I Escape Stress With More Stress

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I suffer from the kind of stress that’s immune to meditation. Sitting quietly or “relaxing” only makes me feel more anxious. I find I only really feel better if I put my body under more stress like going on a run, watching something scary, adding to my to-do list, etc.

I’m not sure this is healthy per se, but it is, apparently, normal. In 2018 Ashley Abramson wrote in Forge about the concept of “calming up” instead of calming down. The idea is that some people need stress to destress. It’s in part credited to psychologist Peter Levine, a trauma specialist, who in the 1970s researched why animals can shake off life-or-death experiences in the wild without any long-term effects. His argument is that the physical nature of animal stress, like trembling, helps them discharge from an aroused state.

People might be similar in some ways. Abramson writes:

Doing something scary in a controlled environment — whether that’s a more physical thrill, like riding a roller coaster, or something mental, like watching a horror movie — can be another way to constructively work through your stress. Research has shown that doing something risky can help you process the emotion by reframing it as something positive. Releasing adrenaline in a controlled environment helps you see for yourself that despite negative physical sensations, you are, in fact, safe.

I shared my love for “calming up” on Twitter, and it was interesting to see people’s responses. “My old therapist was from Levine’s school of thought and honestly it’s done me a world of good,” one person shared. “When people ask ‘why do you love horror if you have bad anxiety’ here’s why.”

I’m not a horror fan, but I do find it relaxing to watch fictional crime procedurals. If I’m being honest it’s basically the only television I watch. After a particularly stressful day all I want to do is binge Vera, a British crime drama that follows an obsessive chief detective who tirelessly solves crimes and is “driven by her own demons.” I can’t quite call my obsession with Vera escapism because the show is not aspirational. Vera is unglamorous, lonely, and drinks too much. The rural English countryside is beautiful but people keep getting murdered. And yet the hour-long adrenaline rush is like an antidote.

Yet, as Abramson’s story points out, the point of “calming up” is not to just experience adrenaline, but to process stress. Experts say that ideally, you think about what’s stressing out, you experience a stimulating activity, and then you work to calm down afterward and “remind yourself that you are safe”.

This week I am stressed about the pandemic, the election, and the future of democracy. I will watch lots of Vera, go for a run, and obviously vote. Hopefully, I will calm down. Hopefully, I will be safe.

Health and science journalist. Former editor of Medium’s Covid-19 Blog and deputy editor at Elemental. TIME Magazine writer before that

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