Did I catch you wistfully thinking of simpler times when all you had to do was Love Somebody and a Beautiful Goodbye was still possible?
Ironically, as I write this, I am under a large amount of stress. In between two huge papers, a large presentation, meetings for my nonprofit, and, oh yes, my full time job, it seems like my to-do list never ends. It’s definitely a lot. I’m definitely “doing the most” right now and my mind, body, and heart are feeling it. (A side note about to-do lists: I read recently that if you have more than three items on your to-do list that it makes them ineffective because looking at how many things there are left to do becomes overwhelming. I would like to know who are these people who only have three things to do? Please. Come forward. I want to know how it is exactly that you only have three things to do. If you are like the rest of us, many many things to do, I’ve found that the create separate to-do lists for each area of life helps to cross off more items. For example, I have separate lists for school, work, the nonprofit, and general life tasks. I also give myself certain hours in each day to focus on these lists. It helps my ADD mind to give an hour or two of time to one list and then switch it up.) In my experience, one of three paths reveals itself during these times: action, inaction, or defeat. Defeat is the feeling that there is just too much to do that it will never be complete so, why even bother trying? Defeat is giving up. Action is making choices to tackle all of the elements, one by one, that are contributing to stress. Inaction, which I think is far more common, is the assessment that all of the elements that contribute to stress are so overwhelming, it is impossible to make a choice in either direction. It’s the freeze.
Whether it’s tackling that massive to-do list or it’s one situation in particular that is causing you distress, the freeze happens because dealing with it head-on feels too hard but giving up is not an option. In this case, one technique I’ve been trying recently is the a version of what psychologist call exposure therapy, namely systematic desensitization. What I’ve done for myself is taken these concepts and implemented them in ways that make sense to my life.
So, here’s the breakdown.
Systematic Desensitization is:
associating a calm and pleasant state with anxiety inducing stimuli
gradually increasing the severity of the stimuli
replacing anxiety with relaxation
The premise of this technique is that it is impossible to be both nervous and relaxed at the same time. Nervousness is a heightened state of physiological arousal. Relaxation is literally the opposite. I find it easiest to explore this through the vehicle of the physical body, more specifically the yoga practice.
Many people have a goal of doing a handstand. Besides the incredible amount of strength that it takes to hold yourself on only your hands, fear is a big obstacle that stands in the way of people and their inversion dreams. That fear puts the psychological and physical body into a state of stress (elevated heart rate, elevated respiration rate, sweaty palms, thought explosions). So, to help decrease the stress stimulated by going upside down, I might start someone on their path to inversions by getting them comfortable with being upside down in other ways: down dog, then headstand, then forearmstand, then handstand with wall, followed up handstand with a spotter, followed by handstand in the middle of the room. I would never tell them to just go upside down, but instead would guide this person into less stressful version of inversions until they became comfortable and even enjoyed being upside down. The physical makes sense.
So, what does this look like when the stressor isn’t something physical, but rather something emotional?
I remember the days leading up to a large conversation with my ex about a topic that eventually led to our separation. On top of all of the other emotional and physical distress that was happening outside of our relationship, this conversation felt like too much. I lost my ability to use my words eloquently, compassionately, and thoughtfully. It truly was a horrible moment in my personal development. On the evening that started the consecutive 24 hours in which I cried, all of the thoughts and feelings and emotions that I had been afraid of fully actualizing came tumbling out. Every single one of those internal experiences was repressed for so long and hurt so badly, that I am still trying to process them today. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. My hindsight tells me that if, instead of bottling up all of these fears and worries and doubts that weighed incredibly heavy on me, I had addressed each one of them separately, beginning with the easiest issues to tackle, the ending might have been different. At least, on my side, my emotional life would have remained much more even. Those big conversations about moving across the country or what is this or I need to quit my job or I’m not happy with you anymore, they are HARD. They are stressful. If we don’t have any practice with issues less hard and less stressful, of course these gargantuan and life altering conversations will feel, and potentially be, overwhelming. So, what can we do? Expose ourselves to micro versions of uncomfortable conversations so that the big ones don’t feel as terrifying.
More than any other quality, this exposure to the uncomfortable takes courage. Courage is not knowing that everything will turn out in your favor and deciding to act from the safety of that space. Courage is knowing that, in fact, you probably will fail many many times, things will not turn out the way you hope because you only get to control your actions and not the response or behavior of the other, and choosing to act anyway. Courage is understanding that navigating human behavior and interaction is murky uncertain and sometimes painful, yet continuing to show up with integrity and compassion. Stress can make us incredibly fearful. Fear does not have to be the enemy of courage. It can be the signal that it is time to make a brave choice, take a baby step towards the thing that is uncomfortable for us. Instead of running away, what would happen if you chose to stay? At least in my experience, I’ve found that staying inside of the discomfort leads to a more fertile experience from which we can grow.