I listen to NPR every chance I get, even if I only have a spare minute or two. You never know what fascinating topics will be discussed. So it was the other day, when I tuned in to hear a man say that he makes a point of asking people, “What would you do if you were not afraid?”
What an intriguing question. I instantly regretted that I wouldn’t be able to continue listening, because I was just about home. Sadly, I don’t know which program it was or who was speaking. (Possibly Speaker’s Forum. I’m not sure.) I only heard him say that several people had replied that they probably wouldn’t be trapped in their miserable jobs if they weren’t so afraid. That made me sad.
The question stuck with me. I’ve been ruminating over it for several days now. It’s made me realize how often people are ruled by fear.
People remain in toxic relationships out of fear. Fear that leaving might result in abuse, or fear of being alone.
Others don’t take risks or challenge themselves in any way, for fear of failure. Because of that, they never realize their full potential.
Women often remain silent for fear of not being taken seriously.
Men often do not show their emotions for fear of being considered weak.
We don’t reach out to others for fear of being rejected.
Many people fear strangers because they’ve been taught to hate, or have never taken the time to get to know someone who is different from themselves.
Most of us fear being pushed out of our comfort zones, and so we are hesitant to test our own boundaries.
Many of us don’t experience life because we’re too busy being afraid of death.
It’s very easy to be ruled by fear, but it means you’ll have to settle for being enslaved by it. And the funny thing is, on those occasions when we manage to push past our fears, we often wind up wondering what we were so afraid of in the first place.
The scariest thing I’ve ever done was to move 3100 miles away from home, to a place I’d never been, where I knew no one. But it also turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done.
So, dear reader, what would you do if you were not afraid?
My whole life, I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop. That feeling intensifies when things are going well. Because I can’t have the nice things. I’ve never had the nice things. At least, not for long.
Sooner or later, everything seems to turn to sh**. If I’m braced for it, I can usually handle it, and come out the other side. I’m nothing if not a survivor. But if that darned shoe takes me by surprise, then that would be bad. Really, really bad.
I remind myself of Nelly, a wonderful dog, who flinches every time you reach out to pet her sweet head. She knows all about what having it bad used to be like. She learned early that flinching can soften the blow. How do I explain to her that I love her, and I’ll always love her, and I’ll never hurt her? She deserves to be petted and cuddled and adored. I want her to be able to own it.
I deserve the good stuff, too. I know it. And here lately I have been experiencing it. And I enjoy it. Mostly. But I can’t seem to get out from under that mental shoe of mine. It’s always there, stinking up the place.
I think there are a lot of people out there, walking around with a shoe in their heads. Please be patient with us. We may not show it well, but your goodness really is appreciated. Probably even more than it would be if we were one of those lucky shoeless people.
Unless you have no pulse at all, you are carrying stress within you, even as you read this. We all do. It’s part of modern life. It comes from a feeling of being overwhelmed, and thinking that you can’t cope with a situation.
According to Wikipedia, that font of all human knowledge, stress can increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks, ulcers, and mental illnesses such as depression. So needless to say, stress is bad for you.
What I find particularly scary is how easily I fool myself into thinking I’ve gotten used to a certain level of anxiety. It’s as if I am coping simply because I’ve come to expect that I will have to wade through some crap, and that’s just the cost of doing business.
That doesn’t mean the stress, with all its toxic side effects, has disappeared. It just means that I’ve resigned myself to it. That’s problematic, because it also means that I’m no longer trying to do anything to relieve that stress. I’ve concluded that there’s no solution, so I just bathe in it, regardless of the pollution this brings into my world. After a while, I seem to forget it’s happening.
But every once in a while, some fortuitous thing occurs that removes a stressor from my life. That happened just this month. And the change within me has been profound. I started off by feeling slightly sick from the sheer release. Then I felt as though 500 pounds had been lifted off my shoulders. Freedom! Sweet relief.
And then there was the inevitable shock that I had been carrying that weight for so long without even realizing it. (Actually, I knew of about 50 pounds of it, but not the full 500.) It makes me wonder what other burdens I’m carrying. No wonder I’m so tired much of the time.
I think I need to work on being more aware of what my body is trying to tell me. I need to address issues whenever possible, even though I hate confrontation. I need to stop walking around with my head in the clouds and take better care of me.
In the meantime, I’m going to go do a happy dance to celebrate my newfound freedom. Woot!
