stretch –  verb (used with object) \ [strech-]

: to draw out or extend (oneself, a body, limbs, wings, etc.) to the full length or extent (often followed by out ): to stretch oneself out on the ground.
: to hold out, reach forth, or extend (one’s arm, head, etc.).
: to extend, spread, or place (something) so as to reach from one point or place to another: to stretch a rope across a road.
: to draw tight or taut: to stretch the strings of a violin.
: to lengthen, widen, distend, or enlarge by tension: to stretch a rubber band.

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of headaches. About once a week, sometime early in the morning, I wake up to a barking dog or with a sudden urge to go to the bathroom. I climb out of bed, stumble through the bedroom, and realize that maybe it wasn’t the dog or my bladder after all. My head is throbbing.

But the pain doesn’t start in my head. Usually, I can trace the pain backward, downward, through the occipital lobe, then into the cervical region of my spine, then into my upper back, between my shoulder blades. I reach back to try to massage the area myself. It’s sore to the touch.

I suffer with headaches, but really it’s a stress problem. Sitting tightly hunched over my laptop day after day has meant bunched up muscles and stiff, achy joints. When work is demanding, my shoulders stay drawn up toward my ears most of the time. Even in my sleep, I curl tightly on my side, willing myself to relax, to rest, but never experiencing it.

Usually, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories can ease the tension in my head, but when I recently had to miss a day of work because no amount of medicine or soaking in the tub or laying in bed provided any relief, I knew I needed another solution.

So, I tried stretching. Movements as simple as slowly looking left then right while keeping my chin level alleviate some of the stiffness, and after doing just a few stretches every day or two for the past few weeks, the headaches have improved significantly.

Those tight shoulders and aching head are not just a physical problem, though. My life has stiffened under stress the past few weeks as I have been experiencing transition at work that ultimately will change how I do things at home and will hopefully provide more flexibility in all areas of life.


But flexibility doesn’t just happen. Shoulders that hunch over keyboards become used to hunching; they actually feel more comfortable hunched that way over time, even though the position causes all kinds of trouble. My poor posture actually began back in high school, or even before. As annoying as it was then, my mom was right to constantly be reminding me to “stand up straight” or “hold your shoulders back.” It takes creating new habits to unbind and become flexible again.

Friday is my last day as an employee. When I leave the office at the end of the day, I will work for myself. I’ll still report to other people, only now they will be called “clients” instead of “bosses,” and the stakes feel higher. While my work habits aren’t terrible and my self-discipline is probably average, I think now is as good a time as any to focus on my work posture again, to stop hunching mentally as well as physically, to hold my shoulders back as a sign of confidence, not just muscle control, and to feel what good habits can do for a workday or even a lifestyle.

Flexibility is one of the reasons I am making this change, after all: our family and my work could benefit from having a little less structure. But if I am going to be flexible and productive, I’m going to need to learn some new stretches. Just like small simple movements have loosened up my neck and shoulders significantly, I expect small simple actions will provide all the structure I need for my day. I started three small daily activities a month ago that have now become habits for the most part. I have four more to add during this month after I make the switch on Friday.

And in the symbiotic way that our bodies react to the circumstances around them, I’m hoping that the stretching I do in my life will help my headaches as much as the stretching I am doing in my neck and shoulders. I can’t spend too many days in bed anymore. I heard my new boss is a real stickler about sick days.



Photo by Umberto Salvagnin, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License. Definitions of my word of the week are from Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online.