Thursday, April 23, 2020

Sister Stress and Brother Blues

Are you a wildcat or an antelope? That is, in times of stress, are you more likely to react with fight or with flight? I can get feisty and I can walk out ... but I think, in general, I'm more of a rabbit: I freeze. I play dead, like an opossum. I'm like an ostrich, burying my head in the sand of endless rounds of computer solitaire. When I get really anxious, I tend to get paralyzed. I procrastinate. My good habits start to slide. I'm less careful about what I eat, and I don't want to exercise. I can't focus on reading, my prayer life feels sterile, and sleep is less restful.

I'm very much aware of my prevailing reaction to stress, these days, because, you know, there's this pandemic going on. I stay away from social media and keep my consumption of the news to a minimum, but I'm not totally isolated, and the anxiety does reach into the hermitage. Add an extra special ingredient, like the spectacular demise of my 34-year-old stove (it's OK!  the cabinets didn't catch on fire, and the new stove was delivered this morning), as well as the less dramatic mixture of everyday challenges, and let's just say I've been thinking more than usual about coping with stress.

The most important thing, I find, is to pull my ostrich head out of the sand and face my anxiety head on. I don't mean to trade "freeze" for "fight," though. For me, the best way is a sort of split awareness, dividing my mind between my "inner child" and my "inner mother." When my inner child is cowering under the covers, inner mother can take her by the hand, give her a hug, and help her to face the monsters. Sometimes, that just means shining a flashlight under the bed to show nothing's there, or fixing the curtains so they don't cast scary shadows in the moonlight. Some monsters are real, but even then, a closer look may show them to be more bark (roar?) than bite. Some are terrible but remote and improbable, some are imminent threats that if I were to look at bravely, I might find that I could make a plan to deal with easily. But even in the worst-case scenario, "inner mother" needs to respond both to the outward situation and to the emotional needs of her "inner child." 

I think I'm probably not the only one who tends to think that being a grown-up demands a hard-headed practicality, with no room for childish emotion. But we are all a mixture of heart and head, and really healthy functioning demands attention to both. Ignoring our uncomfortable feelings -- whether anxiety or grief or unrequited love or the overwhelming urge to go buy a pack of cigarettes (20+ years now, thank God) -- doesn't make them go away. Ignoring an unhappy child doesn't make her happy, it just makes her act out her emotions in some less appropriate way ... and the exact same thing is true of us grown-ups, when we try to shut up or shut out the clamor of our unwelcome feelings. Our feelings end up influencing our actions one way or another; better to acknowledge them and deal with them directly.

So for me, what does mothering my inner child look like?

First of all, if I find myself restless, jumpy, irritable, etc. (like a fussy kid), I need to stop and pay attention, and ask myself, gently, what's going on? There may be more than one thing going on, and the ones that come up first might turn out to be distractions from something bigger and harder ... take the time and compassion to look deep. 

Second, for me, especially if the stressor is too big or too outside of my control for me to take much effective action against, I need to spend more time on my knees in direct, personal, contemplative prayer. I spend plenty of time in formal, liturgical prayer, plenty of time in wordy prayer, but it takes a different kind of attention to feel myself basking in God's motherly warmth and wrapped in the shelter of God's wings. 

Third, soothe my senses: play some music, take extra care over meal preparation, get up and move and stretch, take a hot shower, pet the cat. Once I have acknowledged the bad feelings, and their source, it's OK to lighten the mood with undemanding literature or my collection of old Pogo comic books, or whatever.

Fourth, connect with nature. I'm very, very lucky to live in the woods, with a view of an ever-changing tidal river, next to a park with lots of hiking trails. But this counted even when I worked in downtown D.C., and used to take my lunch in one of the many tiny green spots carved out where the diagonal avenues cross the square grid of streets. Just to walk out the door, with a pair of binoculars and my phone with its collection of nature apps -- it's like magic.

Fifth, having paid enough compassionate attention to my inner child to calm her down some, I can face thinking through the specific stressors, identify best- and worst-case scenarios, brainstorm options and imagine alternate outcomes, and if possible, think of some little concrete step I can take to make the situation better. Then take it. 

Sixth, since a lot of stress has to do with feeling powerless over a situation, it can be surprisingly helpful to take positive action on something entirely unrelated, to restore my sense of competence and mastery. Yesterday, it was snake-proofing the chicken coop, since I finally came to the conclusion that that's why I have been getting fewer eggs lately. That job was particularly affirming to my sense of competence, but something as simple as folding and putting away a basketful of laundry that's been sitting there waiting for two days, or sorting through a messy tangle of chargers and cords that's been bugging me every time I look at it, can make more difference to my state of mind than I would expect.

The bottom line is really stress management, which sounds like an overused self-help catchphrase -- but what it really means is to manage my stress, instead of trying to avoid and ignore the discomfort. Different techniques may work for different people. Antelopes and wildcats might respond better to other approaches, but for this little rabbit, these are things that help me to unfreeze when life starts to get me down.

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