Stress is a Four-Letter Word

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Don’t lose your head!

Every now and again, I wake up having a panic attack. Not really about anything, or at least, not about anything that I can’t be rational about at other moments of my life; these things just creep up on me, and suddenly my heart is racing and I feel sick, and my breath comes in great gasps, like I’m trying to swim through homicidal water. They can start off so quiet – I notice my heart racing, and I can feel that high-in-the-chest pain of stress eating at my esophagus like indigestion. “I’m stressed,” I think; “This is a panic attack.” Then it gets worse. I begin to lose control of myself, and the thought, “I’m stressed,” becomes louder and louder, until I’m shaking and groaning and my thoughts – only about stressful things, of course – are pounding behind my eyes, like they could break my skull with their sharp fists.

It is so frightening to lose control.

But the other morning, I woke up, panic rising in my gorge, and I thought, “Stop.” Just stop. I don’t want to do this. I don’t need this feeling; I don’t want to be stressed about these things. And so when my mind provided the handy label “stress” to my sensation, I said, “Yes, this is stress. But I don’t need to be feeling this right now.”

The panic subsided a little. It did not leave entirely – I can still feel it there, and its darksome, hellish bite – but I tamed it. Over and over, my mind proffered “stress” as its label, and again and again I said, “Yes, but not right now.”

Why would I ever think to fight back like this? Well, that’s a story too.

Last August, after my return from Ireland, I felt mortally beaten by my own actions, and my outlook was so hopeless. I’d returned from three weeks in which I’d been happier than ever in my life, to the doom of a neglected relationship and the sinking feeling that I was going to hate every moment of my lift until such a time as I either graduated or died, and I wasn’t sure which. (Dramatic, I know. I like to think I’ve grown up a little since then.) I was staying with my mother in Boston for two weeks before heading back to Vancouver, and being surrounded by city was beginning to kill what was left of my tormented soul. So when her friend Mike offered to take us up to his cabin in New Hampshire to do some maintenance, just for the day, with the promise of canoeing afterwards, I was ecstatic. We headed up, and Mum and Mike chatted away in the front seats, and I sat silent in the back. While they were working on whatever had gone wrong at the cabin, I had nothing to do, and eventually they sent me down to the local sandwich shop (this is a tiny, tiny town, with about six shops in it, if you count the post office) to get some lunch. I arrived glum, to find this little oasis of delicious-smelling food, comfortable seats, kind people, and delightfully comfortable decor – books, big chalkboard walls, bigger windows, and more fliers about the great outdoors than you can shake a stick at. I ordered lunch for the three of us, and while I waited for it to be ready, I sat in a voluptuous armchair and picked up a book. It was a little, self-published volume, filled with anecdotes written and said by all kinds of people. I leafed through, reading a little. My eye was caught by a story about a couple with two young children, going to visit their Uncle Joe. When they arrived, the baby was sleeping, and so they left her in the car seat for a moment while they went for a quick walk with their other child. They returned to find their Uncle Joe, holding the cooing baby in the palms of his great hands. He said she’d been crying, so he’d picked her up to comfort her, and they confided that she’d been in a fussy stage for weeks, and that it was very challenging for them. Joe looked at them, over their happy child, and said, “Life is a series of stages. The more you make of them, the longer they last.”

It was like being slapped in the face. I sat there in that sandwich shop and cried, and through my tears I read that story again and again until the lady behind the counter called my name. Life is a series of stages. The more you make of them, the longer they last. Those two sentences rebounded in my head like echoes of a great bell, and they completely changed the way I reacted to every single thing that happened to me that fall. I took it to mean that it was really important to calm down, and to approach every situation with as much of an idea of newness as possible. This is now, I’d think, but it doesn’t have to be forever. Those two sentences made me free.

Since then, Uncle Joe’s words have lingered in my mind, but their meaning has slowly extended and grown, and I feel I understand and try to abide by them in relation to every moment of my life. Not only are the stages of life somewhat governed by how much you make of them, but words, too, as labels, will govern you, based on the weight you give them. When you slap a label on yourself, you give that idea power. Same with an emotion, or a situation – if you decide that a relationship is “doomed”, or that a conversation is “awkward”, or that you just feel “terrible”, that word will grow, like a seed in fertile soil. Identity crises happen when someone has self-labeled as something for so long, ignoring the fact that they’ve changed until the disparity between what they believe and what they are is so great that the illusion collapses. Change only sneaks up on you if you pretend it isn’t always there.

Truth be told, now that I think of it, this is the reason why I resolved, when I set off for France, that I would document my feelings, and my discoveries, and my thoughts. I did not document to give every feeling validity; exactly the opposite, in fact. I wrote everything down to preserve how much I changed, so that I could look back and recognize that I fluctuate so much, and that some of my convictions about who I am and what I want change weekly, but some are eternal. And I listened to what I learned. I paid attention; I tried not to judge. That is how to learn from yourself, about yourself. That is how to find truth in who you are – and it is a way to take power over who you become. That is how to be calm in the face of stress: This is now, but it does not have to be forever.

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The full story.

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2 comments

  1. Sue Greer · · Reply

    You owned the travel in Italy. No panic.

  2. I did panic – but I owned the panic. Which I guess means that I spent a lot of time feeling like I could panic, but choosing not to. Nothing in the world (in the whole world) stresses me out more than getting places at a particular time. Nothing.

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