Tension headaches are crummy, annoying byproducts of stress, and I had one nearly all day Friday.
I’m back in Washington, DC again — the second time in about three weeks. It’s lovely. The weather has been mostly pleasant. The problem, however, is that I cheated over the past couple of days. I drank two cups of decaf coffee - one on Thursday and another on Friday. They were attempts to beat the time zone shift. What can I say? Old habits die hard. Both cups of joe were poor life choices. Since I drank them, my jaw has been in a perpetual lockdown state, and my head has been throbbing. There is, indeed, caffeine in decaf coffee.
Meanwhile, the jet lag means eight hours of sleep have been elusive. I also spent Friday attending panel discussions on global growth, inequality, media, disruption and the new world order -- all of which were fascinating. It was also nice to be among a diverse group of my peers and prospective mentors discussing topics of great interest and importance to me. The diverse gathering combined with the breadth of topics was not something I could easily find in the Valley. So, I was grateful for the opportunity to scratch that itch.
That being said, it was a lot of information in one day, and my jet lag had been particularly acute. To stay attentive and present, I clamped down on my jaw, willing my head to stay upright, eyes open and mind alert. I wasn’t bored — far from it — I was tired and fighting bouts of micro sleep.
Yet, well after the Summit was over, I continued to hold on to the tension. The throbbing pain went well into the night. This led to hour after hour of lost sleep.
I’ve read a number of books about happiness, listened to countless hours of talk about mindfulness and how it works, and read for hours about the brain and the benefits of sleep. Yet, deep in the night, here I was clenching my jaw as if I was holding a billion dollars between my teeth.
So, I started to meditate - nothing formal, just a few phrases I had learned. “Take a deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth.” In ... out ... in ... out...
Eventually, my back muscles began to soften and my shoulders drop from my ears. Apparently, my jaw wasn’t the only problem.
Then, I started to identify and release my thoughts, reminding myself gently that I was thinking and nothing more. I also imagined myself observing me from afar, asking myself whether, from this outside perspective, there was anything immediately threatening me. The answer was, clearly and thankfully, “no”.
Then I thought about how I had recently learned that norepinephrine decreases in the brain during REM sleep
and that, sleep might allow me to identify and work through the deeper thoughts that might be leading me to hold on to stress. I also scanned down my body, recognizing each limb and joint and segment.
Eventually, repeating these thoughts and patterns, I fell asleep, grateful for what I had learned and the wherewithal to apply it. Learning about the brain and the body and how the environment can stand to affect them is powerful, but it’s even more so when you can bring it to bear in times of distress.
To be honest, these practices don’t always work for me. Sometimes, the emotion is just too strong and I get swept under the rip tide. Each defeat is humbling. I am starting to win more than I lose, though. Hopefully, the time will come when I don’t remember how to hold on to tension anymore.