The Momentum of Stress

What can we do when the negative momentum we’ve talked ourselves into feels like a train we’re doomed to ride forever?

*Lia is a 6th grader who takes her academics seriously. She will turn in her work for assignments days before they are due, sending emails to her teachers to confirm that she did what was asked of her correctly. Lia has yet to earn less than an A in all her classes. She is personable, astute, and kind.

Unfortunately, there’s an invisible but real force taking over Lia’s life: anxiety. She has trouble sleeping, finds herself breaking down in tears over things that before wouldn’t have bothered her, and describes herself as unable to “stop the worrying” that haunts her throughout the day.

 Lia is not alone. Several of the middle school students I have the gift of working with are manifesting signs of anxiety and depression in the almost ubiquitous cloak we know too well: stress. And while there’s good and bad stress, our perception of those stressors makes a world of difference.

Lia met with me last week after class and talked about her inability to “stop the worrying.” 

Lia referred to herself as someone who “struggles with anxiety.” Her self-diagnosis alone powerfully affects her perceptions. So, the world around her offers up opportunities to worry, thus creating more domino-like effect, stress-inducing scenarios for her. Lia’s belief in her self-diagnosis has created a momentum of anxiety that feeds on itself like a rat snake.

The same domino effect of negative self-talk can manifest in depression. When we are regularly telling ourselves it’s hopeless, things never work out for me, or a slew of other fatalistic misconceptions, the Universe mirrors back to us “proof” that our belief was correct.

So, what can we do when the negative momentum we’ve talked ourselves into feels like a train we’re doomed to ride forever?

Think of a spinning top. What happens when gravity starts to take over? It finally teeters to a stop. When anxiety or depression hit a high point, know that it too will pass. You cannot remain in the high anxiety or low depression forever.

Typically, we wake up with a fresh start, a new day for a new momentum. Baby steps.

Lia asked, “How do I stop my thoughts?”

“Get out ahead of them, before the momentum starts on that train to worry. Do one thing that pleases you today. Write three things you are grateful for each morning you wake up and each night before you go to bed. Listen to music you like.”

Whether a teenager or a grownup, we all experience stress. Yet while stress is unavoidable, building momentum in the direction of peace is in our control. Stress is a continuum, and our self-talk determines whether we take a harrowing ride on an uncontrollable track or experience an adventurous journey.

Lia has altered her label since we spoke last week. She is no longer someone who “struggles with anxiety” but now refers to herself as “conscientious and capable.” And that altered shift in her perception is the foundation for a rewarding momentum.

*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the person.

The Happiness Test

How we treat others is a strong indicator of how we feel about ourselves

A student stormed into class this week, his own personal hurricane. 

“You okay?” I asked.

He shook his head, his eyes filled with a mixture of hurt and anger. “These kids said I looked like a 3rdgrader. They were making fun of my height.”

Despite our masks, I could hear a snort-like laugh emerge from a girl in our classroom. 

Ah, middle school: the realm where cruelty is often the dish du jour. And at that moment, the girl’s laugh caused the boy’s eyes to tear up.

“You want to know a secret?” I asked. The room fell silent. “When someone is mean, it’s about them. They aren’t happy with themselves.”

The girl who had, just seconds before, snorted a laugh said, “I like making fun of people.”

“Maybe it makes you feel good for a little while, but it doesn’t make you feel so good in the long run. Besides, if you were happy, really happy with yourself, you wouldn’t feel a need to make someone else feel bad.”

The girl nodded slowly. While the mask made it hard to “read” her face, my gut says she “got” the lesson.

Despite most of our readers experiencing life post 6th grade, the Middle School Mentality persists: the colleague who passive-aggressively puts you down at a meeting, the ex who continues to threaten court, the driver who tailgates.

The pandemic has caused an incomprehensible domino effect of loss and change around the world; it is not, however, an excuse to be cruel to others, ever.

If you are choosing to read my work, chances are you can relate more to the boy in my classroom than the snort-laughing girl. You are kind, compassionate and proactively trying to live your best life. 

We are spiritual Russian dolls in this life, living with the layers of who we were at each stage and carrying those perceptions with us along the way. We are the 6th grade boy, horrified and angry by other kids’ cruel words; we may also be the girl who laughs at the pain of others because deep down, we aren’t happy with ourselves.

So, the next time someone snaps at you or cuts you off in traffic, consider the “Happiness Test.” When someone is acting out in an aggressive or cruel way, it’s a reflection of THEM, not YOU. The aggressor or bully isn’t happy with themselves. 

The good news? You don’t have to join them.