Between Stress and Boredom

For most of my life I thought that there were two possibilities for how life could be. I thought it could be stressful or it could be boring.

During school or work or activities I was stress out. I had too much to do, I couldn’t do it well enough. There was never a nice mid level of stuff to do, it was always an excess, always tinged with anxiety of whether I was working hard enough or accomplishing well enough.

Sometimes I could turn my brain off. All the way off. I would zone out for hours or days at a time, reading or being with my friends, but more often than not becoming painfully, incessantly, anxiety-provokingly bored. It was so much worse than the stress because I couldn’t even reassure myself that I was working hard and getting things done, earning my keep. It was just me and my mind, never a good combination.

Imagine my surprise to look at my life today and realize that there is a third option. I can relax. I can play. I can balance.

Today, I woke up and wrote for a few hours. I read a book just for fun during lunch, finished some work, and went climbing. I cleaned my house, then visited my favorite coffee shop to read and finish building a Dungeons and Dragons character. Not once today have I been bored. I have plans to see people tonight, healthy social plans all week, and enough work to keep me happily occupied during the week. But not once today did I feel stressed out, behind, overwhelmed, or anxious.

There were some parts of the day in which I didn’t really do much of anything. I read a book, I played with my cat, I played a game. I never thought that it would require practice to play or relax, but over the last few years I have intentionally spent time alone, doing nothing of import, simply because I wanted to, or even just because my therapist told me to try it. I’ve spent time forcing myself not to get up and go get something done, forced myself to question the thoughts that say I’m bad if I don’t accomplish, forced myself to practice different breathing, light candles, rub my cat on my face, or do anything else it takes to soothe the anxious feelings that used to appear when I tried to enjoy myself.

And I practiced playing. I tried video games, I got a cat, I took up Dungeons and Dragons and played more board games, I started writing fiction again, I bought fidget toys, and I started to force myself to read more often (something I have always loved). Some things didn’t stick: I tried mosaicing and collaging and drawing, and each was mildly interesting for a bit, but didn’t hold my interest. I taught myself how to listen to podcasts, something I’d wanted to do for ages. I started listening to music again.

It took time. Sometimes these things were not enjoyable for me. This might sound ridiculous, as they’re all for fun things, but I would often have intrusive thoughts that told me I should be doing something important or useful rather than doing something for fun, and if the activity didn’t require full concentration then I would simply have recurrent, intrusive thoughts about how much I didn’t like myself. When I wasn’t working, there was space for my depression and anxiety to creep in at the edges.

So it took practice to simply do fun things over and over and over until they stopped feeling wrong, confusing, or anxiety provoking.

I learned how to play. I learned how to relax. These aren’t skills that everyone just picks up, and it does a disservice to everyone not to make those skills available to learn. It’s an amazing realization to figure out that those things are not only acceptable to do, but also important and healthy.

What that’s meant for me is that there is space between boredom and stress. I don’t have to be running all the time every day in order to keep my mind occupied. I don’t have to distrust my mind so much that I can’t just be alone with it. There is a way to do things that are engaging, fun, interesting, and challenging without introducing stress into the picture.

Of course it’s harder to put that together in a job, and it takes a lot of time and work and luck to end up in a position where you feel like you’re having fun or working on something you like most of the time, but the fact that there are any times where I can do that is a source of so much hope for me. I hope it can be for other people too, that other people can recognize that there’s nothing wrong with them because they are stressed out or bored all the time. It takes practice. It is possible.

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