If you listened carefully a collective sigh could be heard throughout the world as 2016 passed on and a new year took its place. This past year was definitely one for the books albeit not for all the best reasons. Now a month into the new year and its time to evaluate just exactly what I’ve been doing to improve myself, to make this year better. The verdict: not enough.
I have never been much of a resolutions girl. To me they are self-inflicted disappointments disguised in good intentions. So, when I was encouraged this year to sit down and write out a few in my crisp notebook you can imagine my skepticism at the prospect. One month in and unsurprisingly I had not left the comfort of my routines. However, during that quiet moment of reflection on 2016 I kept asking myself one question I wasn’t used to. What I couldn’t quite understand was if I was keeping myself busy with my Etsy store, reading, working on design projects, playing pool, going to coffee shops, and sewing why did I feel like I wasn’t accomplishing anything? Why did I feel so bored and less confident?
It wasn’t until I came across an article today that brought to light exactly what it is I’ve been missing this past year and what it is I need to focus on for the coming months: Stress. Yes, you read that right, stress, in all its sweat-inducing glory. The butterflies in the stomach, the sweaty palms, knitted brows, and pounding heart are all part of a crucial way to exercise that steamboat of a muscle we call our brain. For the better part of 2016 I was coping with living in a new city by living by my comforts. I stopped actively confronting challenges in my daily routines and thus was easily becoming disengaged.
Irish psychologist Ian Robertson, author of “The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper,” encourages new situations and experiences that create moderate stress as important ways to combat degradation in memory. Stress, dealt with in the right way, “increases alertness, which in turn helps brain circuits function more efficiently”. Anything from project due dates, meeting someone new, to health issues or new classes. Anything to pull your mind out of the hum-drum of the everyday is an essential piece to building a more enriching life.
I know, as an introvert, it doesn’t take much to get trapped in a stressful situation. Stress and anxiety are just a natural part of being. So why would I knowingly want to add any more of it to my day?
For most of my life I was embarrassed with being introverted and did as much as I could to lessen my social anxiety. I can recall cringing at the words “would you keep it down, Maureen” which was always followed by peals of laughter. The novelty of that joke never seemed lost on my friends. What they didn’t realize was that as much as having a quiet personality was part of me it was also something I greatly despised. The negative connotations that the word shy has societally been endowed with had always stayed at the center of how I identified myself. It took me a long while and a lot of awkward moments to finally accept that being introverted was just as valuable a trait as its counterpart. The way I learned that? By doing exactly what any sane introvert would avoid: go out in public as much as possible.
“Stress should be a powerful driving force, not an obstacle.” —Stanley V. Johnson, author of Stress and Peace
I tried out for plays, joined several clubs, started my own, attended concerts and went to bars alone, I traveled halfway across the world for a month-long solo journey, moved out-of-state, and even went on a blind date. All fairly innocuous situations but for me it would have been way easier and much more relaxing to just stay home, order a pizza and work on crafts. Essentially, do what I always did. However, in those moments I felt by pushing myself outside of my comfort zone I was compensating for what I believed was a lack in personality and by way of being involved I thought I could change that part of me. My mantra over the years had become, “Deep breathe. If they can do it, so can I.” What I hadn’t realized at the time was the importance of those moments lie not in the fact that it made me feel more extroverted but rather in what they taught me about myself and my place in the world. Those knotted stomach moments of worrying about getting to the right train on time or meeting a potential love interest for a date have helped to shape the stories of my life and the stress that they caused me in the moment are barely a memory now.
If there is a takeaway to all of this its that stress adds meaning to our moments. Feelings of anxiety whether born from simple occurrences or serious problems call upon us to rise up and address our true selves whether we are conscious of it or not. It gives us an insight into our values, makes clear our ambitions, and helps us build upon our memories. By embracing our moments of anxiety we drift from creatures of habit to change makers in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.
So, to make this year one for the books (and for all the best reasons) I intend to reengage, stir the waters, speak out, invest, stand up, experiment, thrive, explore, because without the challenge of fear and stress what stories would I have to tell?
“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.”–Neil Gaiman, author of Coraline