It began with a familiar sensation; I couldn’t align my upper and lower jaw to close my mouth tight. My teeth didn’t seem to line up right, and I couldn’t force them into the customary alignment. I will tell you this: when your teeth don’t line up right in the safe harbor of your own, familiar mouth, it feels damned weird. I became obsessed- would it help if I slid the top part left? If I slid the bottom part right? If I ate crunchy things so that the top and bottom had to work together? If I ate soft things so that the muscles could have a little vacation and then get the hell back to work?
I know what’s wrong, because I’ve been here before. I’m a grinder and a clencher, as the result of which I have a set of exercises, a bottle of muscle relaxants and something called a “bite splint” that makes me look like a hockey goalie. The latter, custom made, cost as much as a (small) used car, and is possibly the most unappealing bedtime accessory in history. It’s been a couple of years since this particular affliction popped up, but I have a collection of ailments that are real, diagnosed, and attributed to the same root cause. Inevitably, I hear the two stupidest words ever spoken: “Avoid Stress.”
There are so many problems with that advice that I hardly know where to begin. For one thing, not all stress is bad; there is “eustress,” the kind that comes with anticipation of a good event like a wedding or the launch of a business. It can be a beautiful thing, and it comes with its own kind of adrenaline to help us survive sleepless nights, dangling decisions and down-to-the-wire anxiety. It is clearly not the kind of stress to avoid.
That leaves distress, the dark aspect of Stressalia, the two-faced goddess of stress. Distress is “when the dog bites, when the bee stings and when you’re feeling bad” because you can’t find the dog’s owner to find out whether he’s had a rabies shot and you think you might need an epi pen for the bee sting but you can’t remember where it is. It’s that feeling that things are spinning out of control, pressure is rising, and it’s necessary to gird oneself for A Very Bad Thing. It’s that girding that creates clenched jaws, hunched shoulders, and contraction of other muscles that, in some ancestral and hazy era, prepared humans to leap into battle with their spears poised.
Stress of both varieties is inevitable. (Unless, that is, one is an infant or has access to a steady supply of mind-altering drugs). There is, in fact, an alarming tendency for people to engage in what I call “stress-offs,” those conversations in which the goal is to trump the stress list of all other comers. My stresses are no different, better or more fascinating than anyone else’s; I have a job, aging parents, a teenager, and aging pets. I can’t simply “unfriend” my parents and my kid on Facebook, quit my job and live out my days under a floral duvet with a pile of magazines and a box of Triscuits. And, honestly, why would I want to? I am fortunate to have living parents, a husband and a child who I dearly love, and a job to complain about. Many folks don’t.
Back to the myth of Stressalia and her two faces, one bright with hope and one shadowed by foreboding. Eustress has the perfectly aligned jaw of a five-year-old because she has the power to turn fear into opportunity. Bad things will almost certainly happen, and one’s mental and physical reaction is largely a matter of spin. Lately, I have focused on the true, deep pleasure I get from spending time with my parents. It’s a chance to hear stories I’ve never heard, and to savor them as unique and fairly spectacular human specimens. To do this, I have to slow myself down, look away from the To-Do list and hang, suspended in every minute rather than dashing towards the next thing. With practice, I can feel myself becoming present. I can stop myself from saying things like “I only have an hour because I have to ____________ , and _______ and then go to _____________.” There is nothing more important than time with them, even if, especially if it’s just sitting in my parents’ house watching CNN with my mother.
Eustress also, famously uttered the words “if no one will die, it doesn’t matter.” It makes a fine mantra, that; it sorts the wheat of necessary precaution from the inconsequential chaff. I need to provide my child with adequate food and clothing, but if he wears four outfits in one day and has nothing left to wear the following day, he will certainly not die. I need to follow safety precautions at work to avoid poisoning people with salmonella, but if I cook something and Bob Jones dislikes it, he won’t die. It is not my duty to assure the happiness of every living creature, and the knowledge that I can stop worrying about a whole set of things allows my hunched shoulders to lower at least an inch. I can’t “avoid stress,” but I can sort what is legitimate stress from what is not my problem. (Note: this only works if one is not a sociopath).
I vow, this day, to avoid the stress-offs, to feel grateful for all the good things in my life, and to remind myself that a) loss of control often leads to serendipity, b) control is an illusion anyway, and c) in most cases, no one will die as the result of my personal failure. Of course, I will also use my bite splint and monitor clenching. It isn’t possible to “avoid stress,” but it’s possible to adapt with neither clenched jaw nor poised spear.