This is the column where I admit I’m not entirely okay. I have been plugging along through the pandemic, eking out my energy and spirit with the promise of an end in sight… and the failure of that end to actually materialize is draining my reserves really quickly right now.
Each of us has a different response to stress. I have a tendency to … well, if I’m charitable with myself I call it ‘pillow forting’… in my online knitting group we have a (virtual, imaginary) pillow fort where we can crawl in and be surrounded by warm, comfortable fluff on all sides when things get rough, and I am pretty sure that my psyche crawled into that pillow fort a couple months ago and really does not want to come out any time soon.
When I’m in my virtual pillow fort, my real-life body tends to sleep more but at weirder hours, and my real-life brain tends to want to pretend that things like deadlines and obligations don’t exist.
Lots of us respond to stress in different ways. For some of us, we plunge into preparing and planning, all the better to control whatever we can control. Others crave structure and information when they’re stressed. When a pillow fort hider encounters a planner, our different anxiety mechanisms can clash… so being able to name my stress response is helpful, not only to explain to the anxious person who needs plans or structure, but also to help me talk myself out of the pillow fort. It’s so darn comfy in there, especially since they put in Netflix.
Something I’m learning about is the stress cycle… Rev. Sophia mentioned the author Emily Nagoski the other week during service. She and her sister Amelia have written a book called Burnout: the Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, which I’m reading at the moment. It talks about our physical stress response, and the one thing we generally don’t (intentionally) do in times of stress. In days of yore when the things we got stressed about were actual bears or lions or wolves, our bodies would physically build up stress as we walked through the woods sensing the bear coming at us while we picked our berries. And then when the actual bear got really close, we would run! Because staying around while the bear eats us is just not smart.
And once you have run away from the bear, your body has burned off all the stress we built up worrying about the bear. You can go inside and have a nice cup of tea and put your feet up, because you have completed the stress cycle.
But when the stress is not about a bear, but about sending emails or paying the bills or writing up a story for Sunday, we don’t usually have to run away. So, the stress never burns off, and the stress cycle never completes. Apparently I’ve been building up stress for nearly 54 years. No wonder I’m hiding in a pandemic pillow fort!
According to the Nagoskis, the very best way to complete the stress cycle is physical exercise. Unfortunately, my knees, ankles, hips, and general indifference toward exercise combine to make it an unlikely outlet for me. So there are other ways to complete the stress cycle. Laughter. Not a tiny giggle, but the kind where your whole body shakes and tears stream down your face. Acts of creation. Not pretty artwork meant for an audience, but Making Something that taps into your soul. Souls tend to be shy, so we have to give them support and love if they want to come out of there. I’m writing more as part of my effort to close my stress cycle. Meditation can help… but meditation is a tricky one because a lot of us have this idea that meditation has to be a particular way — quiet and calm and noiseless. I’ve been letting my brain tell me stories these last few weeks, often with my inner voice as a narrator putting things into actual words.
The laughter one is working too. If you want to laugh that hard, come over to church on a Tuesday or Thursday or on Sunday morning and let my puppy Fozzie lick your face for a minute or two. I haven’t laughed so hard as I do when she’s trying to stalk my bun… She’s like, omigosh mom has a weird nest of hair on the back of her head… I should eat it! And then just for good measure she slobbers all over my glasses.
All of us, kids and adults, need to learn to close our stress cycles. Get out on the playground with your kids or grandkids and hang upside down or see if your tush still fits in the slide. Sing like nobody can hear you. Laugh until it hurts. Play a rousing game of hide and seek or tag. We have to put all this stress somewhere because our shoulders are all collectively breaking.
I love you all.
See you in church on Sunday, on Zoom or in person!