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To Feel Better, Try Focusing on What You Can Control

Ground Control to Major Me: Most mornings, “get up and go, girl!!”

“We’re going for control.”

We were about to begin our first circuit at our session early Wednesday morning, and my Equinox trainer Zach Schumaker wanted me to know the plan.

Is he in my head?

Lately the plan’s been to get to failure, which in exercise is a good thing even if failure is not exactly the destination in the journey of life.

Or we’ll incorporate active recovery where we’re using a second exercise to help recover from the first instead of resting in between sets.

“By being active you’re allowing yourself to progress,” Zach had told me when I asked him what happened to the eucalyptus-soaked towel break after getting to failure. That plan.

“It’s kind of like going for a brisk walk after a long day before crashing in front of the television,” he smiled, practically winking as he reminded me that I’ve got big goals.

“Ok Ok,” I said. “Sounds good.”

As Zach lowered the resistance on our first set so I could slow everything down and focus on control it occurred to me that this time last year, nearly exactly to the day, I was weeks away from attempting my second triathlon at the beach. My first attempt ended in a DNF (Did Not Finish).

At my physical therapy session the Friday before the race, Dr. Kevin McGuinness, sensing my level of anxiety, asked me if there was anything about my worries that was within my control. I know Kevin’s a DPT and not the other kind of therapist, but he’s got some serious cognitive behavioral therapy skills.

My fear was mostly about being pulled under by a shark.

So no.

It turned out I was also worried about the bike. Even if I was able to perform well I could still run over a piece of glass and get a flat tire or my chain could break or a distracted driver could swerve into the bike lane and kill me.

So, again, no.

I felt better.

Since that triathlon, which I did finish, incredibly, I’ve thought often about this idea of separating into piles the things I can and cannot control as a way to manage stress and anxiety. Prior to the 2016 presidential election, for example, when I, like nearly everyone else, regardless of which candidate you supported, was experiencing high levels of anxiety, I took Sharon Salzberg’s advice and focused on what I could control, such as voting and encouraging others to do the same.

I felt better. (Not great, but better.)

Now, since the election, as much of my world view is turned upside down, I’m using the idea of control to keep me from spinning out of control. There wasn’t any way Zach could have known I woke up getting ready to go to the gym thinking about this.

Here’s what was in my head as I brushed my teeth.

I can control what time I set my alarm (5 am), check.

I can control what I eat before and after working out at the gym (cappuccino, half a banana with peanut butter/avocado toast with a fried egg and half a grapefruit), check.

I can control what I put into my body at work (greens with protein, gala apple, popcorn), check.

Later that evening, my husband and I were at a long table with some of his work colleagues at Bardo Beer Garden before the Orioles versus the Nats baseball game and the subject of how we were managing our stress came up.

“Are you still working out at the gym in early mornings?” one woman asked me.

It’s been at least two years since we last saw each other.

“I am,” I said.

“Well you look fantastic,” she said. “You’re half the size of what you were then.”

“It’s all about control,” I told her.

“Are you still running?”

“Absolutely!” I said. “For me that’s the ultimate practice in control. Every time I run — and trust me I’m a true back-of-the-pack runner — the only thing I have control over is me, and every time I push myself to keep running, the better I feel.”

She nodded but I’m not sure I was connecting the dots.

There’s the obvious endorphin rush from exercising — and I’m super grateful for that — but what I was referring to is the nearly meditative effects of focusing on what you can control. There’s an enormous body of scientific research that connects mindfulness meditation with feeling better by causing the brain to undergo physical changes. And maybe that’s it. If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you know how difficult it can be to control your brain to come back to your breath or to the trail or to the focus of your practice, such as offering loving kindness to those you know and love and to those you know and despise.

But it might also be because once you focus on what you can control in any given situation you are also consciously letting go of what you cannot control, and that singular act can be incredibly liberating. This is what popped into my head as we boarded the Metro after the game and the train was packed with disappointed Caps fans.

Caps and Orioles fans started to commiserate with each other when I thought about how much sport can teach us about the whole control thing.

Sure the Orioles must be disappointed when they lose and the Caps too, and they’ll work with their coaches to dissect any missteps, but I suspect if each player focuses on what he can control, he’ll have a late dinner after the game, get a good night’s sleep, and show up at the ballpark (or the rink next season) ready to go again.

Me? I’ve got my alarm set for 5 am.

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