This summer, I’m trying to take it down a notch to reduce my stress and anxiety levels in concrete ways that I can sustain in every aspect of my life. This seems like the next logical step in my recovery process, but I’m also listening to my body. I have so many good things happening in my life that I want and need to attend to, and when my body’s stress response is always activated, a lot of my mental and physical energy is diminished. I also realize I need to listen to my body because I have ignored what it has to say for too long. Last year was really hard and I was in school so didn’t have the time I needed to reflect on the details of how I live my life very much. But with time off from school and while I’m preparing for so many goals being met (presenting ideas that are very important to me at a conference, going to a screening of one of my latest short video projects, finishing up school and exploring graduate programs, my relationships with Kiri and my parents being in such a better place) now is the perfect time to take a closer look. I’m nervous about presenting at the conference and going back East for the film festival on my own, but I know these are amazing opportunities that I can’t pass up. This quote that Kiri gifted me gives me perspective every morning when I wake up…
Last March, I started getting vertigo around the time I went back to Virginia to see my parents. We almost lost Mom last winter, so I went to see them as soon as spring break started. I had a great visit with my parents and extended family and Mom is doing much better, but the dizziness and uneasy feeling in my body persisted through July 12th. I can pinpoint the exact day because Kiri and I were out of town at a friend’s wedding and took the time to talk and resolve some issues in our relationship. She and I have been through it since we moved in together in December 2007, but we’ve been in couples counseling since February and are finally communicating better as a result of all our hard work.
I’m also making a conscious effort to take it down a notch because when I saw an ear, nose and throat specialist for inner ear tests and an examination regarding the vertigo, she found no physical reasons for it. The doctor and I briefly talked about my history and she suggested I take Ativan for my anxiety (a benzodiazepine). I told her I had been on Klonopin (the heaviest benzodiazepine) for 11 years and carefully tapered off of it over the course of three years, but ended up having a psychotic break in acute withdrawal in 2010. I explained that I was subsequently heavily medicated and have since tapered off all psychotropic medications as of March 2013. With almost a year and a half free from all medications, I have no interest in getting back on them if I can find other ways to reduce my anxiety. She understood, but said I didn’t have to suffer. I told her this made sense to me from her perspective as a doctor, but I have never suffered more than I did being on and getting off of benzodiazepines. So I would prefer to rest over the summer and try other methods. She said many students come to her with dizziness from anxiety because school is so stressful and she hoped my uneasiness would resolve with rest and graduation at the end of this coming school year.
This interaction with the doctor was the real wake-up call that made me realize I need to take it down a notch in more long-lasting ways than my usual methods of self-care. I’ve been doing many of these activities for years and have always wanted to be able to integrate the feeling of calmness I feel when I’m doing them into the rest of my daily life with all of its challenges. But this has been very difficult for me. I feel like there is a lot of static that keeps me from activating ways a I know to calm my mind and body. But I know this static can be quieted down if I slow down in each stressful situation and access what I know on a deeper level.
In early July, I set my mind to taking it down a notch by writing about it, enacting it and talking about it at work, home and with friends. As soon as I talked about it and made it conscious, small ways to cope with stress started coming to me each week. Most of them are really simple, but some have been difficult changes to wrap my head around. But I’m finding that these changes help me focus more on the things in life that I value and enjoy. The more I practice them, the more energy I have to do what I really enjoy, and the more I’m able to accept life’s difficulties, change my perception of them, and change my reactions in stressful situations to reduce my anxiety.
TAKE IT DOWN A NOTCH #1: Dress it down
When I was in withdrawal and depressed for so long, I used a cognitive strategy called “act as if”. I dressed really nicely in perfectly matching outfits that helped define who I was in the world when I was feeling really disconnected from my body and sense of self.
