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.

Playing, Introverts, The Highly Sensitive, and Bodies

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about play. I don’t play very much. I write, I do trivia games sometimes, I crossword, and I watch TV. But I don’t play. I’ve never played sports (I just work out), I’ve never played video games. I only recently started playing board and RP games. From the moment I learned how to read as a kid, it was my chosen form of entertainment. I’d spend hours and hours in the summer holed up in my room curled around a book, ignoring the outside world.

Oh sure sometimes I’d play with my beanie babies or make up stories with my friends, but I wasn’t very good at doing anything like that myself. I was already creating involved to do lists by the age of 12. I never simply explored.

There’s a lot of evidence that play is really good for human beings. It’s how we learn things, it’s one of the ways we become comfortable with our bodies and our environments, it makes us more creative and better at problem solving, and it often creates social connections that go a long way towards making us more comfortable with people more quickly.

Basically, play is great. It makes us happier, better connected, smarter, and better workers.

In concert with thinking about play, I’ve been reading a lot about introverts and highly sensitive people lately. I am a pretty classic introvert, and I am definitely what’s called a highly sensitive person. For those who aren’t familiar with that term, it refers to someone who reacts to physical, emotional, and social stimuli more strongly than others. That means on a physiological level, not simply in the behavior they have in response.

These characteristics tend to lead a person to want to control their environment. You’re more likely to seek out calm environments, dark spaces, less people, intellectual and internal stimuli rather than outside interests. And I pretty well fit those descriptions. When I did seek outside stimuli, I did so in very structured ways: I joined clubs and classes and activities because they made sense and had a clear structure and order to them that I could rely on.

Exploring things has always been scary to me. New foods, new sounds, new places are highly overwhelming because I just feel a lot. Unfortunately, that’s made play, especially individual, explorational play, really hard for me. I didn’t do a lot of playing in the dirt or wandering around on my own or poking at things when I was little, and I still prefer things to be in a clear order rather than just jumping in and messing around with something new. I can’t color or do arts because there’s no clear end point. I can’t just listen to music, I have to be doing something else with a point. I have a really hard time with these things.

So: I’m introverted and highly sensitive, which means I’m not much good at explorative play. I’ve managed to do ok when it comes to creativity and connection through some hard work with my therapist. But what’s still giving me serious trouble is my relationship with my body. I have serious difficulties seeing my body as part of myself, something necessary and innate, something that is me rather than just an annoying extra feature that I’d rather get rid of.

Theory: play helps us understand our own bodies. It helps us develop the senses that locate where the parts of our bodies are, it helps us understand the limitations and abilities of our bodies and respect what they can and can’t do for us. In many anecdotes about bold kids who play often and without fear, I hear that they grow up to be people who are pretty at home with their physical presence and not afraid of being hurt.

The more you play, the more you realize that a body is part of being human. It lets you learn and interact. Kids who don’t play, but instead read or work or practice an instrument, or whatever, don’t learn how to just exist with their body and be ok with it. They need something external to help them along. There are lots of people who don’t play enough anymore. Humans pretty naturally play throughout their whole lives, unlike many other animals. But we keep forgetting to do that, which may be leading to some disconnects from our bodies.

It seems highly likely to me that kids who are introverted or highly sensitive might need a little more effort on the part of their parents to give them space to play. They might need quieter spaces with less color and less stimulation. Maybe they need to play with one other person instead of lots, and be allowed to take the lead in their play. Maybe they need a yard that’s fenced in so they know what to expect. Maybe as adults, we introverts and sensitives need to make these kinds of spaces for ourselves.

Let’s try an experiment: I’m going to play more this week. I’m going to climb, I’m going to play in the rain, I’m going to roll around with my kitten and doodle and get messy in the kitchen. I’m going to buy a ball or some nerf swords and see what I can do with them. Play will be my task. One thing that I’ve found works incredibly well for me when it’s warm is to go somewhere I can climb or run or swim with a friend and a camera, and just go on a photo adventure. What works for you?