The sound of something falling and glass breaking woke me at 3:15 a.m.
I was up instantly, concerned at first that a window, propped open to catch the night breezes, had fallen closed and shattered.
Halfway through my check of the windows, it occurred to me that perhaps a window had been broken by something, or someone, and my startled concern turned to real fright.
Two passes around the house verified that all windows and doors were intact. I peered out the windows to see if what I heard came from outside — even though I knew it sounded a lot closer.
I was just beginning to wonder if I’d dreamed the noise when I discovered what had happened: a large picture had dropped from the wall in the bedroom next to mine, shattering the glass upon impact with the hardwood floor.
Mystery solved. No need to clean it up until morning. I could go back to bed.
Except… that much adrenaline doesn’t leave a person’s system quickly. I tried quieting my mind and paying attention to my breathing, but then I’d realize that my hands had were clawing the pillow. I reminded myself over and over that this was a relatively innocuous thing, but all sorts of fears about living alone started to raise their ugly heads. Everything twitched.
Hours later, it was finally dawn and I dragged myself into today.
Once a skilled mindfulness teacher explained to me the insidious impact stress has on our physiology. The analogy he used was “a tiger outside your door.” If you open your door and there stands an angry tiger, the stress response will give you a helpful burst of energy to run away or to stay and fight. (or at least to slam the door in its face) But even just the thought of a tiger waiting outside your door gives you a little bit of adrenaline. Your stress hormones kick in just in case what you’re imagining becomes reality.
A steady drip of stress does a great deal of damage to a person’s adrenal system, immune system and cardiovascular system over time — not to mention the havoc it wreaks on our sleep and relaxation.
The thing is, I don’t really notice the steady drip of stress. It seems natural to always feel a little on edge. While I don’t have a particularly hectic life, I’ve always got a running to-do list in my head and I imagine dire consequences if the items don’t get done. I fret. There’s many a night that it’s hard to sleep with all the worry about what is not up to snuff in my life.
I’ve created a mental state that is the equivalent of living in a house with tigers circling the perimeter. They’re not at the door, but they’re always there, poised to seize their moment of attack. And, until today, I didn’t really think it was a problem. I thought it was just the way life is for an adult human with responsibilities.
Last night’s real “tiger at the door” episode was a vivid demonstration of what that worry looks and feels like when it’s not just teasing the back of your brain. The fear I felt walking through my house in the dark led to focus and a surge of energy in my limbs. I literally started cataloging the weapons available to me: knife in the drawer, the chair that I can swing, my own lungs to scream bloody murder. Without conscious thought, I had grabbed the phone and dialed 9-1 and paused, ready to hit the last “1” if I needed it.
But when the tiger turned out to be just a snapped picture frame, all that energy turned into shaking hands, jumpy nerves and a way-overstimulated imagination. It had nowhere to go and so had to dissipate uncomfortably through slow twitches, shallow breaths and a sleepless night.
How much of my life is plagued by those same sensations, just minor enough so I’m not necessarily noticing them? What about the days when I’m on deadline for work? What about the months when the paycheck is stretched thinner than I’d like? What about the worry over a sick loved one? It might not always be enough to make my hands shake, but I suspect that all that adrenaline and cortisol and whatever other cocktail my adrenal glands cook up are causing the same kind of mischief.
Human evolution makes us into creatures who respond immediately to the real tigers at the door. But perhaps it’s time to evolve to a new relationship with the imaginary tigers that prowl the edges of our awareness day in and day out. Some may need to be shooed away. Some may need to be faced head on and stared down once and for all. Some may just need some attention before wandering off of their own accord. But I want to be at peace with the tigers in my head, recognizing them for the harmless kitties they really are.
Picture taken by me several years ago at the Milwaukee County Zoo