"Hey, you know what you should write an article about?" my friend Sasha texted me. "Worrying."
The woman had a point. She had just received a long, rambling text from me describing a proposal for how to spend my birthday, and the reason it was long and rambling was that I thought she might have been hurt that I hadn't planned to celebrate with her on the actual day. Never mind that she didn't care, and wasn't available.
But therein lies the problem for all of my friendships. And acquaintances. And stranger interactions. I am a social worrywart, whether the concern is justified or not. I analyze and re-analyze nearly every conversation I have, trying to pre-empt looming problems. My worries are always interpersonal ones - I'm actually quite level-headed in cases of medical crises or financial catastrophes or problems that would warrant actual concern. It's that fear of looming social armageddon that gets me above all else. I only worry about the fluffy stuff. Let's sort through some of my recent texts, shall we?
Me: "Hey! Do you think I should invite the school moms for snacks and drinks after school Thurs?"
Yes, I like the moms and thought hanging out would be fun, but I also worried they thought I was standoffish and snobby rather than just quiet, and I wanted to minimize that concern. I almost just erased this paragraph worrying they might see it and would wonder if I had an ulterior motive to inviting them over, which would hurt them - my worst fear. Backup plan - I'll publish under a pseudonym. But they might still figure out it's me??? And if I write this and my other friends figure out it's me, are all the social invitations I throw out suddenly suspect? And yes, I've thought it all through that far. Hasn't everyone?
Me: "Night! Damn I hate text silences after I've just said some weird shit!"
I had just revealed my new book idea to a close friend and I didn't hear from her after an insanely long interval of, like, ten minutes. At the time, I was convinced she thought I was a wing nut and that it was a bad idea. She replied shortly with, "Sorry, Cam just came home with cookies and I got distracted."
A recent animal study conducted by Wake Forest University researchers showed that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/28/stress-prostate-cancer-mice_n_2569256.html?1359412688">stress could help cancer cells survive</a> against anti-cancer drugs. The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, was done on mice induced to experience stress by being exposed to the scent of a predator. When experiencing this stress, an anti-cancer drug administered to the mice was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/28/stress-prostate-cancer-mice_n_2569256.html?1359412688">less effective at killing cancer cells</a>, and the cancer cells were actually <em>kept</em> from dying because of the adrenaline produced by the mice, Everyday Health reported.
Even for healthy people, stressful moments can take a toll on the brain, a new study from Yale University suggests. Researchers reported in the journal Biological Psychiatry that stressful occasions -- like going through a divorce or being laid off -- can <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/10/extreme-stress-shrinks-brain-gray-matter_n_1197437.html">actually shrink the brain</a> by reducing gray matter in regions tied to emotion and physiological functions. This is important because these changes in brain gray matter could signal future psychiatric problems, researchers warned.
The extreme duress that a child experiences when exposed to violence early on could lead to <a href="http://healthland.time.com/2012/04/24/how-bullying-and-abuse-may-age-children-prematurely/">premature aging of his or her cells</a>, according to research in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. The study, which followed 236 children born in England and Wales between the ages of 5 and 10, showed that those who had been bullied, as well as those who were witnesses of violent acts or victims of violence by an adult, had shorter telomeres -- a sign that they <a href="http://healthland.time.com/2012/04/24/how-bullying-and-abuse-may-age-children-prematurely/">were aging faster</a>, TIME reported.
The <a href="http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23109-stress-can-affect-future-generations-genes.html">effects of stress on a person's genes</a> may be passed on from generation to generation, according to a recent Science study -- suggesting stress's effects may not just take a toll on the person itself, but the person's progeny, too. New Scientist reported on the research, which was conducted in mouse germ cells (before they become eggs or sperm) by University of Cambridge researchers. They reported that certain markings to the genes, influenced by outside factors like stress, are generally thought to be erased in the next generation. But the new study shows that some of these markings to the genes <a href="http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23109-stress-can-affect-future-generations-genes.html">still exist in the next generation</a>. "What we've found is a potential way things can get through, whereas before, everything was considered to be erased," study researcher Jamie Hackett told New Scientist.
