A Story of Stress and a Shower Curtain
A few years ago I got very sick after an incredibly stressful series of weeks in my life (a common response to stress for me). After being sick for an entire weekend, my teenage daughter commented to me, “I knew you were really sick because the shower curtain was open all weekend!” I asked, “What do you mean?!” She replied, “Mom, my room is next to the bathroom. I hear everything. You close the shower curtain every time you go into the bathroom! Even if it’s already closed, you adjust it a little more.”
I laughed and realized she was right. Every time I am in the bathroom, I do notice the shower curtain. In fact, I almost didn’t believe her when she suggested I had not touched it for three whole days. But, as she says, she hears it all. And I really was very sick that weekend. I guess I hadn’t had the capacity to notice much of anything.
All in the Family
I come from a family of “noticers”. The family I grew up in has an amazing eye for detail and an ability to notice and fix things others may not even be aware of. If you go to a thesaurus, what I am talking about could be described as: thorough, meticulous, nit-picky, fastidious, precise, careful, fussy, particular, perfectionist, etc. Each of those words have different connotations and highlight the spectrum of helpful to less helpful that any behaviour can have. In my life, noticing has been useful in lots of ways. I am a great proof-reader and can catch the smallest of errors. However, the less useful side shows up when I do 30 drafts of a paper before handing it in and still don’t think it is good enough. The line from attentive awareness to fussing and being overly critical can become quite narrow in my world.
Because of my daughter’s comment that weekend, I started thinking about what my “noticing” of the shower curtain can look like. Most days I go into the bathroom and close the curtain calmly if someone has left it open. Some days I go into the bathroom and grumble under my breath, “Why doesn’t anyone else ever shut the curtain?! I’m the only person in this house who does a damn thing!” And now I had new information: there were times, like that weekend, when I was so sick I didn’t even notice the shower curtain at all.
When Stress Picks Up
Dr. Papero wrote, “Rising and falling levels of anxiety and tension in individuals and in their relationships significantly influence the particular manifestations of family emotional process displayed by a given family. Said another way, the family unit behaves much differently psychologically and behaviourally when it is calm than when it is tense and anxious.”
My shower curtain is an inanimate object. It does not do anything. It is open or closed. But the way I interact with it and the story I tell myself about it (and the people who use it), can clearly be very different. The shower curtain is just the shower curtain. But I engage with it in different ways depending on what levels of stress are going on in my life outside of the bathroom.
Can you think of your own examples? Such as where your stress levels impact how you behave? Or the story you tell yourself about an otherwise benign area of life?
Stress – Widening the Lens
In April, Living Systems is hosting a day-long conference called, “Reactivity and Relationships: Widening the Lens with Bowen Theory and Polyvagal Theory”. In anticipation of the conference, there will be a series of blog posts introducing the science of Polyvagal theory. Polyvagal theory describes the physiology of the body and brain when humans feel safe or in danger.
Dr. Stephen Porges, the originator of Polyvagal theory and one of our conference presenters, wrote that our physiological state is an “intervening variable influencing behaviour and our ability to interact with others.” His research on the vagus nerve led to a new understanding of the parasympathetic nervous system. He also believes how humans have three basic physiological responses to the world. We will dig into those three states in a March blog post. For now, the spoiler is that they are related to the three ways I interact with my shower curtain: calm, worked up, and overwhelmed.
Thank you for your interest in systems.
For more information on the April conference, head to: April Conference
If you’d like to do a little digging into Polyvagal Theory, go to the Polyvagal Institute: What is polyvagal theory?
Here is a useful talk by Dr. Porges’ son, Seth Porges. who c0-authored “Our Polyvagal World”: Seth Porges Talk
Dixie Vandersluys, M.A., C.C.C., is a counsellor based in Manitoba. She is a third year trainee with Living Systems and recently completed the Polyvagal Institute’s first-ever certificate course.