Archives for posts with tag: stress management

I watched the Oscar winning film, Man on Wire, a couple of years back. It is a documentary about Philippe Petit’s high wire stunts, in particular, his 1974 high wire act between the tops of the former Twin Towers in New York City. It is a mesmerizing film.

Mssr. Petit’s balance was AMAZING. It wasn’t exactly as if he were walking on solid ground, but it was about as solid as one could possibly be under the circumstances.

I frequently find myself in very stressful circumstances. Sometimes, I am able to keep my balance and walk as if the ground is as solid as it could possibly be. Unlike Philippe Petit, I have not sought out these dangers. He had to have constructed a very different reality to justify his actions. I thought of his friends and family and how painful it would be to be a part of his life. Then I figured that anyone who could actually tolerate being with him must share in at least a bit of his acrobatic justifications. I don’t remember if this topic was addressed in the film but in my imagination I see his wife indoctrinate, I mean, explain to their young son (in English with poor French accent because this is my imagination), “Aaah, your Papa cannot stay on the ground. For him, it is a death. When he dies, he want to be…ALIVE.”

But I digress…

I find myself lately flailing a bit, having a hard time keeping my balance. When I flail, it is not pretty. Sometimes, I fall on my ass and stay there until the pain and embarrassment subside. At other times, it is more like a tap dance on a small stage. I shuffle, I step. I keep testing the ground for firmness, trying to find the right place for right now. It all seems very much on display. I can continue to struggle to find my footing even while I am experiencing a positive situation. It’s the ups and the downs that get me. If something positive happens after a negative, I sometimes find myself doing a little dance routine, “Hey friends and family, who I have depressed and worried with my tales of woe, look at me! Look at me! I am having THE BEST time. Ta da!!!!!!  I was good, right? Isn’t this great?”

Sometimes the level of observation I do is incredibly helpful. At other times, it enhances my self-consciousness and minimizes any chance of ease I have in the moment. This is a long-winded way of saying that I sometimes think too much.

I’m not quite sure how to get out of this mode. I know that it is fear based. (The nightmares I had over the weekend were a tip off. See, I am a professional. 😉 ) I am feeling the urge to apologize to people but when I really think about what I could have possibly done to hurt anyone it is that I have been flailing and awkward. I haven’t really done anything and I know from years as  a frequent flailer that the best way to increase the awkwardness that flailing creates is to apologize. If my awkwardness was all internal, my apologizing just confuses other people. They don’t know what the Hell I am talking about. And then I end up trying to explain myself and as the words come out of my mouth I realize that I am flailing in circles. Alternatively, the other person provides reassurance that I have not been awkward and flailing or that my awkward tap dance was completely understanding. This kind of reassurance can be a drug to us reassurance-seeking types and actually reinforce anxiety. The better course is to move on and keep going.

Eventually, I regain my footing.

Last week I dreamed about my kittens. (Yes, I know, despite my formative years as a “dog person”, I have become a “cat lady” in my middle age.) My kittens are litter mates, brother and sister, both with pure black coats.

In my dream, they were conjoined twins. People looked at them and remarked, “Oh, look at the cute kitties!” Then the heads of the kitties started looking in different directions and the front right and left feet did the same. The kitties looked distressed. They were not working as a team.

When I awoke from the dream, I thought, “I need to use this image in a blog post.” Yes, really I did. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I am not someone who makes fancy dream interpretations. But I do think about my dreams, especially when I think they signal distress. At the time I was having the dream, I was concerned that John and I were not parenting as a team as well as usual and that we were having trouble communicating about the logistics of our lives. I think that is probably what the dream was about.

I have been pretty stressed during the last couple of weeks. I am an energetic extrovert. Nonetheless, I don’t function well if I am pulled in a hundred directions, living a fragmented life. I am not good at perpetually switching gears. That’s one of the reasons I was attracted to pursuing a research career rather than a career as a clinician. Clinical work means switching gears between people, situations, and goals, quite frequently. When I did research, I worked on one or two projects for years at a time. But I ended up being a clinician and thank goodness, I learned how to switch gears much better than I did previously.

