Heinen: Stress unrelieved

When George Floyd was killed, the word “stress” took on new significance.
hanging on by a thin rope

Thought I’d add my perspective on dealing with stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s just too stressful. Writing, for all of its many rewards, is stressful enough. The stress of writing about stress feels at a minimum self-defeating.

That paragraph was how I planned to open this column when I started writing it during the third week in May when our focus was beginning to shift from Shelter at Home to gradual reopening with the attendant luxury of a little light reflection on how we got through two months of life in a pandemic. Then George Floyd was killed, and the word “stress” took on new significance.

Incredibly, given the state of the world, life took on new significance. Stress seems almost trivial. It’s not, of course. On one hand, thank heavens we’re feeling stress. We wouldn’t be human if we were not. But in the long run stress isn’t particularly good for us, so there’s real value in expanding the ways we deal with stress, and sharing what works and what doesn’t. We tried to do that in this issue.

However, we also must acknowledge and deal with some deeper issues. COVID-19 opened our eyes to stresses too long obscured by a distracted society: the stresses of income insecurity, inadequate health care, lurking homelessness, anxiety, fear and anger. Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer opened our eyes to the insidious stress and abject fear that comes with living day to day as a Black person in America — that you can have your life ended just because of the color of your skin.

So stress is relative. Like so many of today’s issues, stress and how we deal with it is influenced by privilege. We can’t forget that. People have different degrees of access to resources for dealing with stress. White people have more. Equity remains our most important post-pandemic societal challenge. In the meantime, we struggle to reconcile our most public expressions of stress, the different ways we give voice to our stress, how we release it and how we channel it. That in itself is stressful, and we too often respond by judging the decisions of others by their impact on our stress, not theirs.

It is important that we deal with stress, make room for it and try to reduce it and minimize it in ways that are healthy and safe. And here we are trying to do just that in response to a threat to our health about which we still know so very little and at a moment when we are confronted with dark truths we’ve worked hard to deny and ignore.

So we open up our metaphysical medicine cabinets and search for the right combination of healing agents; the right mix of diversion and perspective, physical and spiritual strength and nourishment for the head and the heart. There is, of course, some relief in knowing we are not alone in our stress. There is reassurance in the universal pajama-wearing, dog-walking, carbohydrate-consuming, binge-watching behaviors that are the stuff of our stress-relieving jokes. But even that feels different now.

There’s something that has gotten me and many others through times of stress, and that’s music. I have a wonderful friend who is dealing with his own stress by sending out a song link a day to a list of friends. They are songs and artists he likes and mean something to him. Which reminds me of a song that means something to me that poses both a question and an answer to our shared stress. Because we really do want to know, as Marvin Gaye needed to know, “What’s Going On.”

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine and WISC-TV.