Review 2005

Lilly Tao

In April 2000 I posted one of the longer entries I've written on my weblog. It started out:

"I get stressed easily. I worry a lot. And I stress and worry about how much I stress and worry. I'm better than I used to be, but I still need to remember to relax."

The entry was prompted by an article in a now defunct online magazine that described how stress leads to bad health. Summed up: Stress makes your cortisol levels rise. High cortisol levels lead to a suppressed immune system and heart attacks. A low cholesterol diet makes little difference and, worst of all: "You can raise your cortisol levels just by thinking about stressful eventualities -- even fictional ones." The article cited studies that indicated people (and monkeys) with less control over their environment get more heart attacks.

I decided I was doomed and needed to start maintaining control over my life.

But that was the wrong tack entirely.

I don't have any control over the events or people that add stress to my life. And I've determined that I cannot avoid a constant stream of stress inducing events. There are times of extreme stress, but the baseline climate always provides fodder for anxiety.

Thus, the problem is not maintaining control over my life and environment. The problem is maintaining control over myself. I choose to worry.

I could be sitting on a lovely beach somewhere and I'd worry about skin cancer instead of looking idly at the waves.

There's a simple solution, choose not to worry, but it only sounds easy. To not worry in an effective manner, I need to say "I don't care." I had some success ignoring things that I didn't feel strongly about, but I still made a habit of taking on too much anxiety. I care about many things.

Then I became a parent.

Before the baby arrived I was drowning in worryful topics. Birth defects, labor complications, names that pass the playground torture test, cloth or disposable. I endlessly researched all the props of parenthood (strollers, cribs, swings, carriers, car seats). And there was a constant undercurrent of "Am I going to be a good parent?"

The baby was born and suddenly there was no room to worry about much beyond what was right in front of me.

The baseline worries were gone, not because the situations no longer existed but because there was something much more prominent in the way.

That something had immediate needs that occupied my brain constantly. The stress of that was intense. But the prioritization was clear. What else is important?

Not much. Baby comes first.

Want to worry about whether we bought the right car? No time. The car runs fine. It has a baby seat in it. That's all we need. Like to spend time overanalyzing that stupid comment I made in a meeting last week? I can't even remember what it was anymore.

Oh and maintain control over my environment? With a baby? Right.

When the intensity of coping with our lack of sleep and new family member died down somewhat, the baby was still #1. Everything not connected to the baby wasn't worth worrying about.

Sure I'd shifted to worrying about the baby, but the baby worry was paid back tenfold in baby cuteness. And over a little time I learned to prioritize.

I knew I had learned how to properly order my worries when I read a plea from a women on a moms' email list. She needed help coping with her baby's naptime at daycare. Horror of horrors, the baby was napping on a different schedule in daycare than she was trying to maintain at home. She was terribly concerned. Obviously this would ruin the baby for life.

I wrote her a short email in response: "You need to learn to let go. Your baby will get the sleep he needs. Timing is irrelevant. Let it go."

I worried only for a second that she would take it the wrong way. She wrote back immediately. "Thanks. You're right. I need to let it go."

There's the trick. Pick your battles. Pick the right worries. That's where the control lies and hopefully the lower cortisol levels.

It took my son to get me here. And he's nowhere near done offering me opportunities for stress. But there's no use worrying over that.

Lilly Tao writes GirlHacker's Random Log.

For an introduction and list of contributors to Review 2005, follow this link.

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