During my few days back this week I had dinner with my three most important Minneapolis people. We were having a few drinks waiting for our table, when this blog came up in conversation. “What’s your blog about?” asked one of them. And before I could utter a single word, my other friend retorts “It’s about sadness.” The entire group erupted in laughter. Partly because how horrible it must be to read about that topic and, of course, that her statement was entirely true.
Honestly, I don’t really believe that “it’s about sadness,” but I can see how people may interpret it that way. We all know that I tend to tread on the dark side. I’m dark and twisty (Thank you Grey’s Anatomy for helping me define that personality trait). And I’m good with that. You will never see me ever start a post with “Got up this morning feeling energized and ready for good things to happen. I love my life.” Gag. Truly. I think people say those things more to convince themselves rather than the general public. What I believe is that we all have these ideas in our heads that we think are scary, sad or wrong. We go through life trying to ignore them because we honestly believe that we are the only people on the planet with these neuroses. It’s categorically untrue. So I decided to put my own personal brand of crazy – sad, sick, dark and twisted – out there. And when you read about it, you can pass judgment or admit that sometimes you feel the same way.
That was sadness and now, for fear. I was reading an article this morning on my flight back to Boston. And it brought me back to something that I learned in my therapy sessions. Yes, I saw a psychologist. Stigma, be damned. It was the best thing that I ever decided to do for myself. Anyway – the title was “Stopped Cold” by a woman named Andrea Bartz and it was all about our responses to perceived danger. When confronted with something scary, our amygdala signals the body to release stress hormones such as adrenaline. Those hormones activate the sympathetic nervous system preparing us to react in one of three ways. We know about fight or flight, however, this particular article focused on the freeze instinct – instead of moving forward we stop in our tracks. We freeze. Trapped like a deer in headlights by our own anxiety. I lived in that exact frozen state for many years battling depression and all the joys that came with it. I was terrified almost all the time. I couldn’t bring myself to run away but I never really seemed to fight for my survival either. Until one day my therapist and I talked about ways that I could counter the paralyzing anxiety that plagued me. I would have to purposely put myself in situations that caused the anxiety. I would have to push through the crazy and stick it out until the anxiety peaked and then tapered off – as she promised me that it would.
This article confirmed that conversation. Don’t we seek out relaxing situations to ease anxiety? Why the hell would we voluntarily seek out anxiety? Consider it “training.” Regularly challenging yourself with short-term stressors can actually build up your tolerance to long-term stress as well as help you cope better with scary situations.
“Every time your body fires up the sympathetic nervous system, pushes through a frightful moment and returns to baseline, it gets a little more efficient at taking you through that loop.”
Eureka! I did it back then as a part of therapy. And now I do it as a regular routine. I’m like a racehorse – I need to be pushed (Thanks again Grey’s). I don’t do well in boring, monotony. So I need things that make me scared and uncomfortable. I need to know that I can push through and conquer that fear. Honestly, having no job and living in a new city scares the shit out of me. There is no guarantee that I will be successful or happier in Boston. I could conceivably arrive and spend months paralyzed by fear, unable to go out and really embrace this experience. I did that once, moving to Minnesota, and I overcame it. It made me darker. But it also made me stronger.
Like that first hill on a roller coaster, you spend minutes watching yourself travel upwards, away from the safety of the ground and all you can see at the top is a drop-off. Your heart beats faster and you start to sweat. Before long you are in a full blown panic. You have no choice now but to see this ride through. And as the adrenaline peaks with the top of the hill, you do all you can to muster the courage to let go and scream. The rest of the ride passes almost without incident and when it is over you are strangely calm and, interestingly enough, unafraid to do it again.
The article ends by saying that our feet won’t move until we know where we are going. We stay frozen until we believe that there is something within our power to change. I believe it now. There are still so many times when the crazy panic sets in, but I’m in training, so forward it is.