As writers and as human beings, we all have to deal with stress. I offer these thoughts and observations as someone who has occupied every level of the stress staircase at some point, in the hope that they may be of some use to someone.
There is an anatomy to stress. The difficulty is that, when we are experiencing stress, it’s hard to see anything sensible or structured about it. When it is at its height, anything resembling reasonable thought vanishes and we are caught up in a swirling vortex of anxiety which seems to have no end or even beginning — we are swept away, as it were, into a tornado of mental and physical sensations. But I suggest that there is both an end and a beginning to stress, and that it is possible to climb out of it (and into it) and to learn to effectively deal with it.
It would be wrong — simply inaccurate and unrealistic — to expect to snap one’s fingers and have stress just disappear. But it might be possible to distance ourselves somewhat from its worst excesses, and then, through various careful means, leave it behind altogether over time.
I was about ten years old when I first learned to ride a bike — a late developer, as most of my friends had mastered the task much earlier. Fear of pain from falling onto the road put me off. But gradually I learned to find a balancing point. Dealing with stress is like learning to ride a bike — the tendency at first is to fall over into the pain. Indeed, to anyone unfamiliar with bike riding, it might seem that falling over is inevitable, to be expected. The advice from such an observer would be to prepare bandages. But, practised in the knowledge that balance is attainable, achieving balance eventually comes.
Part of our expectation with regard to stress is that we must fall over into it. Indeed, our whole psychology seems to demand that we do — that, if we somehow avoid mental and physical anguish, or fail to ‘fully experience’ it, we are in denial and simply putting off the inevitable. But these suppositions are largely cultural rather than actual; they resemble the approach of that observer who was unfamiliar with riding a bicycle — pain and distress, according to such an observer, are going to happen so we might as well face up to them and prepare for them. The concept of achieving some kind of state in which that inevitable pain was no longer inevitable is beyond them. It’s not their fault — they perhaps just haven’t observed or imagined such a condition.
What this approach fails to understand is the underlying nature of stress as it is actually experienced.
Stress feels like being sucked into something. We have issues — perhaps to do with physical or mental health, perhaps to do with relationships, money, or even society or the environment and so forth— and these matters are ‘pressing’: a metaphorical expression, but one which captures the sensation rather well. Health, relationships, finance and so on — they seem to press in on us, or they draw away our strength like physical objects possessing gravity. If we imagine our attention as a plasma-like cloud, they seem to be siphoning it off into themselves, often by the gallon. When stressed, we can barely think of anything else — our minds are sucked into the maelstrom like light trying to escape a black hole.
And that’s our first clue as to how to deal with things: that black hole forms a perfect representation of what we are coping with.
Stress, worry, anxiety — these are the mental effects of black holes, unknowns usually to do with future outcomes, which exert a gravity-like effect on the mental plasma of our attention. Unaddressed, this pulling effect sucks that attention into the core of the unknown. Once we get near the centre of that hole, reason and sanity are no longer possible: the core of the thing acts to disturb everything we thought of as stable. Rational thought, which demands space and perspective, is lost, overwhelmed. Recognising that this image is a reflection of what is actually happening to us is the starting point of recovery and eventually freedom.
Black holes, vacuums which suck everything towards themselves, gaps, missing things, losses, mysteries, unknowns — these lie at the core of stress. Perhaps we are awaiting the outcome of medical tests which have potentially fatal implications; perhaps we are dominated by an unpredictable partner who causes us pain; perhaps we are subject to the anxiety that comes with being unable to pay our bills. At the root of each of these issues and many others is an unknown, a ‘What will happen next?’, a ‘What’s going on?’ That unknown pulls at us and has the potential, if it’s serious enough, to swallow us up.
First step, recognition, then. Recognise that that is what is happening: our attention is being sucked towards something.
Cultural expectations, as mentioned, incline us to succumb to that pull, to move toward the centre, to ‘confront the matter head-on’, with the implication that to do otherwise is denying the ‘truth’ and will lead to future trouble — another black hole unknown.
But what if we were to take a different approach?
What if we were to try and ‘ride the bike’?
Let’s see what happens if we decide to not simply allow ourselves to fall into the black hole. Firstly, as mentioned, we must recognise what’s happening; secondly, we must come to see that collapsing into the vacuum is actually the worst thing we could do. If we permit ourselves to be drawn closer and closer to the core of whatever it is, we progressively lose the very power we need to escape from it — our rationality, sanity, sense of perspective and ability to analyse options are all drained away. We become like photons trying to escape a black hole in space, trapped forever in orbit around it or swallowed by it.
The best thing we could do, counter-intuitively perhaps, is distance ourselves from it. But it’s probably not possible — especially if we are directly experiencing physical or mental pain — to expect a vast distance to open up between ourselves and it. Rather more realistically, we should aim to edge away. Our first intention, on finding ourselves caught in the ‘gravitational pull’ of a source of stress, should probably be to try to reach a point of balance in relation to it — in other words, a point at which we are not overcome by it, are still very much aware of it, but have it at ‘arm’s length’ to some degree. From such a position it might be possible to think rationally and creatively about any unknown.
It turns out that there are several positions in relation to stress which we can adopt, and even a ladder of steps we might be able to take to move through them.
That’s what we’ll look at next.