A study in mice suggests stress could play a role in the <a href="http://healthland.time.com/2011/08/03/study-how-chronic-stress-can-lead-to-depression/">development of depression</a>. Researchers at the U.S. National Institute on Mental Health conducted several experiments on mice, where they noted how stress affected their behavior. They found that stress was linked with <a href="http://healthland.time.com/2011/08/03/study-how-chronic-stress-can-lead-to-depression/">depression-like behaviors</a>, such as giving up swimming in a plastic cylinder and lengthening the response time it took to eat food, TIME reported. "I think the findings fit well with the idea that <a href="http://healthland.time.com/2011/08/03/study-how-chronic-stress-can-lead-to-depression/">stress can cause depression</a> or that stressful situations can precipitate depression," study researcher Heather Cameron, chief of neuroplasticity at the NIMH, told TIME.
It's not just the stress, but <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/05/stress-reactions-health_n_2078919.html">how you react to it</a>, that could have an impact on your health down the road, according to a new study from Pennsylvania State University researchers. Published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, the study found that people who were more stressed out and anxious about the stresses of everyday life were, in turn, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/05/stress-reactions-health_n_2078919.html">more likely to have chronic health conditions</a> (such as heart problems or arthritis) 10 years later, compared with people who viewed things through a more relaxed lens.
Stressed-out people may have a <a href="http://jnnp.bmj.com/content/83/11/1104">higher stroke risk</a> than their more mellowed-out peers, according to an observational study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. "Compared with healthy age-matched individuals, <a href="http://jnnp.bmj.com/content/83/11/1104">stressful habits</a> and type A behavior are associated with high risk of stroke. This association is not modified by gender," the researchers, from the Hospital Clinico Universitario San Carlos in Madrid, wrote in the study.
Feeling anxious and stressed is linked with a 27 percent <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/chronic-stress-equals-smoking-cigarettes-day-study-article-1.1224293">higher risk of heart attack</a> -- the same effect smoking five cigarettes a day has on the heart, the New York Daily News reported. "These findings are significant because they are applicable to nearly everyone," study researcher Safiya Richardson, of Columbia University Medical Center, told the Daily News. "The key takeaway is that how people feel is important for their heart health, so anything <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/chronic-stress-equals-smoking-cigarettes-day-study-article-1.1224293">they can do to reduce stress</a> may improve their heart health in the future." And not only could chronic stress raise a person's heart attack risk, but it might also affect how well he or she <a href="http://www.nbcnews.com/id/49304726/ns/health-heart_health/t/chronic-stress-tied-worse-heart-attack-prognosis/#.UQwcWFqOjKo">survives after a heart attack</a>. Reuters reported on another study, conducted by researchers at St. Luke's Mid America Heart Institute, that showed that stress is linked with a 42 percent higher risk of dying in the two years after being hospitalized for a heart attack.
If you always suspected that <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Health/ColdandFluNews/chronic-stress-feeds-common-cold-study-finds/story?id=16054304">stress was making you sick</a>, you might be on to something. Research shows that stress has an impact on our immune systems, with one recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences even showing it can make colds worse. That's because when you are stressed, your body produces more cortisol, which can then wreak havoc on your <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Health/ColdandFluNews/chronic-stress-feeds-common-cold-study-finds/story?id=16054304">body's inflammatory processes</a>. The researcher of the study, Carnegie Mellon University's Sheldon Cohen, explained to ABC News: <blockquote>"You have people whose immune cells are not responding to cortisol and, at the same time, they're exposed to a virus system creating an inflammatory response. But the body doesn't have the mechanism that allows it to turn off the inflammatory response, which manifests as cold symptoms," said Cohen.</blockquote>
Cancer -- the diagnosis, treatment, and even the time after it's been "beaten" -- is a stressful process, and research shows that managing that stress could improve outcomes of the disease. Researchers at the University of Miami found that undergoing a Cognitive-Behavioral Stress Management program seemed to have a positive effect on <a href="http://www.miami.edu/index.php/news/releases/stress_management_improves_breast_cancer_outcomes/">breast cancer patients' immune system cells</a>. "For the women in the CBSM groups, there was better psychological adaptation to the whole process of going through treatment for breast cancer and there were physiological changes that indicated that the <a href="http://www.miami.edu/index.php/news/releases/stress_management_improves_breast_cancer_outcomes/">women were recovering better</a>," study researcher Michael H. Antoni, a professor of psychology and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the university, as well as program leader of biobehavioral oncology at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, said in a statement. "The results suggest that the stress management intervention mitigates the influence of the stress of cancer treatment and promotes recovery over the first year."