I’m working at RRI as a student research assistant this summer. Everyone knows me because I did a 9-month internship before I was hired on. I have nothing to prove to anyone and I feel respected there. This is one of the only times I’ve felt this accepted in a job and it is wonderful! Everyone dresses down, especially with the heat we’ve been having this summer. So, as of mid-July I have been following suit. Unfortunately, work is a many gendered thing… People usually think I’m way younger than my age and I had a lot of problems with that at work in the past. I found myself dressing in certain ways to be more respected or taken more seriously in my physician and academic support positions over the past 10 years. But that doesn’t seem to be necessary where I work now. All of the primary investigators are women, the staff members are mainly women and I feel very supported there. I can be open and honest about who I am and what I’m doing in my life, so I feel more comfortable dressing down. And this has extended to my life outside work, as a result. Friends have said that my goth/punk roots are showing, and that feels good to get back to… Plus, dressing casually makes me feel more casual and relaxed.
TAKE IT DOWN A NOTCH #2: If something doesn’t make sense, ask questions
Everyone seems way too hurried in their communication these days. I think texting has a had a huge impact on daily communication at work and in home life, and I really don’t enjoy it. I come from a long line of letter writers on my mom’s side, so it must be in my blood or DNA. I miss the days of letters, cards, postcards and phone conversations between friends. I’ve had three or four really good phone dates with friends who live far away in the last year, and I want to get back to that way of communicating with friends near and far.
I do a lot of trouble-shooting at work. It’s hard to understand what’s going on when people send me a really short, vague email about a problem. This summer, someone forwarded a huge thread of emails that I hadn’t participated in at all. It was all topped with a very short, vague email about what I was supposed to do. This time, before I even looked into the problem, I took a deep breath and typed back, “Could you please clarify what you need from me? There’s so much information here that it’s not clear to me what you want me to do.” This interaction went so well and reduced my stress so much that this has become my protocol for responding to short, vague emails.
I realized that this strategy goes back to something I learned from my Grandma Bryant as a kid, “If something doesn’t make sense to you, just ask.” I’m applying it at home, work, with family–you name it!
TAKE IT DOWN A NOTCH #3: Do one thing at a time
When I’m busy, I prioritize what I need to do, but get pulled toward other things in the vicinity. For example, if I’ve been working or studying at home and am starving and need to make lunch (priority #1), I will throw in a load of laundry, clean the catbox and tidy up the kitchen while my food is cooking. I can get a lot done this way, but it isn’t really a lunch break. I think this attitude started in the 70’s… I remember Raquel Welch and Miss Piggy singing, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never never never forget you’re a man…” on the muppet show. I thought it was a really sexy song as a kid, but didn’t realize how much I’ve been socialized to multitask at all times! It has become so ingrained in my mind that I made it part of my work and home life. This mentality is definitely not a good way to reduce stress, so I am working on doing one thing at a time and it feels so much better.
Thanks Raquel and Miss Piggy… but no thanks!
TAKE IT DOWN A NOTCH #4: Unplug
I’ve worked in very technical jobs for the last 12 years. While I value and enjoy what I can do with computers in my creative life, I do not enjoy interfacing with them at all when I’ve been staring at one all day at work. This is one of the main reasons I went back to school to switch up my career and hopefully work more with people in the future. Because I have to use computers so much for work, in my free time the last thing I want to do is stare at a screen of any sort. I haven’t owned a television in 14 years and even when I did own one, I only watched VHS tapes or DVDs. I love films so much, but television works my last nerve. And I have to confess that social media does, too. I love being in touch with so many of my friends, but I really have to limit the amount of time I spend engaging with social media.
My decision to unplug more often is directly related to the things in life that I value and enjoy most and what it is about those things that make me feel good. My greatest enjoyments in life occur when I completely unplug or am in various stages of unplugging. First-stage unplugging happens when I do crafts or spacecoaster (lay on the floor on my stomach on a cushion and do breathing exercises before bed) while listening to music. This stage of unplugging also happens when I do yoga with my favorite Alan Finger DVDs, or take photos as I walk or hike. In both of these stages, media and technology are present, but they are used in the service of activities (physical movement) that gets me into a new frame of mind and/or out into the world. These have become very important rituals for me and I try to do two a day.
