Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Attack of the Killer Stress

I’m not being melodramatic.  As George Carlin used to say “It’s bad for ya!!!”.

I’ve been giving the phenomenon of long-term chronic stress a lot of half-baked thought lately.  It’s begun to hold an objective clinical fascination for me as I witness my symptoms unfolding.  I believe the psychology people call this “intellectualizing”.  It’s apparently my go-to coping mechanism these days.

Note: I must warn you, this topic has absolutely nothing to do with travel other than the fact that I’m hoping that, when I’m able to finally do it, it will be my salvation.

There have been a few troublemsome incidents this week.  Allow me to list them.

Last week instead of returning the milk to the refrigerator, I put it in the pantry.   The realization was almost immediate.  Just as it was the other day when I finished brushing my hair and promptly threw the brush into the wastebasket. 

Yesterday morning while getting ready for work, I was holding a pair of earrings in my left hand and a glass of water in my right.  Lost in a storm cloud of thought, about the day's schedule probably, I stopped myself just before I swallowed the earrings with a gulp of water.  I must have mistaken them for two Advil.  Imagine trying to explain that one to the people in your life? 

This morning I had to look up the day’s date at least 4 times because I couldn’t remember the two-digit number 19.  It is the 19th, isn't it? 

I can only imagine how awful my lecture was this morning.  Nothing like making a fool out of yourself in front of 49 people who are paying you to know more than they do.  My (unreliable) recollection is that I started out strong but towards the end I couldn’t think of the work “appendicitis”.  I said “appendix removal” hoping that was the actual term, feeling certain that is wasn’t.  My students, bless ‘em, must be very forgiving.  Such compassion will carry them a long way in nursing.    

I’m having very unsettling reactions when I sit down to work on the last 2 chapters of the dissertation.  It’s completely irrational.  Mostly, when I sit down to compose, I start to tense up, breathe hard, lose focus, and (seriously) make one typing error after another.  This behavior is really bogging me down. 

My conclusion is that the stakes on every keystroke are so high right now.  And that fact alone builds a cinderblock wall of distraction.  Downright dysfunctional is what it is. 

This afternoon, I left the office earlier than I wanted to because I wasn’t getting any quality writing done - although I was hyperventilating pretty successfully.  So I stop at the library.  I’m not finding a single one of the 4 books on my list which, only hours before, I had confirmed were in the stacks.  I’m starting to get very frustrated – I felt tears welling up – especially when I realize that I can’t remember which comes first – F or G.  Nope, not making it up. 

All I could think was that I should just leave the building, walk slowly to my car if I can find it, and get home.  That’s what I did.   

But it’s not only a memory issue.  I’m having trouble with dot-connection.  Several days ago, I noticed that the annuals on the porch were looking just awful.  Really brown with no blooms.  I thought, “Hmmm.  I wonder what their problem is?”.  Before I could finish this very dim line of thought, I began thinking of something else entirely – probably a statistical issue.  Today, once again, I noticed the plants are still looking really bad.  Worse even.  Then it occurred to me that I haven’t watered them in God only knows how long.   So it took me days to solve that mystery.     

Now I’m worried that maybe tomorrow I won’t be able to find the milk or my hairbrush.  Or my earrings.     

Two Questions:

1) is this a) an irrevocable descent into senility or b) situational loonyness?

2) should I be driving?


  1. I know lots of PHD's, but I have known only two people who I was close to during the time of writing their dissertations. One was a mature woman with two teenagers, getting her's in nursing. She became very frustrated because it was before computers, and whenever she mad a revision she would have to retype entire chapters.

    I observed my own daughter working hour after hour during Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays on those last chapters. She never seemed stressed. Just very tired!

    We will all celebrate with you when it is done.

  2. Wow do you sound stressed! You make me realize that I've experienced stress over the past year and thought I was going senile or something. But I am better now after us settling in one place for the past six months. Breath deeply and ask yourself continuously what are you seeing now, touching now, hearing now, smelling now, tasting now. You'll gradually return to yourself. Oh man. Hang in there! Performance anxiety is the pits!

  3. I, too, did some research on long term stress and what I found was scary.

    I'd say yours is situational, but it CAN be unnerving when it happens. Do you meditate? I'm sure it helps.

    When I was doing weird things, I would take a short walk and with each 8 steps, I'd think to myself, "Pay a ten tion - thinkabout what you're doing." The walk helped, and the mantra helped, too. I would come back more focused - paying attention to what I was doing. :)

  4. I'm not writing a dissertation and I've "lost" my GPS (since found). While I was on my excursion last weekend I "lost" my watch for a day and a half and then I "lost" a bottle of stuff for my face. Maybe it's the location of the moon or something like that. I pick situational loonyness because I like how it sounds.

  5. The stress I experienced while writing my dissertation was similar to what you are describing. I remember leaving my wallet in the Wal Mart buggy not once but 3 times when shopping. Each time it was returned to me intact. I sincerely felt that my mind was a step ahead of my actions... speeding forward... and my actions just could not catch up. My actions were working without a conscious because my conscious mind was running ahead, very fast. My unconscious, when left to its own slower devices, ran amuck.

    I had to write actions down on sticky notes and place them everywhere to remind me of what I had to do on a daily basis. It was years before I stopped doing that. There were always too many responsibilities for me to handle at work and a school without the notes.

    When the dissertation was complete, the stress lessened until I had to defend it. Now THAT is stress. Graduation was fun and then life resumed at a reasonable hectic pace.

    I'm retired now and life is a whole lot easier. No more sticky notes needed. My body has caught up with my mind and we are in sync.

    Wishing you a calmer and less stressful life.

  6. When I put the milk in the cupboard and cereal in the refrig, added all my checks along with my deposits, i realized something was terribly wrong. My doc's prognosis was "stress"; and, in addition I had developed a whole bunch of food allergies. He said get the stress out of my life and learn about your food allergies.

    I did and now the milk is put in the refrig and cereal in the cupboard. I don't write that many checks anymore and the only deposit I get is a once a month SS benefit check. My therapist now is my pickup truck and my trailer, Eggie. Best friends they are.

    Gypsy Boho, I had to nod my head when you mentioned "No more sticky notes needed. My body has caught up with my mind and we are in sync." Touche.

  7. Thanks one and all for your supportive comments!

    Merikay: when I think it's an impossible task, I always remind myself it could be much worse - I could be doing all this without a word processor. Oy!

    GypsyBoHo: Let's not talk about the defense - LOL! I've been stressing about that for over a year. You are spot-on; I long to be in sync.

    Emily: you inspire me. I follow your blog and the adventures of your fiberglass therapy booth. So the milk in the cupboard thing is not new? Interesting!

  8. Keep writing on that dissertation and remember, it doesn't have to be your magnum opus. The best dissertation is the one on the shelf! Also, keep turning it in for review ... you'll either get it right or wear them down....this from one who completed in 2009.

  9. Julian,

    Sound advice. My chair has chapter 4 so I'm waiting to do those revisions before I submit Chapter 5 - which I finished yesterday!!!!!!!

    Thanks for the support!


Let's chat !