How long do you think you can clench your fist? Ball your fist up, squeeze as hard as you can. How long do you think it is possible to hold that much pressure? Thirty seconds? A minute? One veteran I talked to said he thought he could squeeze his fist as tight as he could and hold it for five minutes. I invited him to try…he didn’t get past forty-five seconds.
There are things that we want to do that we are physically and physiologically incapable of doing. Holding our breath for twenty minutes, lets say. Sooner or later, we have to release the breath that we’re holding, just as we have to release our fist.
Imagine that this fist you’re squeezing is in your brain. You’re making a mindfist. You’re holding on to a thought. You’re not just holding on to a particular thought, you’re squeezing the crap out of it. White knuckles, fingernails digging into your palm. Putting a mental vice grip on this thought until your fist is shaking.
These thoughts can be past regrets. They may be a perceived wrong. Something someone did, or something someone didn’t do. They don’t have to always be angry thoughts, though. You can hold on to sadness, regret. You can hold on to an anxiety, a fear.
I recall one time in Iraq where I had a grip on an extreme irrational idea, and wouldn’t let it go. A Soldier in my company had just learned that his sister had been seriously injured in a car accident. As an emergency, we made sure he got home. As I was walking back to our company headquarters, an image popped into my head. My wife and kids, driving down the road, sideswiped in a busy intersection. I saw it all: the location, where they were sitting in the car, everything. I almost broke into a run so I could get in touch with them. I waitedin line for the phone that connected us stateside, and was frantic until I heard my wife’s voice. Rational? No, but real. My wife could tell that there was something wrong, of course. I didn’t tell her at the time though; just presented everything was cool. It’s what we do, of course.
There are physical manifestations of extreme focus and concentration on one thought or situation. A headache. Stress in your neck and jaw muscles. A scowl, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed, mouth pinched. That “get the @#%! away from me” look that warns everyone around you to take a hike, leave you alone, keep your distance. Many of these serve to keep your mental fist clinched, to keep you from releasing and relaxing.
There are names for these types of mental grips that we have on ourselves. Ruminating. Catastrophizing. Fixating. Naming something doesn’t always solve the problem, though. What naming does is identify the problem, what it is we’re dealing with.
The thing is, our brains are adaptable. If we start to think a certain way, our brains adapt to that way of thinking. It becomes better at thinking that way. If we are in the habit of ruminating, then we’ll ruminate more, which could lead to sadness. Regret. Depression. Our thoughts and our behaviors are connected. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg type of thing. Our thoughts influence our emotions and behaviors, which culminate in our actions. It’s a cycle that continues to run, and not always to our benefit.
Back to your fist, the real one. Chances are, you’re not still clenching your fist if you’ve read this far, two or three minutes later. How do you relieve the pain of a clenched fist? You release it. You open your fingers, relax your hand, shake it a bit to get the blood flowing again. You do this because you become aware of the pain and discomfort that you’re feeling.
You can do the same thing with the clenched fist in your brain. Here’s the trick, though: you first have to become aware that you’re doing it. The internal awareness does not come as quickly as the external awareness of the pain in your hand. The signs are there, though. That goes back to the physical manifestations of the fixation or rumination. If you’re gripping a thought in your head, you’re not in the present. You are focusing on the past, or the future, but not on where you are and what you’re doing at the moment. Getting to the point of awareness that you have the ability to let it go, to loosen the grip, is not just relieving. It’s also beneficial.
Have you experienced this? A rumination or fixation, not being able to get a thought out of your head? I’d like to hear about it, if you’re willing, and hear how you were able to relax and let go. Feel free to contact me or leave a comment below. It’s always helpful to hear how others have overcome this challenge.
Just as you were the one who clenched your fist, you’re also the one with the power to relax. You just have to have the awareness and the desire to do so.
Did you enjoy this post? Please comment below and share with your network in order to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health. You can sign up for updates from Head Space and Timing and follow Duane, a combat veteran and mental health counselor, on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.