The Ancient Modern
Stress, Sensitivity and the Inner Life / Joshua Alan Sturgill
Occasionally, I need to take a moment to consider what the stressors are in my current situation. I am a very sensitive person, rather introverted and slow to process emotions and events. So my inner life is easily damaged and thrown off-balance.
The damage can happen slowly; the slower it is, the more difficult to diagnose. I’m also one of those people who tend to adjust rather than arrange. Son I naturally acquiesce to the climate, rather than getting up to change the thermostat. I learn by observation, rather than by engagement. I like to keep things as they are while I try to understand what they mean.
These traits tend to make me both more aware than many around me, but also less apt to make progress for the better.
I write this reflection for anyone else who might feel the same. And to offer permission for you to try something I find very helpful: make a list of the stressors in your life.
The list will likely include things you wouldn’t necessarily change. Good stress, positive challenge, even reaching a worthwhile goal, are stressful for a sensitive person. Add these anyway. And the list should include things you’d rather not realize are stressful: people you love who are difficult to be around, setbacks in life or love or hope.
For the past four months, I’ve been living in a foreign country, at the home of good friends. I chose to be here, and have benefited from the company and the experience. But, due to my sensitive personality, this whole transition has caused a great deal of what I might call low-level trauma.
I am not a psychologist, though I read enough to know that trauma and sensitivity are also clinical terms—which they should be. There are many people in the world who find the pace and interactions of contemporary life increasingly difficult. So let me say that I am not a psychologist, and I am describing my situation through the usual connotations of these words, but with a nod to their clinical meanings as well.
Today, my list of stressors include obvious things and a few items it’s taken me awhile to realize. The obvious are a major dietary change and a lack of exercise. I was previously walking, lifting, using stairs frequently. Now, I have long stretches of time alone in an apartment in front of a computer. I am gaining fat and losing muscle, which is not in itself a problem. But relatedly, I can feel that this change is causing stress for my organs: muscle tension from emotional changes, kidney stress from trying to keep hydrated; joint stress from not keeping up with my small, daily yoga regimen.
But there are these deeper stressors I have to get quiet and honest enough to articulate. I am stressed by trying to keep out of my hosts’ way and maintain their home the way they prefer. Of course, I am happy to do this, but it’s a constant calculation. Also, being in a foreign country means means constantly dealing with undefined problems in unfamiliar situations. How things “work” and what the cultural expectations are takes a long time to figure out and integrate into your own habits.
I stress about what others think of me in any case, but in a foreign situation, all my ways of picking up social cues (at which I usually excel) are being tested and modified.
Also, I find I suffer a great deal of deep, unconscious stress because of my tendency to see the part through the whole and the whole through the part. his is very hard to explain, but I’ll try.
My inner life, my heart, seems to be in a constant process of creating what scientists might call “a grand theory of everything.” I take in ideas, things, events—from a weed in the sidewalk to a metaphysical revelation—and within myself, I am constantly and semi-consciously integrating and arranging and exploring these things. It takes a lot of stability and patience and a certain rootedness to do this well.
Stability might be the key. I have to find a way that the Center within myself and an external Center can coincide. When I was living in Santa Fe, I had enough routine and solitude and good company to bring the internal and external almost to a point of harmony. I could envision one through the other. Inner and outer were mutually symbolic and mutually explanatory.
Living for these few months in a foreign country has impressed on me like never before the importance of stability in the outer life for the health of the inner life.
To bring us back to the list of stressors, I have come to see that a disturbance to the deep inner-workings of the heart’s life is as much or more stressful than the daily (very real) trouble of trying to speak the language and constantly meeting new people.
The image that comes to mind is that of a houseplant continually uprooted. An occasional re-potting can stimulate. Frequent repotting is deadly. Because I love houseplants and have cared for many, I’ve even seen a plant suffer a fatal root trauma while continuing to appear healthy for weeks or even months.
If you are one of the people who are easily stressed, very sensitive or experiencing physical or emotional pain, I suppose I’m taking time to lay this out for your sake as much as mine. I hope it helps. My mediations and my poetry and my general peace are all connected, and stressful people or situations rattle the whole edifice.
As a last word, reaction to stress can be another stress. The thoughts—“I should be stronger than this,” “why do I feel bad, since nothing is really wrong?,” or “I shouldn’t let this (person or situation) get to me”—can compound the effects of stress.
Give yourself permission to make a list, to accept the things that are uniquely stressful to you, to increase the time you give to stress-relieving activity.
I am trying to do this right now. Organizing and writing my thoughts is often the best therapy. When the list is made, I can begin to make changes. The stress is balanced somewhat by objectification. Some of the stress is beneficial, but the stress which isn’t, I can try to eliminate.