A few months ago I listened to a podcast and I can’t for the life of me remember who it was by, likely Brene Brown but I couldn’t find it again in my search. Anyways, they quoted someone and the quote was something like this… “Stress lives in the space between what we want to be happening and what is actually happening.” Recently I saw a similar quote shared but it was attributed to Oprah, she said, “All stress comes from resisting what is.” Either way some brilliant woman said something along these lines about stress, and I keep circling back to it over and over again in almost every aspect of my life.
I mean, have you ever heard it explained so simply? I have an image or idea in my head of what I want my current reality to look like and when that image or idea doesn’t come to be I experience discomfort, frustration, etc. And that feeling is stress. Duh.
Sometimes getting rid of this stress means simply shifting your expectations and accepting that shifting was needed and ok. Other times it is so much more complicated. (And by “other times” I mean for me it’s always more complicated.) This week I’m struggling because I’m stuck in stress and I can’t exactly just shift my expectations and call it good. To top it off I’m stressing about my stress so I’m all kinds of a mess.
Starting this week Jack’s school is moving from “masks required” to “masks recommended.” This has been happening in lots of places over the last few months so we kind of knew it was coming. But I’ve been hoping so hard everyone would just continue to mask. If my visit to the grocery store this weekend is any indication of what to expect moving forward then it’ll be around 25% that continue to mask. For most people this is a welcome step to returning to normal. But I am terrified. We have avoided hospitalization for Molly since November 2020. Masks have been a huge factor in this. Jack went back to school in August and has only gotten one mild cold since then. Again, masks are a huge factor in this! So it is scary to imagine him potentially being exposed to a wider range of infections that could then come into our home. Molly is only on active therapy for three more months so of course I was really hoping the school would continue to mask through May. My stress between what my current reality is: masks no longer being required, and what I wish my reality was: everyone masking always, at least through May/June is obvious. So I’m stuck in this wedge. Add in the isolation piece to all of this and it’s just really messy. I can’t just shift and find peace with knowing Molly is at risk. That is unsettling and always will be. I will never be ok knowing this and I can’t expect myself to be. I can try to accept it is out of my control and that there is very little I can do about it so that I don’t waste a ton of energy trying to hyper-control everything else in my life, but again easier said than done.
Because here’s what I do when I’m overwhelmed and not handling stress well. I usually recognize my stress, I analyze whether it is something I can change or not, then when it isn’t something I can just accept I beat myself up for not handling it better. So not only am I stressed but then I’m stressed about how I’m being stressed. I also feel shame and guilt for not living up to some ungodly expectations I made up for myself about how I’m supposed to be able to manage. It is a desperate way to focus on anything other than the things I cannot control, but unhealthy nonetheless.
I have done a lot of work in therapy surrounding this specific thing because really the last two and a half years have been this. I have read articles and blogs and things by other parents of kids battling cancer and many talk about how they had to get to a place of acceptance. I haven’t gotten there and I don’t know if I ever will. But I think that is ok, for me. I feel like it is possible to be upset that things are out of my control and to feel all the things that brings with it: fear, disappointment, anger, worry, etc. But also to not make it worse by adding the extra pressures, measuring by unrealistic expectations, fighting against it to maintain face, etc. For me lately, it means not downplaying or questioning my emotions as if they’re assumed negative. I can look at how I feel, and I need to, but I don’t have to pressure myself to change that feeling before I’m ready. The turbulence and tension comes when I try to rush a feeling or convince myself I shouldn’t feel a certain way. By giving myself room to feel what I feel I let some air in. Emotions can be heavy, hard, and deep; and lately they have been all of those things at once. But I don’t think the emotion itself is turbulent. Obviously some feelings stem from certain habits and old ways of thinking and that gets more gray, but in general I think feeling the feelings is not the disruption but rather that comes in how I respond to them. I can’t stop my feelings. They make me who I am. So figuring out how I respond to them and how I let them impact me is where I can analyze if I am adding tension unnecessarily. (Spoiler: I almost always am.)
