I remember when I first learned about the concept of stress management. I met a guy who was a yoga teacher and a massage therapist. He was talking about how we all could benefit from having less stress in our lives and how yoga and massage were a great way to let it go. I hadn’t done much yoga at that point, and I had no idea what he meant with all of the “stress management” talk. I mean, I enjoyed yoga, but I would never have described myself as “stressed.” I even felt a little annoyed when he stressed “stress management” above all else. I mean…. BORING, right?
Well, later on, this guy turned into my boyfriend and I got regular, intelligently delivered earfuls about stress, and how it was the cause of so many people’s pain, both emotional and physical. He was convinced that stress was at the root of much of the world’s problems. I really just did not get it. It seemed like to me that war and greed and illness were at root of much of the world’s problems. It never occurred to me that stress might be at the root of war and greed and illness.
Looking back from my perspective now, it’s funny. I was an intense kid, but that intensity had its counterbalance: I could always count on missing at least one two week chunk of school in the middle of winter somewhere …Every year… Like clockwork. I was in 4th grade when my pediatrician told my mom to put be on some B vitamins, because I was “stressed out.”
I remember thinking, “Stressed out? What does that even mean???” every time I took the giant orange caplet and tried not to choke on it. I never understood why I had to take those things, and I resented that I had to gag them down every morning before I headed off to school. “B vitamins help with stress,” my mother had explained.
The thing is though, they did not help. I continued to get sick every winter with mysterious and lengthy illnesses that oftentimes had no name. One time, I remember the doctor said I had “The Dallas Disease.” I was only 11, but I was pretty sure that there was no such thing as that. I felt like there was something wrong with me… Some secret, “wink wink, nudge nudge ” kind of thing, that my mother and my doctor knew about but would not tell me.
Even so, I kept taking my B vitamins, and in the 7th grade… surprise, surprise…they actually worked! I only got sick a few times that year, and none of the episodes were more than a few days long. I made it through junior high and high school without anymore major mystery illnesses, and at some point near the end of high school, the B vitamins stopped showing up in my life. I guess either my mother thought that I no longer needed them or, maybe she was just so stressed out herself that she forgot to remember them.
My first year in college, I got hit with another mystery illness. This time I had really outdone myself. I was laid up for almost a month and I missed so much school that I had to withdraw, The doctor told me it was a chronic issue and that I could expect to be tired the rest of my life. I would need 10 hours of sleep every night, he had said, and probably a 2 hour nap on top of that. To a young college gal, with dreams of much adventure, that sounded like the closest thing to a death sentence I could imagine.
But here is the kicker: I WAS tired. I DID need rest. I DID need sleep. I DID need to learn how to relax. My body was trying so hard to tell me and I just would not listen. Even years later, when I was trying to listen, I would hear my yoga-teaching boyfriend (we broke up a long time ago, but we are life long friends) talk about stress, and I could not hear it.
I get it now. I get that I was so stressed out that I could not even understand what stressed out meant. I get it now…that the reason I was offended when someone suggested that I was stressed out was that STRESS WAS MY ONLY POINT OF REFERENCE. I had been stressed out my entire life. If I was not stressed out, then WHO OR WHAT WOULD I BE??? What I had thought of as just a lot of natural energy and drive was really a mask I wore in order to hide from my own stress, my own emotions and others.
Now, the shoe is on the other foot. Now, I see that same mask on others. I see it when my friends are so busy that they do not respond to my texts. Sometimes for weeks. I see it when their kids have to be taken here and fetched from there and they have no time to talk. I see it when they have to go to work at 8:00 and don’t get home until 9:00 that night, or even later. But when I mention that they are carrying a huge stress load and suggest they might benefit from some self-care, they respond with “Oh, I am fine, I am not stressed, I am just busy. Don’t worry about me.”
Easier said than done…. Because now I know what it feels like to let go of stress. Now I know what it is like to reset my brain and body to a relaxed and receptive state. Now I know that being “busy” all of the time IS a form of stress.
It took courage for me to learn how to calm down, because the honest truth of the matter was, I did not believe I was safe. I did not believe that calming down was really a wise choice, given how unsafe I felt. There was too much to do, and I could not trust anyone else to do it.
It took a lot of searching, and learning, and asking questions, and making mistakes and trying this and trying that. There were a lot of times that I felt I would never “get there”… and I did not even know what I was looking for…. There was just this quiet nagging in the back of my mind (or, red raging in the lining of my throat, when I was ill) that something… wasn’t quite right. That feeling drove me until I learned how to let go and relax. Now, I get up every day and I choose to let go, because now, I can…and you know what? I get MORE done. I have MORE fun. My immune system is strong, and I feel FULLY ALIVE, which is something I only pretended to feel when I was younger…Because, now I know the difference between feeling stress and feeling ease. Ease is a good thing. It has changed my life.
So, the next time you hear someone talk about stress, and you hear yourself say silently to yourself “What are they talking about? I don’t have time to relax!” you might want to reconsider. It may not be that you are too busy…It may just be that you just don’t know don’t know how.