On Stress, Coping, and Identity

By Catherine DiMercurio

Identity is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. Make it a good story.

When I lost my voice a few weeks ago, I never imagined it would turn into this ever-evolving, never-ending cold. I’ve talked to a number of people who have recently battled a similar respiratory virus in this prolonged fashion. But the first thing I find myself saying if someone asks how I’m doing or comments on my cough is, “I never get sick. I haven’t been sick for years.” I consider how much the stress at work has run me down, and how my immune system finally couldn’t keep up. I’ll admit it—I get really defensive about being sick for this long. Normally, I can shake something in a couple of days, and I’ve heard myself saying that too.

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The Stories We Tell

I think this defensiveness arises because I want to be thought of as strong, vibrant, and resilient. To be honest, I want to think of myself that way. It’s the story I tell myself about who I am, who I came to be after some difficult times. And certainly getting sick doesn’t change that, but when the illness is coupled with some major changes at work along with other stressors, the story starts to sound a little different, and the overwhelmed feeling takes on an outsized proportion to the things actually going on. The thought maybe I can’t handle all this quietly and persistently transforms itself, mutating like this cold, from a random sentiment to a refrain.

Find a Reprieve

I’ve been swimming in this state for a couple of weeks now knowing I have to find my way out of it, because it’s dangerous territory. My go-to coping mechanisms are usually exercise and being outside. I’ve felt too lousy to do much exercise lately and the weather is only just now starting to turn, but I’m trying to get back into my normal routines. A few evenings ago I spent some time doing yard work and my mood shifted considerably. I remember wishing I could hold on to that buoyancy, because I knew once I slipped into another workday, the feeling would ebb away. I decided, instead of looking at it as a feeling I knew I would lose, to view it as a reprieve from the stress.

Credit and Compassion

I also realized I had to start giving myself credit for my success and compassion for my setbacks. I even made a list of some of the big things I’ve accomplished, to remind myself that I can handle things and get through tough times. I thought about how I earned my MFA while going through my divorce and returning to fulltime work and raising my two children, who at the time were just entering middle school and high school. Though sometimes now I question the monetary cost of that degree in comparison to its value in terms of employment prospects, I know it yielded less tangible or obvious rewards. And regardless of cost or value, the achieving of it at that time in my life was significant. It reminds me that I can handle tough things. And I can do it again. This has to be part of my story, and I need to keep it at the forefront when I feel overwhelmed and begin to focus on frustrations, setbacks, and illness instead.

Seek Out Resources

I also purchased a book that looks at stress and brain chemistry and I’m hoping for some greater insights there. What I’ve learned so far is that sometimes our brain is over-responsive to stress, treating minor disruptions as dangerous threats. It sounded like a histamine response to me, the way our bodies treat nonthreatening bits of pollen as dangers so we start sneezing to protect ourselves. My brain and my body think they’re protecting me by a heightened response to stressors – when actually they are making me feel horrible.

In the past, when life has gotten more stressful than I feel I can handle, I have backed away and tried to find all the ways to reduce stress in my life. It is not a misguided strategy, but sometimes you get to a point where there is not much you can do to avoid certain stresses. I simply have to learn how to deal with stress better, and remember that I actually do know how to do this.

Openness and Connection

There is nothing elegant or profoundly meaningful in all of this, and as I write this post it feels to me that there are angles and contours that I’m missing. I haven’t anchored the writing to a time or place or event or interaction with a person. These thoughts and feelings are floating on the surface and it seems as though there is greater meaning somewhere deeper that I haven’t explored. At the same time, this is the fog I’ve floated through the past few weeks, groping my way through worry and illness, trying to pass through to the other side of it all. And I cringe at that thought—at any period of life being something to rush through and get past—because that’s life on fast-forward. That’s days and weeks becoming a blur and looking back and not knowing where the time went. It’s antithetical to the way I want to live and be.

My goal with this blog has been, a little selfishly, to share my writing. But it has always been about openness. Perhaps more than many of my posts so far, this has been a very simple, open, and honest look at something I know many people struggle with—how we handle stress and how it relates to the way we see ourselves. Sometimes I find it reassuring to know that I’m not alone, that other people are struggling with similar things. It’s why I read and why I write, and certainly, why I wrote this post the way I did.

Enjoy the road. Even the bumpy parts. Love, Cath

2 thoughts on “On Stress, Coping, and Identity

  1. I’ve had a stress cold for what feels like a year. The stress will always be there (yuck). But I choose to look at all the little things in life that make me happy (and less stressy): the way my dog drools when he watches me eat, sipping on the wine I bought specially because there was a fox on the label, even my little plants sitting in my window in my office. I’m still always stressed, but at least the little things break it up into slightly more manageable pieces.I hope your cold goes away soon, or at least diminishes to the point of just a stuffy nose. You’ll figure it out, get through it, and kick ass. Because I’ve *always* thought of you as strong, vibrant, and resilient. At least, since I knew what those words meant (and let’s be honest, it was probably you who taught me!) xo

    Liked by 2 people

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