In this video, we discuss how does stress impact your health
I sent this the morning after I had had "one too many," as my Irish father-in-law would say. I had had a long conversation with Neal about his recent positive brain tumour results, and the bravery he has shown in facing his mortality. All still true the morning after, but I was worried I had crossed the line with being too honest. I was sure I had said things I never would have said while sober, and that he might think I was offensive as a result. Truth - he was probably grateful someone had called out the elephant in the room. Plus he has bigger things to worry about.
The potential for leaving people out of a social event drives me so crazy I almost prefer not to host anything. Leaving me hanging after a text nearly kills me with worry that I've said something offensive. Drinking gives me a break from my inner critic, and while I'm socializing after a few I feel like I'm on fire, but I pay for it with ridiculous analyses and self-reprimand in the other direction the next morning. These examples don't even tap into the prologue of the social anxiety textbook that is me. Yay.
There are some benefits, though, to being overly aware in social situations. At work, I used to think I was Deanna Troy incarnate (Star Trek). I was an Empath who understood social dynamics beyond what was said in a meeting, and in many cases this was true - my bosses would ask for my perspective, and often I was absolutely right. We could fend off hurt feelings that affected high performance before they became a problem. When I needed to reprimand someone though, I had more issues. Every time I needed to have a "performance management," conversation with a subordinate, I felt like I was acting, and I really should have fired more slackers. I worried that I may not have been giving the underachievers adequate opportunity to prove themselves. But I knew I was naturally empathetic, so then did I overcompensate by acting too tough? Only Jason could say.
With strangers, the worrying situation may be at its worst. We live in a busy neighbourhood where I meet people in my social situation on the street all the time - we're all struggling with a stroller and a few young kids. If I see someone all the time and they don't return my smiles, I worry I might be doing something to come off as unfriendly. If I'm in the schoolyard and there's someone I've seen for months who ignores me, I wonder if I'm putting off a bad vibe, or if I'm doing the body language thing all wrong. Suddenly I see the entire neighbourhood as standoffish, while at the same time thinking any coldness is due to my own revolting first impressions. Stranger danger incarnate.
So where is the truth, and is my worrying help or harm? I can tell you from experience that it's harm to me. But I guess the friends who graciously love me get a kick out of my ridiculousness, at least. Now they answer my morning-after-hang-out text or call with, "So is this the call?" I try to tell myself on a good day that my social skirmishes are few and far between, and that my friends would love me enough to get past them. At least everyone understands that I care, and that gives me comfort, because I do care - that's where all this stress comes from. In terms of work, I need to keep acting to do what the job requires, or take a job where strong manager/employee empathy is mission-critical. And as for strangers? I think I need to let strangers be strangers, keep smiling, and if they ignore my smiles, fuck 'em. Isn't that what a Klingon would say? Maybe if I identify with a new Star Trek character, it will be problem solved.
By Ann Moore
The Purple Fig is a community where women share personal and relatable stories; no ego, no shame. We're about life, love and all of the stuff that makes us yearn, squirm, and giggle. These stories make up the authentic and intriguing journey of a woman.
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