I’ve started thinking of my emotions as part of me and not separate from me. Because I think it’s a weird societal conditioning that we consider emotions being outside of ourselves as if we can assert power over them or something. Like we should be bigger than them. But if we realize they are us then we elevate them differently and respect them more. If we choose to honor them and let them hold space then we acknowledge that part of ourselves and are allowed to be moved by it. We are getting reacquainted with who we are in a way we haven’t ever been asked to. We give ourselves permission to make decisions based on what our intuition and feelings are telling us instead of looking for that reassurance from outside factors, people, environments, etc.
Recognizing that I am not my circumstances and that I am bigger than the things happening around me gives me enough grace and space to see myself both in and out of those moments. I can be stressed and worried about something specific without discounting myself as crazy or emotional or anxious. And I can go through really hard things and have moments that make me feel broken or down without actually being a broken person.
So much is out of my control right now that it feels like I am constantly reacting. Every moment is a reaction: a reaction to Molly’s labs, Jack’s schooling, Dan’s work schedule, etc. So when I get in these slumps of feeling overwhelmed it is usually because I am anticipating what is coming and trying to gauge my reaction and everyone else’s too. I put pressure on myself to respond in the perfect way at the right time in a way that feels good but also makes life easier on those around me. Constantly looking to the next reaction doesn’t allow me to genuinely respond in the present and therefore creates a disconnect within myself. It doesn’t allow me to feel what I’m actually feeling at all.
I’ve been trying to figure out what it looks like for me to react in a genuine, true to myself way. On my best days I think there is a trend.
1. Pause. Like actually be still. 2. Breathe. When I am stressed I breathe so shallow and hold my breath so much. It can’t be healthy. 3. Stay in the moment even when it’s really hard. Anxiety makes this step particularly hard. 4. Give myself grace and space to respond and feel from my gut, my knowing, my heart, my soul. It is a huge victory for me to make it to this step. 5. Trust myself. Oof. 6. Recognize that regardless of the outcome I am not my circumstances. I can adjust and change and grow and course correct as many times as necessary. 7. Reach out and stay connected to people who know my heart, trust and believe in me, and hold me accountable to honoring myself.
The catch is that this only works if I can catch it before the overwhelm sets in. When the stress gets too big and I withdraw or resort to old habits then the ship has already sailed. I’ll fall back into old and less healthy habits in a snap. I have to force myself to stay connected to the now. That means making time for myself, for quiet, for relationships and support, for truth and truth telling, for accountability, for connection. When I do these things and stay rooted in myself then my reactions become an extension of me. When I do these things I react in a way that honors myself and my family and the life we are actively creating to be the most true and beautiful thing we can imagine. When I do these things I don’t have to second guess myself because I know my reaction is mine and everything else is outside of me. When I do these things I can breathe. When I do these things I still see and feel my stress but I stop stressing about the stress and how I’m handling it because I know the way I’m handling it is at least honest. When I do these things there’s a level of recognizing my humanity and the need to feel all the things even when things are perfect or don’t feel good. Because being human is anything but feeling good all the time. When I do these things I know I can trust to come out on the other side even more brave than before.
I’m trying to wrap this up but realizing I don’t actually have any real solutions. I’m sorry if you’ve read this far expecting them to come. I guess there are some trends in the things that do help like I mentioned above. But they don’t work every time and they’re always changing and they’re different for each of us. Instead I guess I want to normalize and validate that endless stress cycles are real and hard and exhausting. Stressing about how we feel stress is also real and hard and exhausting. And no amount of being told to shift your expectations will close the stress cycles or help you. Sometimes shifting isn’t enough because there just isn’t a feasible way to accept what actually is and in those moments all we can really do is accept that we are human and humaning is hard and our only goal can be to not make it worse.
Thanks for reading.
With so much love and gratitude,
*Originally published in 2021 and republished August 2023.