Second-stage unplugging happens when I socialize. I never check my phone when I’m with friends and Kiri and I have instituted date nights where we turn our phones off. I think it’s rude to be engaged with a screen instead of the person you are together to spend time with. And I think it’s sad when friends or couples don’t talk and only look at their phones over dinner. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I usually only take my phone out with friends if I want to show them something.
Third-stage unplugging is going into nature so far out that you are out of cell range. I need this kind of activity at least once a week, but would prefer it more. When I go camping, my whole physiology changes. The quiet and lack of distractions soothe me and I sleep soundly for up to 12 hours. It always takes a day for my mind to unwind and sometimes my brain downloads with really crazy dreams the fist night, but I don’t wake with a start or have heart palpitations in the middle of the night like I do most nights in the city. There is just far less static in nature and the sensory information is pleasant to me, so I can completely relax. I can focus on the challenges in my life, but I’m not distressed by them. When I feel safe and quiet in nature, everything in my life feels safe and quiet. When the volume of the static in the attic gets turned way down, I am in my body and feel aligned with my surroundings rather than at odds with them. There is nothing to distract me from what I value and enjoy and I feel most like myself.
TAKE IT DOWN A NOTCH #5: Be slow and methodical
When I was a young kid, I was very slow and methodical in everything I did. I walked slowly and took a lot of time to reflect. I drew a lot, wrote stories and loved to read and play alone. Even though I was sometimes scolded for it, this was how I lived my life. This changed when we moved out of the rural Eastern Shore and into the suburbs of Portsmouth, Virginia. I was 9 years old and we only lived there for one school year, but that year made a big impression on me. I started getting bullied for qualities about myself beyond my weight, clothes and offbeat personality. That year, my bully was a girl who was held back at least two grades that I had to sit next to because we were seated by height. She was the tallest and I was the second tallest. She was one sadistic 11 year old who thoroughly enjoyed terrorizing me and shaming me for being “too smart” and “too damn slow”. We were also paired in PE and were partners in a public performance for field day which was completely humiliating and sent me into my first long-lasting state of depersonalization where I felt completely disconnected from my body. We performed a syncrhronized ball bouncing routine to music where the kids from my class were spread across the entire field. My tall, blond classmate who looked a lot like Lindsay Wagner the Bionic Woman threw the ball way too hard and it bounced over my head. It rolled off the field and I had to run to get it, which threw the whole routine off. In retrospect, this action in and of itself wasn’t that big of a deal, but it was the culmination of a year of more threatening behavior that was built up because we had practiced the routine for a while and I was really nervous about it. I’m sure my classmate’s life was challenging because she had so much anger and I hope she found healthy ways to resolve it as she matured.
Throughout life we are all taught to “keep up with the crowd” on so many levels–physically, socially, at work, in our daily comings and goings that are so fast-paced–that I grew to believe it wasn’t okay to be the slow and methodical person that I naturally am. Well, this is changing for the better… While other jobs I’ve had have required me to change my pace to keep up with the workflow, research requires slow and methodical examination of the data. Until very recently, I was still caught up in the pace of my previous jobs. It’s been great to get so many accolades for getting so much work done in my new job, but it just isn’t necessary for me to work at such a fast pace. I don’t get as much enjoyment from my work if I’m stressed to do it at a fast pace, and I’m at risk of misinterpreting the data I’m analyzing. So, last week I decided it is perfectly acceptable (and even advisable) for me to take it down an notch and do everything in a very slow and methodical manner. I have definitely applied this to work already and always fall into my natural pace when I’m in nature, but I hope to bring it into my home life, interactions with friends and my studies once school is back in session at the end of September.
I’m going to add strategies as they emerge, so look for updates to this post in the future.