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How to Control Stress: Awareness, Assessment and Action

Posted Feb 19 2009 5:42pm

I recently began taking a self-defense class. It’s a positive step, but probably would have been much more empowering when I was younger.

Today I feel mostly like an empowered human being, except for the fact I’m physically small and weak compared to most other people. Being 5′ tall, relatively petite and female, I’ve taken a lot of shit from people over the years, and was even once attacked by a clerk at a gas station in a dispute over a routine smog check. Ironically this was in the suburbs in Campbell, and in the crime-ridden city I now live in, I’ve only met friendly and helpful people.

At the time of the attack, my emotions made it harder to take action, to get myself to a self-defense class or even hire a lawyer. I was outraged, terrified, and felt helpless. At the time I didn’t even sue my attacker because the whole situation upset me so much that I just wanted to get away from it and the risk involved. I dropped the issue and took the route of least resistance (escape and avoidance), but maybe it wasn’t the healthiest response.

But today I’m ready to stop taking crap from anyone and step up to the plate, get empowered and do what I need to do to stay safe and happy. Some of my change in attitude comes from being an adult, going through the daily steps of living alone and taking care of myself–making that routine– and also from being less emotional about whatever may come my way in general. If I’d gone to self defense right after the attack, that event would have been my motivator; now I come at the lessons with no ulterior motive or message in mind, just a desire to grow.

I didn’t expect any work-related or health-related epiphanies out of taking a 4-week basic self-defense class, but it is taught by a martial arts instructor (of jujitsu), so there is a certain amount of philosophy about fear vs. empowerment involved. His goal is to make us feel that we don’t have to be afraid, or stressed out about any danger involved.  Instead, we have to be prepared to assess the situation and do something–anything–to stay safe.

This comes in three steps all bundled into one handy clever phrase:

Awareness — Assessment — Action

This isn’t just a martial arts lesson though — these steps can be applied to everything in life, from getting fit, to doing a job, to just staying healthy. After thinking about each step, I also realized it’s important to learn how to keep these three steps in balance.

For example, someone like me who is worried about always having enough information and the right resources before doing anything will hesitate before taking action. This can lead to not doing a job quickly enough, or not doing something in time to solve a problem. It can lead to reluctance, shyness, and procrastination, all of which I suffer from.

On the other hand, someone opposite of me who skips the middle step will be impulsive and may not gather enough information about a situation to take the right action. He could make a bad situation even worse, or just make himself (or herself) look bad.

So, following this model relies on both decent amounts of information and decent amounts of instinct. In the end, the goal is to stay aware of our surroundings, gather the information we need and think about a strategy for action, and then trust ourselves and make a move. If it’s the wrong move, why then, try again.

Self-defense in itself — the art of physically reacting to danger — is also a good model for learning to cope with other, mental challenges in life. In a physically dangerous situation, you have to react quickly, using part instinct and part knowledge to get it done. We are physical creatures before we are mental creatures. Yet so many aspects of our lives rely on mental acumen and activity, that sometimes we lose sight of our physical needs or limitations.

My point is that the key to reacting to stress, staying healthy and managing your life is to find a balance, and to follow these three steps: to balance awareness, assessment and action. To balance the mental and physical. And to balance the physical versus the emotional responses that we have.

Applied to computer-related injuries, here’s what we can do:

  • Awareness - Staying aware of our bodies even while we’re doing primarily mental tasks. Recognize what causes problems and what relieves the problems.
  • Assessment — Researching and learn more about our bodies, and the causes and treatments for any discomfort or pain.
  • Action — Treating and healing pain or discomfort. This can mean finding a new ergonomic mouse, or starting a regular fitness regimen, or seeking a doctor’s treatment.  Then, after the pain stops, it’s time for health maintenance — taking steps to restore fitness, health, and happiness.

The other night in class, as we were learning different methods for kicking attackers, I asked: “What do you do if you hit or kick someone and it doesn’t work?”

The answer was, “Kick or hit them again. Keep yelling. Do what you can.”

The same answer applies to stress, health and fitness. If one thing doesn’t work, keep trying, or try something different. You can always start the process over — go back to assessing the situation, and taking a different action. In reality, the three steps often go hand in hand, since situations are constantly fluid and changing.  

Your body and health are in your hands.  So do what you need to do, and take good care of them.

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