I used to be a top notch pro at hiding stress from myself. I could have gold medaled in coping.
The thing is, I just never thought I was feeling all that bad. I lived most of my early life in low-level worry, stress and anxiety, and I thought that was simply how life felt. It wasn’t me, it was life.
When it came to feeling bad, it took a lot to get my attention. And when it takes a lot to get your attention, “a lot” tends to happen. For me “a lot” was incapacitating, crippling fear and a handful of anxiety-related diagnoses in a very short period of time.
And even then, I was baffled about what was going on.
I remember a phone conversation with my Dad early on in my crippling fear days. He quite reasonably asked “What are you so stressed about?”
I responded with something along the lines of “I’m not stressed! Why does everyone keep asking me what I’m worried and stressed about? Aside from the agoraphobia and chronic panic attacks, I’m Totally Fine!”
I wasn’t just trying to be tough; I honestly assumed that some degree of stress and anxiety was pretty much what everyone felt. Life was hard. Being an adult was hard. Grad school was hard. Being a 23-year-old woman was hard. Living in Indiana was hard (everyone knows Indiana is hard).
I was carrying around a boatload of hard thoughts, truly believing that I was just seeing life as life was. I was a fish in water when it came to my own thinking. “What’s water?” says the fish. “What’s thinking?” said me. “I’m just calling it what it is.”
My tolerance for stress and worry have taken a serious nosedive in the 16 years since I was living in fear in Indiana.
I have a new frame of reference for how life can feel. If my baseline feeling state was a 3 or 4 before (with 10 being largely peaceful and content), it’s more like a 7 or 8 now. I’m making these numbers up, of course, but the point is that I feel far better most of the time, and so I’m far more sensitive to feelings that dip below my new norm.
The smallest bit of worry may have gone unnoticed before; now, it is very noticed. It feels horrible contrasted with a mostly peaceful backdrop.
I don’t need crippling fear to get my attention anymore. I see worry and stress showing up sooner, in subtler ways.
Like this week, for example. I’m preparing to deliver the keynote address at a conference for a large sales company on Friday.
I’ve been busier with usual with this event that’s bigger than usual, and it’s occurred to me that I may be feeling it. There appears to be some largely invisible stressful thinking hanging out in the back corners of my mind.
Do I feel particularly stressed? Not really. Worried, anxious, scared? Nope.
But here’s how I know. Yesterday when Miller did something silly, I noticed that I didn’t laugh as easily as I typically would. Life looked more serious and my sense of humor wasn’t as close to the surface. And it wasn’t just yesterday. The silly event with Miller brought to mind that I haven’t laughed as easily or seen the humor in things as much as I typically might.
I also noticed that I haven’t been as affectionate with my husband. Both of these are big clues for me. When my mind is filling and speeding up, I tend to wall-off a bit and take life seriously. That’s just me, but it’s what I’ve observed. Keeping to myself and not seeing the humor in things are my primary signs that I’m living in my head, spinning around in some lurking worry or stress.
What are your clues that you’re living in your head more than is helpful? It’s a good thing to observe for yourself.
Because stress and worry aren’t part of life like I used to think they were. It takes a human brain to create stress—it doesn’t live in jobs or schools or even in Indiana.
It lives only in a human mind. And if you know that, you can notice it showing up and disengage—stop creating it or at least stay calm and wait for it to stop being created.
Then you get to feel a lot better, a lot more of the time. And then it gets easier and easier to feel stress because it’s no longer your norm. It starts to feel foreign when it is there, and instead of crippling fear you notice it because you didn’t laugh as easily at 4-year-old running around with his underwear on his head.
And that’s a far nicer way to be alerted to some hidden stress you’re innocently creating.