Right now my workdays consist of switching constantly among work, driving my daughter around, getting to my healthcare appointments. My daughter has needed to be driven to one to three locations all around Seattle, every day, starting in the middle of the day. She takes the bus when she can but there are logistics to be worked there there, too.

Yesterday, I reminded her of what time she needed to be home from school (she is volunteering each morning to help with a band program for younger kids) so that I could take her to an activity at 2:00 pm in northeast Seattle. (We live in southwest Seattle.) The original plan had been for her to take the bus downtown and then take a transfer to get to the office. However, we’d tried that the day before and she missed the bus. Since it was mid-day, there was not another bus for an hour. I cancelled my annual physical so that I could come home from work and drive her. Seattle is not an easy city in which to get around. It is long, narrow, surrounded by water, and hilly, for starters. This means that there are a rather limited number of highways and streets available to get from one place to another.

As I complain frequently, I find driving to be taxing and stressful. I am a good driver and it is not that I feel really anxious when I am driving. It’s mostly that I have to think so hard. And it’s not that figuring out bus schedules and directions is that hard, especially with the Internet. It’s hard to remember to do it and to make sure my daughter has the information she needs and understands where she is supposed to be at what time and how to get there. (This is one time when I kind of wish we’d allow her to have a smartphone, but I digress.) Riding the bus involves a surprising number of steps and also, some background knowledge that a non-driver doesn’t necessarily know. Consequently, I need to break it down in my mind and then make sure she knows things I would otherwise take for granted. For example, “You have a parade after your appointment. It is north of where you will be. Do you know what side of the street to be on to take a northbound bus?” The answer is “no”. And she does not yet know north, south, east, and west. When I was her age, I didn’t either. Then there are the fragmented questions I throw out, “Remember your bus pass!” “Remember to pack a lunch!” “Remember your phone!” “Remember your band uniform. You’re not going to have a chance to come back home before the parade!”

If you are a long reader of this blog, you will know that I live with some rather forgetful people who actually need frequent reminders, even if they are not always happy to receive them, in the moment. And by the way, it is not enabling if your child is actually getting better at remembering these things on her own, which is the case for her. But she is only up to remembering these things about 50% of the time. Think about what your daily life would be like if you were not where you were supposed to be with the what you needed, half of the time. Also, you carry your bus pass in an old eyeglass case and your money in a ring box. And this is a major improvement in organization from years past. Finally, you don’t drive. See, having a nagging mom would be annoying but handy.

About two paragraphs, I was telling you about one example day. Then I veered off course. What you don’t know if that while I’ve been writing this post, I’ve stopped and started it many times. I actually wanted to write it last week when I had the dream. Right at this moment, I am fighting the impulse to walk out and investigate the bird sounds I am hearing.

When I am switching gears too much, coordinating multiple goals, I find that it is hard to stop switching gears. I find even more goals and they aren’t priority either. Instead of being a two-headed cat, I turn into a creature with an ever changing number of heads, all on one body. There is effort to do things but none of the cohesion required to get things done in an efficient way.

The first thing that happens to me is that I start getting forgetful. Then I start making mistakes. Then I start getting anxious that I am making a lot of mistakes and I am so distracted that my level of self-awareness waxes and wanes. Then I make more mistakes. Then I start a flurry of unecessary reassurance seeking. “Are you sure you have the bus pass?” “Hey, friend, did I just treat you badly?”

There is an expression that people use referring to feeling “centered”. It is a positive thing but honestly I can’t exactly articulate what it is. But what I can tell you that at this time, I don’t feel centered or “grounded”, another common description that people use to refer to a state of balance.

I don’t feel centered. I don’t feel grounded. I feel like I have an infinite number of heads and none of them contain good working brains. Now, these are subjective feelings. In reality, I am functioning. I am carrying out my life with competence. But I feel icky in the process.

My natural inclination is to think of the happy, balanced, reasonable, bright, organized, empathetic, and energetic version of myself as “the real me” and the other times are aberrant.

I am becoming increasingly, aware, however of how unreasonable this belief really is. I am always me. Who else would I be? The person who gets irritable with her husband because she is overwhelmed and fragmented? That’s me. The person who asked her husband to take care of a responsibility this morning because she was exhausted, even though she’s been irritable with him? That’s me. The real me is not that perfect and it is unhealthy for me to maintain a vision of myself as needing to meet that standard in order to be “real”.

