Stress, Emergencies, and the Big Reset

Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency. ~ Natalie Goldberg

When I came across these words from Natalie Goldberg this morning, I had that immediate sensation of relief and connection that comes when you read something you yourself have thought and experienced. There is something so validating about that moment.

Emergencies are something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. How the body, left to its own primal devices, might not be able to discern and distinguish between everyday stress, the range of healthy human emotions, and actual emergencies. I wrote a poem last winter called “Loneliness Is Not an Emergency,” for example, where I explored my alarm at a wave of loneliness, as if it somehow indicated that there was Something Terribly Wrong in my life, rather than the fact that it simply signaled something deeply human about being alive.

I’ve heard the word “emergent” as an adjectival form of “emergency.” Fascinated by the potential connection, I looked it up. Here’s what I read, on the website of Professor Paul Brians at Washington State University:

The error of considering “emergent” to be the adjectival form of “emergency” is common only in medical writing, but it is becoming widespread. “Emergent” properly means “emerging” and normally refers to events that are just beginning—barely noticeable rather than catastrophic. “Emergency” is an adjective as well as a noun, so rather than writing “emergent care,” use the homely “emergency care.”

So where “emergent” refers to something nascent, something new, “emergency” suggests crisis situation. And usually, we don’t realize something is an emergency until it is well past the emergent stages. Usually by that time, it’s a full-blown situation.

I’m thinking about moments in my own life that constituted true emergencies. My daughter’s appendicitis in 2013, for example. My wife’s anaphylaxis a year after that. My mind drifts back to other pivotal experiences in my life, ones that entailed massive changes, but I’m hard-pressed to call those emergencies thought they certainly felt that way then.

Maslow’s Hierarchy

The word “emergency” brings to mind Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I love this version of it, from Veronica Walsh. An emergency involving breathing, for example, is more immediate than an emergency having to do with one’s self-esteem. It’s a useful visual perspective to me, one that helps to keep things in proportion.

Fear of change can be such an unconscious driver of our lives. Stress, too, can drive us to rush, react, and shut down ideas — especially emergent ones that have barely had a chance to see the light of day. When I find myself living as if life itself is a problem to fix, I know it’s time to slow down and reconnect with my own hierarchy of needs, beginning with the basics.

Sometimes, if my first thought upon waking is a stressful one, I’ll switch gears and turn to gratitude. Immediately, my thoughts go to the body itself. I woke up! This is good news. I’m breathing! Also, a very promising sign of aliveness and ok-ness. I think of my home life — stable, loving, and the fact that there is food in the fridge and I’ve paid the bills. My wife loves me unconditionally, a fact that amazes me time and again. My son and daughter are finding their way on their own paths. I know where they are in a physical sense, and they both open up to me about their inner lives, at least some of the time. I can name at least three friends whom I could call in the middle of the night if necessary.

So what is this stress all about?

It’s quite a ways up the pyramid, turns out. Most of what gets me spinning has to do with the “esteem” and “self-actualization” parts of the picture. That, or things that are out of my direct control, like children and parents being separated at the border, climate change, domestic terrorism. When I’m tending to the wholeness of my life, that is where I might have some teeny tiny butterfly effect on things that otherwise would have me feel helpless. But when I’m treating everyday stressors, like running late or having a big “to-do” list, like emergencies, I know I need to reset my system.

The Big Reset

Yesterday, a friend reminded me that I don’t have to live up to being the person I think I am, or others think I am. She suggested restarting, they way you would with a glitchy machine. Just full stop. And so after we hung up the phone, I did that. I sat in my car for 10 minutes or so, breathing in the quiet. Feeling what it felt like to do nothing. What a relief! The world would spin on perfectly well without me.

For a moment, I tapped back into that vast inner spaciousness where nothing depends on me. All I had to do was let breathing happen. My eyes landed on a stand of trees, and I found a deep sense of comfort and connection in knowing that they, too, were breathing. I took in the oxygen they emitted, they took in the CO2 I breathed out. What an incredible relationship.

And also, what a necessary reminder that in order to assess what constitutes a true emergency, one must pause. If stress, as Natalie Goldberg writes, is an ignorant state, then perhaps an informed state is a good goal. After all, how can I live with awareness and discernment if I’m not actually informed and present?

The world gives us plenty to stress about. There’s nothing ignorant about caring about the many true crises happening in our country. And this is precisely why I find I must return to practices that help me see clearly and respond accordingly, lest I treat running late for a meeting, a kid navigating the very real and also very developmentally appropriate challenges of middle school social dynamics, with emergencies. There is a big difference between caring and freaking out.

Next time I feel that rush of adrenaline, like I did when i got a letter last week from the IRS saying they want more information to verify my 2018 taxes, I will pause. Stressful? Yeah, a little. Emergency? No. Do-able? Absolutely.

One Step at a Time

Breathing helps.

Perspective helps.

And writing always helps. It reminds me that in this moment, everything is really ok. In this moment, the dog is snoring, I have coffee, and I do not have to live up to anything, especially not some construct of who I think I am supposed to be in this world.

I place my feet on the floor. For a moment, I scoot my chair back so as to sit upright , shoulders squared, thighs, head balanced on neck. I imagine a cord running through me, from the top of my head through to the soles of my feet. It’s a live wire, a channel of energy. I notice that my eyes can see. My ears can hear the sounds of my daughter’s footsteps approaching the kitchen.

It just began to rain.

When I feel stress today, I will pause and ask myself: Is it an emergency? I am making this more stressful and complicated than it really is? What is the next step?

And then, I will take that next step, knowing and trusting that I cannot control anything beyond my own actions. I will notice where I am letting stress be a habit, and seeing what it’s like to try something different.