Life can be a lot like throwing a baseball. Seriously. A single throw of a baseball doesn’t put all that much stress and strain on your arm. A few dozen throws and you’re starting to feel it. Especially if you haven’t worked up to it, if you haven’t been training your arm, preparing it for multiple throws in a row. And even more so if you ignore the throbbing in your arm and just keep throwing, without taking a rest.
A couple years ago, I volunteered as a helper on my son’s little league baseball team. I spent most of my time throwing with the boys. Four nights a week I was on the field, warming them up, playing catch, and throwing them grounders and pop flies. You have to understand, as much as I enjoy watching and playing sports, I’m a middle-aged college professor. I exercise at the gym when I can, but most of the time I’m at a desk in front of a computer or in the classroom or laboratory. Grading exams just doesn’t prepare your arm for throwing baseballs the way you might think it would. Go figure.
My shoulder had been sore, but I figured I could just push through it. So I kept on throwing. One Sunday, my own kids wanted to hit some balls at the park, and I was all-time pitcher. We’re not talking 90-mph fastballs here. Just overhand tosses into the strike zone. But a couple hundred pitches later, my shoulder had had it. The next morning, I couldn’t lift my right arm over my head. I knew I had pushed too hard and damaged something.
Rest, physical therapy, and even cortisone shots all failed to relieve the pain. And of course life goes on, rudely ignoring my shoulder pain. I still had to work on the house, which was torn up from a remodel we had begun. I still had to drive to work every day, vacuum the floors, and brush my teeth. In other words, I had plenty of uses for that injured shoulder, so I pressed on despite the warning signs.
Eventually, surgery became the only option. Major medical intervention. All avoidable.
As I sit typing away on my laptop right now, I am nursing a sore shoulder from the surgery three weeks ago. Three tears had to be repaired, stitched down to anchors drilled and set into my bone. The bicep tendon was so badly torn that the surgeon had to detach it completely and re-anchor it a few inches away, a procedure called a bicep tenodesis. I can’t use the shoulder at all for six weeks – no driving, no brushing teeth with my right hand, no hugging my wife. And for another 6-12 months, I’ll be in physical therapy, trying to regain mobility and pain-free use of my arm.
Far too often, I go through life this way. I naively take on small stresses and underestimate their collective power. Each stress alone may seem pretty harmless, but stress after stress, pitch after pitch, without adequate preparation and neglecting to rest – they add up. It turns out that stress is cumulative. And the results, the often avoidable consequences, are that we become disabled and require major intervention. Cumulative mental stress, like cumulative shoulder stress, hurts. It damages us, limits our ability to function optimally, and can take months or years to recover from.
What can you do to prepare for stress before it comes? There are many possibilities, but most experts seem to agree that exercise, rest/fun, and positive self-talk are among the most important. Once stress comes – and it will come – continue practicing these things. Make sure you have a close friend to confide in and share your struggles with. Identify the stressors that are out of your control, and determine not to worry about those. Focus your efforts on changing the stressors that are in fact in your control, or at least under your influence. Finally, be willing to get professional help if it becomes clear that your stress is affecting your health or your relationships. There is no shame is getting professional help when you need it.
We can’t always avoid stress. But it doesn’t have to control us either. With some forethought and a clear plan, we can not only survive periods of stress, we can even experience great personal growth. So you see, life can be a lot like throwing baseballs.