This may seem a bit obvious, but shoulders do not make great accessories. Yet many people practically wear them as earrings on a daily basis. Are you one of them? By halfway through the day, are your shoulders halfway to your ears? If so, you’re not alone. Unless your work surface is too high, it’s usually not your posture or your ergonomics that’s causing your shoulders to act as though they are elevators with a stuck “up” button; it’s stress. Yes, stress. If you’re like many Americans, you’re more stressed than you realize; even if you realize that you’re really, really stressed. This is because the “stress baseline” gets reset when we undergo prolonged or extreme periods of stress – the body acts the same, but we interpret it differently. My guess (and this is just a wild-although-somewhat-educated, stab in the dark kind of guess, mind you) is that without this reset baseline we’d all be rocking in a corner somewhere.
You see, while your brain compartmentalizes your stress into handy categories like “good stress”, “bad stress”, “mental stress”, “emotional stress”, “family stress”, “work stress”, etc., your body interprets all stress as though it’s the most dangerous kind of stress, a physical threat. This kicks off a whole chain reaction of physical adaptations to keep you safe while you either fight or flee from the proverbial sabre-toothed tiger. Its first order of business is to protect the most vulnerable area of your body – the soft squishy area at the front of your neck that carries the blood to and from your brain. It does this by raising your shoulders, bringing them forward, and turtling you head toward your body.
The problem with this great protective mechanism is that in this day and age most stress is decidedly not a physical threat. Usually it’s your boss, coworkers, fellow commuters, kids, spouse, or yourself that are causing all your stress.
Q: So what’s a body to do?
A: Monitor the situation!
What I mean is this; check in with your shoulders periodically throughout the day, just to see where they are. If they’re creeping toward your ears, take a deep breath and let as much tension out of your shoulders as possible on the exhale and consciously lower them as much as you’re able. Many people find it helpful at the beginning to set a timer/alarm on their cell phone, or to create an event or appointment in their scheduling software like Outlook as a reminder to check in. Every 3 hours is a good frequency to start with but once you get used to checking in that often, up it every 2 hours, then finally every hour. When ever you begin to check in on a regular basis before your reminder goes off, you know you’re ready to decrease the time between check ins. At some point, you’ll find yourself naturally checking in without the need for a reminder. You may even find yourself checking in more often when your stress level is higher. Eventually you’ll get to a point where you’ll notice when your shoulders begin their northward migration, but that will take a very long time; years, actually.
Now, I know you’re thinking, “years? What do you mean years?!?!” Well, I mean years. I know you’re probably tempted to start by setting your Outlook to hourly reminders, right? Well, before you do that, hear me out as to why you shouldn’t. First, you didn’t just become subject to stress, I’m sure. You’ve been dealing with stress for years, possibly decades. Second, your shoulders probably didn’t just move into that apartment at ear level, did they? That move is usually a gradual one. Thirdly, I’m talking about monitoring and responding to a basic instinctual response. It takes a while to train yourself to even notice such a basic response, let alone respond to it. It may take years to master, but you’ll feel the benefits well before that. I promise.
True and lasting change is only achieved by small changes over time. If you go from never checking in to checking in every hour, it won’t be long before you put off or ignore a reminder, then another one and another one. Pretty soon, you’ll give it all up as a bad job and think that it doesn’t work or is too intrusive to your day. Well, you lose the intrusiveness by starting slowly and working your way up to hourly reminders. Pretty sneaky, huh?? When you actually do the check-ins the way you’re supposed to, it really does work. You’ll see small improvements over time but they will add up to big results in the end. Not only will your shoulders eventually be down where they belong most of the time, you’ll also gain a greater understanding of your stress level and stressors. Pretty nifty, eh?
So what are you waiting for? Check in with your shoulders right now, relax them, and then set your timer for 3 hours and do a recheck. If you want to help the process along, getting regular massage to your neck and shoulders will remind you how your shoulders feel when they’re down where they belong.
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