterwards.
When your car sends you an alert signal that you don’t recognize, you look it up in the owner’s manual (I had to do this for the low tire pressure indicator). Then you take steps to correct what’s wrong. The earlier you respond to the indicator light, the better (putting air in my tire right away versus waiting a few days until I get around to it). When our stress dashboard indicator lights go off, we need to respond. Just like with our cars, early intervention makes for much better outcomes.
Now, when I notice my neck is starting to get stiff and sore, I do microdoses of progressive muscle relaxation focusing on my neck and upper back. That’s the quick fix like putting air in my tires. But then I need to pay attention. If I start taking care of my neck and upper back (where I hold tension when I’m stressed), I’m only addressing the symptom of a larger problem. That would be like continuing to fill my tires with air without addressing the hole in my tire causing it to continually leak air.
Without awareness, without checking in on how I’m doing, I don’t know to take the steps necessary to boost my stress resilience or to lower the stress I’m experiencing. The stress dashboard provides me with awareness, then provides me with a roadmap for preventative maintenance and troubleshooting myself.
What is an indicator of your stress level? What recovery strategy can you implement to manage it?