I’ve not been well for the past three weeks, with fluctuating symptoms of fatigue, sore throat, headaches, blocked sinuses and stomach upset.
It’s not Covid, it’s not long Covid, it’s not a cold, meningitis, Lyme disease or glandular fever. Blood count, folate, B12, liver function — all healthy.
The longer this little thing drags on, even after two courses of antibiotics, the more convinced I am that it’s a manifestation of stress.
Simple as that.
Simple Is Complex
I’ve never forgotten something my sister once noticed at a gig when we were at university:
The easier a musical instrument looks, the harder it is to play.
- Synthesiser: looks complicated, plays easy
- Trumpet: looks simple, plays hard
The metaphor extends to medicine.
For example, I have an underactive thyroid.
The thyroid is an endocrine gland that secretes three hormones that dictate the basal metabolic rate of almost all body tissues, manage our appetite and stimulate the breakdown of glucose and fatty acids, increase the rate of our heartbeat and mitochondrial activity, and play a key role in our sexual function, menstrual cycles, and sleep and thought patterns.
Looks pretty complex, no?
But when things go wrong, the thyroid plays pretty easy: one blood test to diagnose; one pill to restore normality.
Stress, on the other side, looks simple. But jumping jacks does it play hard.
We all clearly see the cause, but where is the cure?
Unpicking An Opinion
Stupid question: what is stress?
Let’s say it’s a troubling sense of anxiety that rides into town when external or internal demands on your performance exceed your capabilities.
But hold on.
Human beings are wonderful creatures. Our capabilities rise to the demands placed upon us.
This is why there is such a thing as eustress: motivational dollops of stress that actually improve our physical and mental performance.
Without the stress of a fierce opponent, neither of tomorrow’s Wimbledon finalists, Elena Rybakina and Ons Jabeur, could rise to the level demanded of tennis champions.
Even when demands on our performance do exceed our capabilities — why — that’s what we call learning! And there’s nothing bad about learning, is there?
So the negativity around anxiety must contain the seeds of something else.
We can see this physiologically, as well.
Anxiety is what’s known as an arousal state. It makes my heart race, shallowing my breath, making me sweat, butterflying my guts, tiring me out.
But these are the same symptoms as the arousal state of excitement. The only difference is the interpretation put on the two: one negative, coming from a place of fear, and one positive, coming from a place of joy.
If stress can be positive; if anxiety can be excitement; if falling short can be learning; then, anxiety as a response to stress is just, like, your opinion, man.
But it goes without saying that I not finding my current state of mind particularly joyful. I am not excited; I am fearful. I can’t even make space to see all the wonderful ways I am growing and learning.
Our radically varying responses to stress, then, must burrow deep, much deeper, into our core beliefs about ourselves as human beings.
The cure for stress, the one everyone will tell you, looks as simple as the diagnosis:
Relax, don’t worry, just let go
Thanks. Now what the fuck do you think I’m trying to do?
I can’t tell you how many hot baths, naps and slow walks I’ve had over the past three weeks. Sure: feels great. Now what?
Well, yesterday, my counsellor invited me to try the Sedona Method of letting go.
The Sedona Method, according to Rational Wiki, is a ‘roll-your-own New Age self-administered psychotherapy’. At this point, I’ll try anything.
If you can’t afford the $100 online course, here’s what I did with my counsellor:
- Focus on an issue you would like to feel better about
- Ask yourself: Is this feeling coming from a desire for control, a desire for approval, a desire for security or a desire for connection?
- Ask yourself one of the following questions: Could I let this feeling go? Could I allow this feeling to be here? Could I welcome these feelings?
- Ask yourself the question: Would I? Am I willing to let go?
- Ask yourself this question: When? Hint: the answer is always ‘now’ because the past is gone and the future never comes.
- Repeat half a dozen times, with slightly different inflections
During the session, I focused on my anxiety around the aforementioned and rapidly upcoming ride to Athens.
That’s where most of the stress in my life is right now and that’s how I suspect my sinus infection originally snuck in and, once, snucked, wouldn’t shift.
As I focused on that feeling, and as we made our way through the method, I realised three things.
1. My anxiety comes from a desire for control
I want to control every aspect of the ride — knowns and unknowns — to ensure that everything imaginable goes exactly as everyone involved could possibly dream.
That’s an awful lot to control. No wonder I get the sense that I’m operating a wee bit beyond my capabilities.
Looking back on those words, I realise too that my anxiety is coming from a good place: I desperately want people to have a good time and not die.
This is a good thing to want. Can I not be proud of my anxiety because it pushes me to do my best? Easier said than done.
2. But control is not an option
Unfortunately for my brain, control at this scale is simply not an option.
There are far too many moving parts to this operation:
- 5,000km of cycling
- 97 participants with all their own anxieties and excitements
- 66 days and nights
- 21 allergies or pre-existing medical conditions + Covid
- 10 countries with 9 border crossings
- 1 temperamental van 🙏
So, if control is not an option — what is its opposite?
3. The opposite to control is not chaos
The opposite of control is trust.
- Trust in myself to do my best and rise to meet any challenge
- Trust in the people around me to do the same
- Trust in nature and the underpinning logic of the cosmos
Okay, so that last one is a little out there, but hopefully you know what I mean.
In the context of a dying star, our pettifogging anxieties seem a little insignificant, don’t they?
Whatever will be, will be and, don’t you see, it’s all perfect?
Anxiety arrives, with bugle horn and crack of whip, only when we lose our trust.
Of course, trust could (and perhaps one day should) be a whole post in itself — what is trust and how can we make more of it?
One thing I know for sure is that this bike ride generates exactly the right conditions for trust to thrive.
A bunch of people, each with unique strengths, surrendering to a unquantifiable, indefinable challenge far bigger than any individual, succeeding only together.
I hope that this exploration of my stress has been a little helpful for you too.
If you’re seeing the connection between this post and my post about responsibility the other week, then ten points to you. Responsibility is an energy: distribute it wisely and you’ll power a whole network.
Finally: if you’re crazy stressed, then please ask someone you (yep) trust for support.