Media and Mania

My laptop perches on my warmly-wrapped lap. Sunshine covers the foot of the bed. Outside my window, sparrows twitter in the snow-dusted branches. Steve and I tap our separate keyboards, sending muffled punctuations from our two upstairs rooms into the tranquil space of our “treehouse” among the maples. It’s Monday morning, and we’re back at work, like so many others in this nation and unlike them at the same time.

 Last night, in a nod toward the culture around us, we watched half of the Super Bowl – not on a TV because we don’t own one. Oddly enough, we were able to view it on this screen. It’s been a while since I looked through that window. I recognized a lot of faces from my past encounters with the media, decades aged. (Mary Lou Retton, is that you? Kevins – Bacon and Costner, still recognizable, but changed.) The atmosphere seemed a lot more frenetic, more violent, and more stressful.

 Stress. It occurs quite naturally, of course, in physics, biology and chemistry as resistance and instability. Gravity and PMS are phenomena with which I’m quite familiar. They don’t surprise me much anymore, nor do my reactions to them. But stress occurs unnaturally in lifestyles as well, as Distress or Eustress. Philip Seymour Hoffman, found dead at 46 with a needle in his arm. Manufacturing stress, manufacturing responses – does this give us an edge? If we are “hardwired for struggle” (as Brene Brown says), can we maximize that adaptation and produce a super response? Will that response be healthy or unhealthy? Eustress, according to Wikipedia, “refers to a positive response one has to a stressor, which can depend on one’s current feelings of control, desirability, location, and timing of the stressor.” If it feels “good” to react with anger, aggression or violence to a stressor, is this healthy? If it feels “good” to respond to a stressor by self-medicating, numbing or repressing, is this healthy? If it feels “good” to elevate our molehills into mountains and complain about the weather, our weight and how busy we are, is this healthy? Are we doing ourselves a favor by pouring more stress into our system and developing collateral pathways that will make us more resilient? Or are we taxing our capacity to the point of rupture?

 My husband died from coronary artery disease, brought on by undiagnosed diabetes. Stress did help him develop a collateral artery system in his heart that made it possible for him to survive a heart attack at age 31, but he only lived 16 more years. Beware, America. Look closely at your stress levels. Make your choices wisely.

 That is all.

© 2014 essay by Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved.

Stressed for Success?

My very astute sister once pointed out to me that all stress is not created equal.  There’s daily stress, the normal result of a body functioning without rest for 16 hours or so, which is alleviated after 8 hours of sleep.  There’s distress, which gives us the feeling of being overwhelmed or upset by the amount of stress we experience, and then there’s eustress, which according to Wikipedia is “a term coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye which is defined…as stress that is healthy, or gives one a feeling of fulfillment or other positive feeling. Eustress is a process of exploring potential gains.”  Examples of eustress could include climbing a mountain, running a marathon or sky-diving.  Or surviving a nautical disaster.

I was intrigued by a comment I read from one of the survivors of the cruise ship, Costa Concordia, that sank in the Mediterranean this past week.   ABC News reported:

‘Australian miner Rob Elcombe and his wife, Tracey Gunn, told Melbourne’s Herald Sun Newspaper they booked a spot on the Concordia as a last ditch effort to save their marriage.  Instead, the couple found themselves trying to save their lives when they boarded the very last lifeboat to leave the ship with survivors. “This has made our bond much, much stronger,” Elcombe told the paper. “Who needs couples counseling, when you survive a Titanic experience?” ‘

An adventure.   Stress worked into a feeling of gain.  Is it possible to turn your distress into eustress?

Peace like a river

Another news story I ran across came under this headline: Wife Slips Into Madness As Husband Dies of Brain Tumor. (ABC News)  Catherine Graves wrote a book called Checking Out: An In Depth Look At Losing Your Mind describing the distress of caring for her husband.  The headline rather sensationalizes an experience of overwhelming stress that is shared by a lot of people who find themselves in the role of caregiver.  I can relate.  I went through depression and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome during my husband’s illness and after his death.  Like Mrs. Graves, I was widowed at 45.  But did I lose my mind?  Not irretrievably, I don’t think.  Maybe what I’m doing now, being unemployed, slowing down, is my way of turning that distress into eustress.

There’s an old hymn that I’ve affectionately heard referred to as “The Playtex Hymn” (after the girdle).  The first line is “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent Word”.   It was written by John Keith in 1787.  My favorite verse goes like this:

“When through the deep waters I cause thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”

For some reason, singing that verse always causes me to choke up with emotion.  I know how it is to feel like I’m drowning.  I have a gasp reflex that reminds me of this almost daily.  It shows up lightning fast in moments when my reptilian brain senses danger.  It first became noticeable when I was trying to teach my kids to drive.  I would gasp and grab the handle above the passenger side door at the slightest correction of the steering wheel or touch of the brake.  It happened to me again just this morning.  I was stacking packages on the table and the tower toppled over.  I gasped.  “I must be drowning!” I laughed.  It’s probably a rather annoying habit for those who live with me.   I appreciate their patience.

There’s another hymn that follows this theme.  “It Is Well With My Soul” was written by Horatio Spafford in 1873.  The story behind it is quite amazing.  In brief, according to Wikipedia:

“This hymn was written after several traumatic events in Spafford’s life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of four, shortly followed by the Great Chicago Fire which ruined him financially (he had been a successful lawyer). Then in 1873, he had planned to travel to Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre, but sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business concerning zoning problems following the Great Chicago Fire. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with a sailing ship, and all four of Spafford’s daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, “Saved alone . . .”. Shortly afterwards, as Spafford traveled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had died.”

And here’s the lyric:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

I am trying to re-train my brain to believe that my deepest distress can be sanctified.  I don’t think this is an exclusively Christian perspective at all.  The Noble Truths of Buddhism are all about addressing the suffering (distress) of this world and how we think about it.   I hope that as I “explore potential gains”, my drowning will become floating, and all will be well with my soul.