Stress binds us together as members of the human community. We all feel stress ebb and flow throughout our lives. In grad school, we learned about the different sources of stress as well as their relative impact on health. Although most of us associate stress with negative situations such as job loss and death, stress also comes from positive situations like marriage and moving to a new city. I’m no stranger to stress, both from external causes as well as the tricks my anxiety-riddled brain plays on me.
One of the most stressful times in my life occurred when I was in some of the most blissful circumstances. Surviving surprise, unexplained stress is always a traumatic experience. Not only must you cope with the negative effects of stress, but also the guilt and shame for feeling stressed when you shouldn’t. Despite the intellectual awareness that my seemingly dreamy situation could be stressful for anyone in my place, I blamed myself for my summer of discontent.
I lived in Brazil for the last half of 2010, in Rio de Janeiro no less. The moniker of Cidade Maravilhosa, or Wonderful City, is truly deserved. By day, I worked on a large scale research project focused on national policy recommendations for child and adolescent mental health. I also moonlighted as an academic translator, earning authorship on a number of academic publications. Oh and I volunteered with a nonprofit that provided training and economic development opportunity for women survivors of domestic violence. In my spare time, I took up running for the first time in my life and tried to be the best fake samba dancer I could be. Someone looking at me lay on the beach at Ipanema would have described my life as idyllic and they would not have been wrong.
I loved this life so much that I found a way to come back. Jumping through countless hoops, I applied for a Fulbright grant to extend my research after graduation into resilience. By the time December rolled around at the end of my six month practicum, I should have preoccupied only by celebrations and summer parties. I had planned a solo trip to Patagonia for 10 days and had plans to ring in the New Year at a concert followed by dancing on the beach at Ipanema, festooned in white for good luck in honor of the goddess Iemanjá. But I felt more stressed and anxious than I ever had in my entire life.
I came to realize that I had undefined expectations that my life’s purpose would emerge as clearly as the findings in my research report. That I would have definitive evidence of making the right decisions at the right time. And nothing felt that way. The research both piqued my interest and bored me. The prospect of living in Brazil both thrilled me and terrified me. I felt stressed because nothing felt clear at all, except that returning to New York would be the worst decision.
In short, I blamed my stress on professional prospects when really I doubted my own judgment in knowing what path had my interests at the center of them. I had applied to grad school right as the American economy hit rock bottom. While in school, professors and other students pursued these careers in government and academia that I knew were not a fit for me. Instead of walking away from these experiences of not belonging, I internalized the disconnection as a fault in what I wanted rather than a mismatch of interests and environment. And worse, I carried that belief to Brazil with me.
While many of us attribute external issues as our greatest stressors, I believe that the experience of stress and the negativity that stems from it comes from what we think the stress says about our worth, character, judgment and potential. This is why research has shown that merely naming your experience of stress improves task performance and overall wellbeing. Nameless stress has a habit of engulfing our entire lives and shaking our foundations even when it occurs under joyous circumstances.
I returned to New York in January 2011 and learned that I was awarded the Fulbright grant that I applied for. Rather than being overjoyed, I blamed myself for getting swept up in the magical sun and surf of Rio rather pursuing a serious career. I missed the core aspects of my interests that would have been fulfilled by the project: exploration, travel, psychology, and creativity. The stress of being a “responsible adult” destroyed my decision making process, so I turned down the grant.
I wouldn’t say that I regret the decision today, because it was the right one at the time. My experience of stress was telling me that something was wrong. That something turned out to be the onset of a months long depressive episode. I do wonder now that I have grown up and acquired more self-awareness how much different my life would be if I had been able to see the stress for what it was rather than the feelings it caused.
I’m writing an unedited personal essay everyday of November for #NaNonFicWriMo, the non-fiction spin on #NaNoWriMo. You can find daily prompts on my Instagram. Want to join in? The only rules are at least 750 words about the daily prompt and tag #NaNonFicWriMo to share.