The person who is feeling a little more grounded and centered after having sorted through her thoughts and feelings while writing this post?

That’s me, too.

I have goals in my life. Some day, my life will end. But my life, itself, is not a goal or an end point.

My life is an experience, with lines of continuity as well as flux.

What else would it be?

I am not a naturally calm person. Like many successful nerds, I am naturally anxious. I like to know what to expect and if what is expected is not to my liking, I like to know how to change it. I like it when people are happy and they like me. I would like to know that my wonderful and unique daughter could never be harmed and will be a happy adult with meaningful relationships and work. I would really like it if none of the people I love got sick or died. I would also like it if my house were clean 24/7. Finally, I would like it if my daughter were to stop singing a Justin Bieber song at the top of her voice, while I am trying to write this post. I don’t care if she’s changed the words to “this is such a stupid song.” It’s REALLY loud. And it’s a Justin Bieber song and not only are his songs bad but it looks like his life may be going toward a very sad Lindsey Lohan direction. I’m a mom and a lover of kids and I don’t want a sad life for Justin Bieber, whether I like his songs or not.

But I have digressed, once again. None of us have control over our lives. We have influence and that is it. It is the same for our children’s lives. We have influence but not control. It is the same for breast cancer. I have influence to reduce the risk of recurrence or the occurrence of another potentially deadly disease, but not total control. As individuals, our relationship with the universe is one in which we matter but are not masters.

Prior to my forties, my current life circumstances would have likely put me around the bend. There would be a lot more crying and beating of my breast. I would yell at my husband, a lot, because that is what I do when I am feeling totally out of control. Or I would just stay in bed all day, every day, thinking dark and scary thoughts.

Not to say I don’t have my moments, but I am still a happy person and pretty even-keeled. To what do I attribute this calm? Well, there are  a lot of things including my wonderful friends, family, healthcare providers, and blog buddies, but today I want to talk about mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation is the real deal. It has been used in eastern philosophical and religious traditions for a long long time and in mainstream, evidence-based psychology, and behavioral medicine for 20-30 years (yeah, I should look it up, but I am lazy). I am far from an expert in mindfulness but even my very beginner-level 10 minutes of deep breathing every morning and evening coupled with a mindset of trying to stay in the moment and observe and accept what comes my way, have gone an enormous way in helping me keep balance in my life.

And this is not a fringe practice, mind you, the big University of Washington, which is turbo-research oriented and one of the top institutions in the country (multiple disciplines including psychology and medicine), loves mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation is helpful for a myriad of difficulties from suicidality, to day-to-day stress management, to pain management, to the prevention of the recurrence of breast cancer.

I started practicing mindfulness consistently after my mastectomy. The first thing I noticed is that meditation was relaxing and unlike some other forms of meditation I have done, I wasn’t struggling to make my mind “blank”. In mindfulness, it’s not a “no-no” to drift off in thought. It’s just something that happens. The second thing I noticed was that my brain got a chance to rest. That doesn’t happen frequently for me.  I have a very busy brain, which was put into turbo drive by my cancer diagnosis. The “voices in my head” gradually became less chatty and frenetic. The third thing I noticed is that I became much less irritable and much better equipped to handle big stressors without freaking out.

If you are interested in trying it out, if only to help pass the time while you are seated in a doctor’s waiting room, I recommend any of the following resources:

Mindfulness Meditations for Teens (Yeah, I know it says “teens” but it’s my favorite and very applicable to the world of adults) by Bodhipaksa. I also see that in addition to CD form, it is now available as an mp3 download.

Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery: A Step-by-Step MBSR Approach to Help You Cope with Treatment and Reclaim Your Life (This is particularly good if you like a program that is laid out for you week by week. There are a number of mindfulness techniques explained, including breathing, meditation, and yoga.

Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. (This is a good place to start if you would like a background on mindfulness meditation. The author, Dr. Kabat-Zinn has been teaching mindfulness meditation skills for decades and also produces CD’s. and mp3 downloads.)

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George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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