I vividly remember feeling stressed as a young child going to school. While it is common for most children to feel some sort of separation anxiety from parents/caregivers in the early years, I remember struggling till about 8 or 9 years of age. I would have stomach aches and cry incessantly almost every single day because I was afraid to go to school.
At that time, no one around me either at home or at school was acquainted with the word ‘stress’. Stress, Anxiety, Palpitations, Panic Attacks, and Coping Mechanisms were experiences that I and people around me probably did experience to varying degrees but didn’t know how to define or what to do with them.
Life in itself is quite complex in terms of experiences. Then to have physical reactions because of them adds another layer of complexity. Not being able to find validation for what one is feeling within oneself or in the people around oneself makes it even more complicated.
My relationship with stress continued every single day as I kept growing. Every school homework, test, and examination were like huge hills that I had to push through because I felt stressed about failing and what the teachers would say, etc. The fact that corporal punishment was an evident part of my school life made it worse. I would get high fevers just before exams. And regular bouts of cough, and cold during my time as a young student were a consistent life reality.
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My fear of failing created a coping mechanism of perfectionism and also of procrastination. So I wouldn’t study until the ’nth moment and then later fret that I hadn’t studied enough. It was a vicious cycle that I was in, and the saddest part was that I was all alone in it because no one understood my behaviour. People around me labelled me lazy, unorganised, and all sorts of other derogatory adjectives which are far too common in our country.
Many child psychologists are researching the importance of emotional, physical, and mental health during the formative years of a human being. They are also understanding how complex tasks such as making friends, building a rapport with people around them, and creating a sense of safety can be for a young person. During the age and time when I was a young learner, conversations around safety, care, and creating nurturing bonds with teachers were completely missing. If anything, teachers, and principals were supposed to be feared and revered. All these aspects of school and growing up aggravated my already deteriorated emotional health.
As I kept growing older, I tried to find answers to many of my behaviours. Reading books, and listening to motivational videos would help for a bit but I would see my patterns being repeated soon enough. There was also a lot of internalised blaming that would happen from my end. This only added to the stress and the pain that came with it.
I remember clearly when stress started manifesting in my body. During a particular fellowship, I was working as a content fellow in a communications department of an NGO. On the days when I would go to the office, I would feel some discomfort in my stomach. I also noticed that I had started getting heartburn almost every single day. On the days when I didn’t go to the office, I would feel alright. Eating saunf (fennel seeds) to curb the heartburn had become a common habit. So much so that I would keep a packet of fennel seeds in my office drawer.
In the later years the stomach related problem kept growing. I tried homeopathy, allopathy and ayurvedic medicines. I even went to some specialists to understand what was actually wrong. Blood tests, ultrasounds—everything would come up clean, save some minor deficiency of Vitamin D and B12. I just wanted to know what was wrong!
My body was telling me something though I was not equipped to listen to the message. Neither was I able to do much about the stress I was experiencing. It is only after multiple such experiences at offices and in relationships that I felt I needed help.
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At the age of 27, I began going to therapy. I started learning about how my emotions are connected to my body and how they both impact each other. I learned about my belief systems and their relation to my feelings and behaviours. I learned about unhealthy and healthy behaviours and have continued the learning journey for 5+ years since then.
A lot of what was taught to me as a child and a young adult by the people in my surroundings, schools, and media had to be unlearned. The process of unlearning has been a huge help and is still an ongoing one.
While it would take me two journal-worths of pages to share the life lessons, I would like to write about a few that have helped me move better through stressful times.
One of the things that I am trying to imbibe within me is to separate the things I can help from the ones I can’t help. For example, I get lost in what if’s a lot. What if I write this article and no one likes it? What if I set out to make new friends and don’t find any? Etc. etc. While the idea of doing something is scary because of the downfalls, the “what if?” mode of thinking simply makes me stuck at one single point. In reality, I could discuss the answer to these “what ifs” with 10 of my friends till the cows come home but I would not get an accurate answer to any of them. So now whenever I see myself getting stuck in a “what if” loop, I sit with my feelings and clear out the pro-cons.
Like I did with this article. I can write it and only then I will know if people like it. This is the only way to go about it!
The other is to break hard stuff into smaller chunks. It sounds like an easy enough trick, right? Like don’t hog the hamburger down or it will get stuck in your throat. The sad news is that an anxious or stressed-out brain doesn’t connect with reasoning a lot. It creates these elaborate scenarios where I am failing miserably at doing something and being tagged as the biggest loser on earth.
This is why the third practice comes in handy before the second one can be applied effectively. Establishing connection with one’s body. Our environment has systematically dissected our minds from our bodies. We are taught to think, reason, remember and learn through our heads. In that process, we lose touch with our bodies. This is the reason why we cannot sense something is terribly wrong with us unless we are down in the dumps. Through therapy and other workshops, I am slowly trying to establish a connection with my body to understand it better. So that before I am already up in the air lost in the whirlwind of my own making, I can ground myself back and understand what’s troubling me.
The moment that connection is established, I can then bring myself back to think reasonably and do the tasks at hand well. Including breaking mammoth tasks into smaller chunks.
To conclude, I have learned that stress is a reaction to any internal or external discomfort. When we begin to understand what is discomforting to us and how we can go about handling it, it can reduce considerably. Not all stress is bad because not all discomfort is bad. If I am to learn a new skill and feel stuck at it, it will bring me discomfort and therefore stress. Then identifying that this is a helpful level of stress and finding ways to centre myself can help accelerate my learning. When my level of discomfort is high, then stress is high and that is not a good place for living a healthy life or thriving in it. In times as such, I try to see what parts of it I can alleviate and how. Talking to friends, taking a walk, baking a cake, listening to my favourite song, journaling, and even having a good cry helps at times.
I have understood that stress will be there at some level in my life. The learning for me is to be conscious of my body, myself and manage it well.
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