The other day, I was lonely, angry, exhausted, hurt, and generally disgusted with life. So I did what I often do: I went straight for the cupcakes. (I have found that pizza and ice cream are viable substitutes as well.)
For a split second, I felt much better. But then I felt much worse. It’s a self-defeating habit. It’s not healthy. It makes me feel bad about myself. And the problem is still there.
But self-soothing is vital. When you are under stress, it’s good to come up with coping skills. But it’s also important not to be self-destructive. Turning to drugs or alcohol or out of control spending or red velvet cake is not the way to go if you really want to feel better in the long run.
When you’re experiencing stress, try to be kind to yourself rather than doing something that will ultimately feel more like torture. Here are some suggestions that I’m going to try to take instead of consuming sugar and/or grease:
Take a bath.
Take a walk.
Talk to a friend. Ask for a pep talk.
Elevate your feet.
Relax in a hammock.
Read a good book.
Hug your dog.
Netflix and chill.
Listen to music.
Get a massage.
Journal it out.
Work in your garden.
Create some art.
Do something nice for someone else.
Feed the birds.
Do your favorite hobby.
Ride your bike.
Wrap yourself in something soft and warm.
Light a candle.
Walk barefoot in your yard.
Go swimming. Float.
I think the trick is to identify when you need to be soothed, and then take charge of what that soothing looks like. Yeah, coffee ice cream may seem like the easy way out of your mood, but in the end, it’s not the best celebration of you. Choose a healthier path to calm your nerves so that you can be present and capable of finding a solution to your stress.
I think this is great advice. Now I need to take it. Wish me luck!
(Barring all of the above, maybe I should force the cupcakes upon the source of my stress instead of eating them myself. That would be satisfying. Maybe I’m on to something, here!)
The 4th of July is the worst day to be an American bridgetender. Drunken boaters and pedestrians are out in force. There’s plenty of stress and aggravation, and a lot of people to avoid injuring due to their own foolishness. While you are out enjoying your fireworks, we bridgetenders are trying to avoid nervous breakdowns.
And yes, I got to work the 4th of July this year. Lucky me. I spent a lot of time politely bellowing at people through the bullhorn. It may not sound like it, but I do it because I care. I’d really rather not kill anyone if I can avoid it.
At a certain point, I realized that a great deal of my tension was purely anticipatory. I knew the night was going to suck. And sure enough, it did. But stressing out over things that have yet to happen is counterproductive at best. Fight or flight should be reserved for the moment when you spot the mountain lion, not for when you’ve heard that there might be one within a 10 mile radius. Caution is great, but becoming adrenalized before the fact does nothing but make you feel exhausted and sick to your stomach.
So I spent a great deal of the night checking in with myself. What is happening now? What are my rational concerns at this moment in time? Breathe…
This takes practice. I never really thought about how much time I waste anticipating disaster. All the more reason to try to stay centered in time.
Sooner or later, every train engineer will have someone step in front of his or her train as a way to permanently solve a temporary problem. That must be a heartbreaking experience. You want to stop, but you know you can’t. I suspect that all you can really do is close your eyes, swallow really hard, and get ready to fill out a boatload of paperwork.
No doubt this sometimes happens to bus drivers as well. And I’m sure ferry captains have their fair share of jumpers, just as we bridgetenders do. I can’t even imagine what first responders deal with on a daily basis. It’s a part of these jobs that no one wants to talk about. Helpless Stress.
It’s that feeling of being completely out of control. It’s that desire to save someone, and not being able to do so. It messes with your head. It’s the kind of vicarious trauma that people don’t quite understand until they’ve experienced it themselves.
The most frustrating thing about it is you know you’ve been through something big, but you’re not physically hurt. Nothing shows. Your wounds are on the inside, where no one can see them. So your friends and loved ones often expect you to “snap out of it.”
If you have experienced helpless stress, I urge you to take it seriously. Talk to a professional; someone with experience in crisis or grief counseling. Don’t try to simply power through. What happened is not your fault, but if you choose to not cope with it, that can compound the problem.
You’re not alone. Help is out there. Please seek it out.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when I could have told you the exact amount of cash I had in my wallet, down to the penny. I’d wake up in a cold sweat, wondering how I’d pay my bills, or what on earth I’d do if I became seriously ill with no health insurance. For most of my life, I was about one flat tire away from utter homelessness. It was exhausting.
