[Editor’s note: Every Wednesday New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions, and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose or — no surprise here — a party. Need his help? Just ask: AskAWK@villagevoice.com
I’m literally drowning in stress. Anxiety has taken over my life and I’m exhausted from worrying. It’s gotten to the point where my mind has become a whirlwind of tension and spazzing-out. Money problems have been a major cause of my fretting, but I’m also sick of feeling like I never have enough hours in the day to do the work that would solve the money issues. It’s a catch 22 and I’m past my breaking point. I can’t get the necessary work done, let alone have time for any fun. I always feel rushed, running late, and short on energy. Those feelings, added to all my other daily stress, have me acting like an insane person. I feel like simplifying everything and making my life care-free, risk-free, and responsibility-free. But is that really the only way to get rid of my stress and have the time to enjoy life? Other people can’t possibly be living like this.
Dear Super Stessed,
I can actually relate to everything you described. In fact, I think just about every single person has felt this way at some point, if not all the time. Stress is part of life — learning to manage it is the trick. Sure, like you, maybe I’ve fantasized about some perfect situation where I’m a dude just chilling in a hammock on a tropical island without a care in the world. But when I really think about it, that kind of life would probably get boring, and the “Don’t worry, be happy” attitude is not only unrealistic and forced, but also spiritless and bland.
It’s true that a lot of the times I’ve felt stressed, it’s lead to all sorts of other really problematic feelings – mood swings full of anger and rage, severe insomnia and paranoia, feelings of hopelessness and dread, and just waves of pure unrestrained depression. I actually think many of the worst emotional states are brought on purely by chronic worry.
But feeling overwhelmed is a natural reaction to being alive, so the key must be to change the way respond to it. We can be overwhelmed with joy and excitement as much as we can be overwhelmed with worry and dread. Stressful situations don’t always have to manifest as stressful feelings. Anxiety is really draining, but I think it’s basically just a distorted type of excitement. It’s mistaking our energy and enthusiasm for worry and nervousness. Just like you can be nervous before getting on a roller coaster, but that nervousness is actually part of the thrill — it’s your body and mind getting ready for an intense and exciting experience! We can reinterpret stress and end its negative impact on our state of mind. There’s an easy way out and the answer is simple… Just don’t care about feeling stressed out anymore!
I realize that might sound easier said than done, but I swear that’s the beauty of this in almost all cases. In your letter above, the thing you sounded most stressed out about was being stressed out. Try this: the next time you feel that unmistakable feeling of anxiety and panic wash over you, just let it be and continue going on about your day. You don’t have to respond to it or make it go away. You can take note of it and just keep living. You don’t have to “try and relax” or “try and be calm,” you can just feel however you feel and just keep doing whatever you’re doing. Stress is like a bad smell. It may really color our experience the moment we notice it, but eventually the smell dies down and we realize it didn’t really have that much impact on what we were doing — it just hung in the atmosphere. Stress and worry are confused versions of excitement combined with energized fear. We can feel nervous and excited and afraid without having to stress out.
Deciding not to stress out also doesn’t mean you don’t care about things. For example, if I’m trying to get to the airport for a flight to an important event and all of a sudden there’s a huge traffic jam, I might start noticing those stress-feelings creeping in. But I’m not going to react to them. I’m not really “stressed” — instead, I’m going to think of that feeling as the excitement and anticipation I have about the event I’m trying to get to. The stress wants to distort things and make the traffic jam seem like a life or death situation. But if I think clearly, I realize that it isn’t life or death. Even the event I’m trying to get to isn’t life or death. It’s all just life. And I’ve been in that type of situation many times and didn’t die once. There really was no crisis or reason to worry at all. And if I did stress out, that stress didn’t help — it only made things more miserable.
Some people think if they let stress run their lives it will make things seem more urgent and important and dramatic. We’ve all seen people like this — they’re often movie characters in fast paced romantic comedies set in big office buildings; the person who thinks their life looks more important if they always have their hands full and are juggling tasks and talking severely to too many people at once, trying to make sure everyone notices how complicated their life is. If you like that kind of drama then go for it, but it’s almost always unnecessary and a waste of effort and energy. Just because life feels stressful doesn’t mean we need to act stressed out.
In fact, when we don’t spend all our energy acting stressed out, we actually have much more energy to put towards our cares and concerns. Stress is wasted energy — it might even be coming from a good place initially, but it ends up complicating things further and stirs up unnecessary mental and physical spiraling. If you’re panicked from thirst, you can stress out so much that you spill the last precious glass of water you have, or instead you can carefully bring that sacred water up to your lips and drink it down without spilling a drop.
Deciding not to stress-out isn’t the same as putting things off or leaving things to chance either. You can still mull over possible outcomes, both good and bad without them having to get lost in a maze of worry and nervousness. We can have faith in ourselves and our good fortune that things will work out for the best, even if it seems far-fetched — especially when it seems far-fetched.
So reinterpret your stress, nervousness, worrying, and anxiety as all just natural reactions to the excitement of having a life worth caring about. If someone asks if you’re stressing out, just say, “No, I’m just totally enthusiastic about being alive.” The whole point is to allow ourselves to feel everything, including stress, but just keep on going anyway. We don’t fight to “let go of stress”, we take the feeling and reform into something useful and empowering. We keep our eyes on the prize and don’t let fear or any other intense feelings stop us. Those feelings are there to confirm to us that our life is big and worth caring about. Removing all risk, responsibility, and care from our life isn’t the point. The point is to be hardcore enough to handle everything life can throw at us and then some. We grow stronger so that we can take on more. The stress is there to tell us we’re really going for it and challenging ourselves. And we get better and better the more we go for it, so that what once was stressful isn’t anymore, and move into yet new realms of risk and challenge.
Ask almost any wise person about their life and almost all of them will say, even as intense as their life may have been, that they wish they had taken even more risks and pushed themselves even harder. After all, it’s all a one-shot deal and it could end at anytime. Who knows what life is really all about anyway? Let’s go full-bore while we have the chance. That is what being alive is all about.
Keep on partying,
P.S. I actually felt really stressed out while writing this. Trying to make the deadline and having more and more trouble typing on my phone from Europe added layers of strife. But it wasn’t life or death — so no need to give into the stress. It’s just a party advice column, and I’m just feeling really enthusiastic about not being dead!
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