When and Where and What

Today’s mindfulness class brings a double dose of journaling–the first about stress, of course, and the second about willpower (the two core themes of our class).

The first prompt asks, “What are the costs of avoiding stress?” Stress is often framed as a solely exhaustive and negative experience, but the reality is that stress is part of a healthy human experience. It primes the body for actions and gives life meaning.

And avoiding stress often produces greater, more unhealthy forms of stress.

McGonigal identities three realms of avoiding stress: missing opportunities because they may be too stressful, pursuing avoidant coping strategies, and limiting our futures.

The one I fall into most is unhealthy coping strategies. I don’t drink excessively and I don’t do recreational drugs, but I do spend a lot of time vegging out with a video game to avoid the stressful things in life. Sure, video games are fun in their own right, but I often use them as a means to an end–that end being a temporary escape from feeling stressed.

I haven’t fallen into the other two traps of avoiding stress recently, but I know in the past (before I found my hidden reserves of courage), there were certainly times I turned down opportunities because I thought I’d be too stressed too pursue them. And other times I took them on anyways and later learned the value of being able to say no.

The second journal ties in nicely with the first (aren’t my lesson plans just so wonderful?): It asks us to consider the times when our willpower reserves are highest and lowest throughout the day. This one, for me, is easy: they’re lowest when I get home.

I talked a bit about this yesterday, that at the end of the day I feel emotionally exhausted and physically drained. This is my daily low point. And usually I feel a second win whip through me around eight or nine, but sometimes I don’t.

On days when I get enough sleep, and can get to work early, I feel a boost of willpower finesse right at the start of the day, working to finish all those tasks I’ve got ahead of me before the day begins. It’s a good feeling. It’s a damn good feeling.

Here’s where my willpower challenge hits its headstone though: The time I most need to expend energy is also the time I have the least amount of it. I know our first feeling of fatigue is rarely a real indication of the willpower we have left on reserve, but it’s still a challenging time to push through it.

Yesterday I tried something new, though, that might help me make gains toward my goal: I got off the bus a stop before my own and walked the last block. It wasn’t far, but an extra three minutes of physical activity adds up. And I can always get off the bus two or three stops ahead of mine to work in that extra fitness time. Maybe I’ll still end up falling into the couch and mentally shutting down once I get inside, but if I can build in more physical activity before entering my home, that at least is a willing compromise.

One of our readings today talked about how willpower is a muscle, and like any other muscle, it can be trained to perform better, to build both stamina and strength.

This goal of mine is for the long-run, lifelong aspirations rather than weeklong mediations, so it’s okay if I start off slow. Right now I’m still in my first two years of teaching and I’m still in grad school. I don’t need to be so hard on myself. If starting slow is where I need to go, then it’s still a start, and starting something is better than nothing.

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