I learned to add rice to a can of soup to make it a meal. I was the coupon queen. I wore clothes until my meager sewing skills couldn’t keep them together anymore, and then I’d replace them at the thrift store. My shoes would all but disintegrate on my feet.
For entertainment, I’d play with my dogs, or take a walk, or watch PBS. I checked out mounds of library books. I knew when all the museums and galleries were free.
I’m not saying that all the joy in life is brought about by money, but life sure has improved now that the financial pressure has eased considerably.
I still keep a tiny bit of cash on hand for emergencies, but I couldn’t tell you how much. Mostly, I sleep through the night, and while I still avoid extravagant, unnecessary bills, I don’t worry about my ability to pay the ones I do incur. My health insurance is probably better than what most people have here in America. (Which isn’t saying much.) And recently I replaced all four of my tires at once without batting an eye. (Okay, maybe I swallowed hard for a second, but there was absolutely no eye batting.)
I still don’t eat at five-star restaurants, but I actually buy organic fruits and vegetables without considering them a splurge. And if I really want something in particular to eat, I figure out a way to get it. I can’t remember the last time I even opened a can of soup. I still use coupons, but I’m not ruled by them. I still shop at thrift stores mostly, but every once in a while I’ll get myself something really nice to wear. And my shoes are in good shape.
I have a lot more fun than I used to. I can afford to get out there and engage with the world. I eat out. I see the odd movie. I pay admission fees without perspiring, and occasionally donate a little extra to museums. I still love library books, though.
Sometimes I’ll look around and wonder how I got to this place. It was a long, hard struggle. It doesn’t seem real to me. I doubt it ever will. I keep expecting to wake up to another can of soup. And I doubt I’ll ever be able to retire. Because of that, I’ll always appreciate how I live now. I’ll never take anything for granted. I’ll always feel as though I’ve taken off a pair of shoes that were two sizes too small. For now, it really feels good to wiggle my toes!
Life. It’s so fragile, so precarious. Enjoy it as much as you can, while you can.
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This will come as no big surprise, but a very large part of me likes to avoid conflict, stress, and confrontation. Decades ago, I decided that the most effective way to not deal with the slings and arrows of life was to sleep. I absolutely love to sleep. My spirit animal is probably one of those fainting goats.
I wish there were some sort of internal switch that I could flick on and off so I could just check out when I’m overwhelmed. Kind of a Sleeping Beauty effect without having to rely on some evil witch to knock me out or some handsome fool to kiss me awake again. But then I’d probably sleep my life away. Heaven knows that I wouldn’t deem housework or errands to be adequate incentive to rise.
Even when I’m alert and functioning, in times of high anxiety I feel as if there’s a part of me that is sleeping. She wants to be left alone. She doesn’t have the slightest desire to engage. She curls up. She dreams. I’m amazed I wasn’t a thumb-sucker as a child.
Here lately I’ve been feeling the urge to wake that part of me up. I want her to come to the party. I want her to live life. She’s not happy about this. She doesn’t like change. But it’s time to grow up and face the world, and experience it.
I sense there are many adjustments I’m going to have to make in order to become fully conscious. I doubt it’s going to be easy. I’m definitely a work in progress. Wish me luck.
One of my favorite sayings is that a fish doesn’t realize it’s in water until it jumps out of it. I can totally relate to that. I just jumped out of something myself. Epic revelation!
I just got some really, really, really good news, which unfortunately I can’t share with you, dear readers. Just think about the best news you’ve ever heard in your life, and it’s on that level. The news is so good, in fact, that I’m feeling a little nauseous from sheer relief.
And therein lies the situation I just jumped from. Yes, I knew I had been under an incredible amount of stress. Yes, I knew it was making me miserable. But having the problem whisked out from under me like a tablecloth yanked out from under my mother’s best china, with nary a break, is, well, life-changing. There’s adrenaline involved, for sure. I don’t think I realized just how much the situation was impacting me on the most fundamental of levels.
I. Am. Free!!!!!!!!!
That’s an odd feeling. Because up to this moment I didn’t realize I hadn’t been free. I didn’t truly get how shackled I was to my stress and anxiety.
I feel like jumping in puddles! I feel like kissing someone! I feel like a new person. What a gift!
It’s moments like this that make life truly worthwhile. I hope that you get to have a similar experience at least once in your life. And when you do, I hope you recognize it for what it is: a leap out of your personal pond. Revel in it!