I think our culture glorifies stress.
How much sleep did you get last night?
How busy are you?
How close to deadlines are you?
What extra projects are you taking on?
I am completely guilty of this. Since college, I've found myself bragging about all-nighters, boasting when I get through a particularly busy few days at work, at school. I've spent more than one night complaining to a friend over wine about how stressed we are, how much work we should be doing, what things we need to get done by a certain date.
I'm trying to unlearn this.
I spent the past two years of my life in a constant state of stress. Two weeks after my college graduation, I showed up in Birmingham, Alabama to begin my training with Teach For America. A week after that, I drove four hours to Cleveland, Mississippi, the heart of the Delta, to train for five weeks. The day before I arrived in Mississippi, I had a panic attack on the steps of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The thing I learned that day about stress is that it is completely contagious in an almost dangerous way. Other people's stress overwhelmed me to the point that I couldn't breathe, and even in the wide open Alabama sky, I felt like air was closing in around me.
Mississippi was hard. I remember the sweet Delta sunrises, but they are overshadowed by the nervousness of heading to teach 10th graders on a few hours of sleep. The joy of new friendships and the possibility of a new career became clouded by the fear that my lessons were bad and I was failing my students. I remember sitting in the hallway of a dormitory on my 22nd birthday, crying from a video of my nieces and nephews singing happy birthday to me.
And for two years, the stress never subsided. I was stressed for my first day as a teacher. When I started to teach, I was constantly worried: how will my kids behave, how will I react, will they understand my lesson, am I good enough at teaching to change the lesson on the fly if they don't, can I really make a difference, am I doing enough, how much data is enough data, do they really need this report, can I handle anymore, am I getting enough sleep, am I gaining weight, did I just find a grey hair at 23?
The list of things I was worried about went on and on. Even on my best days as a teacher, when my students and I were perfectly in sync, I was scared it wouldn't last. I worried (still worry, honestly) about whether every teacher would love them the way I love them. I lost sleep over the kids who had confided in me about difficult situations at home.
When I finally felt like I got a handle on teaching, my stepmom let me know that my dad was in the hospital with kidney failure, among other things. This started a months long saga of hospital stays, rehab, and ultimately, my father fighting for his life. All the stress of teaching in a Title I school combined with the stress of my dad's illness was when I realized that all the other things I had ever thought stressed me out before hadn't.
I had felt overwhelmed and frustrated and nervous and scared and under pressure. I hadn't, until that point, been truly stressed.
So now, I'm writing this, after having slept 11 hours since Monday night, behind on reading for grad school, confused about how to edit a piece I want to submit for publication, and I don't feel stressed. This week has been the hardest week of grad school so far. Y'all, I drank COFFEE yesterday... you know I hate coffee. Yet, as I navigate these new experiences and learn to balance school and work and manage time, I am not stressed.
I spent months pouring over applications, wondering where I would end up, if I would even get into a program. And here I am. Doing something I love, something I chose. So even on days (weeks) when it's hard, and the only way to get through it is to drink coffee and a Mountain Dew and eat some Chick-Fil-A even though I packed my lunch, I am grateful for the opportunity. I want to stop focusing on the negatives and focus on the positives, like the fact that I have friends willing to read my paper before I turn it in, a step-mom who sends me home with enough baked spaghetti that I don't have to cook for days, co-workers who make me laugh. These are the things I want to recognize in the day-to-day.
disclaimer: I'm not trying to shame anyone who does feel stressed a lot. I also leave anxiety out of this because as someone who has Generalized Anxiety Disorder, well, I get that it's often irrational and unprecedented.