I’m Shannon Carol Baxter, the mastermind behind Make Stress Vanish, and hopefully some kick-ass fantasy/crime novels. ;)
When people genuinely compliment me, not like the “I like your shirt” kind but the kind where you can tell they really see who you are, they usually say I seem very calm, peaceful, down-to-earth, or “even-keeled”.
I really appreciate these compliments, and I can assure you, it was for sure not always the case.
When I was completing my degree, I was a fairly typical student with an eye for achievement. In addition to coursework, I had a part-time job and spent a lot of time volunteering with a student branch of an NGO.
I looked like I knew what I was doing and had it all together. My friends and family often told me my only problem was that I “took things too seriously”.
But I couldn’t stop taking things seriously and I was INCREDIBLY stressed out almost all the time.
In my mind, what these friends and family didn’t get was that I absolutely had to take school, my job, and volunteering super seriously because these were the things that showed people I had a reason to be respected and be on this Earth.
I was convinced that if people were not wowed by how smart I was, I was worthless. If I couldn’t stoically handle my (small at the time) financial responsibilities myself, I was worthless. If I didn’t work in a job, (and often a tiring, low-paid one) I was a “princess” and therefore useless and worthless. If I didn’t do things to help people in poorer areas on the other side of the world, what point was there in me being here?
So of course I took these things seriously.
Being incredibly stressed out all the time was pretty awful though, so I reduced my course load, spreading my degree over a longer period of time so I could also work and volunteer without frying my nerves too much.
I was also into meditating and yoga, and most days, did one or both of these things.
I took multivitamins and under-the-tongue flower sprays that were meant to reduce your stress.
And despite all of these things I was doing, I still felt incredibly stressed out almost all the time.
I had a hard time falling asleep, and often woke up in the middle of the night. Some nights I only managed to sleep for 3-4 hours and had to call in sick to work because I couldn’t function on so little sleep. Calling in sick to a job of course “was cheating” and filled me with lack-of-work-ethic shame.
I was tired all the time. I was thirsty all the time. I had to drink at least four cups of coffee every day to be able to stay awake, go to class, and study.
Being around people was draining: they didn’t do what I needed them to do and I had to make sure my behaviour was exactly perfect so they didn’t lose all respect for me. I didn’t always like spending time around friends and the idea of dating anyone was so stressful it was completely out of the question.
I sometimes zoned out and would lose half an hour of time just because my mind went off on a thought spiral of all the awful things that could happen if I didn’t get a high enough mark on a test, or if someone said something to me, or if I didn’t get into grad school.
I often had heartburn or chest pains, even though I was in my early 20’s.
I didn’t get along with my mom or brother, didn’t feel supported by them. After all, these people kept telling me to “relax”, and therefore not spend time proving I was a worthwhile person who could be valued.
I dreaded going home and being at home so much I sometimes cried as I was driving back to my mom’s house.
Then of course I’d compare myself to the most successful person near me (…because weren’t we all supposed to do that...?) and just not get how it could even happen.
I knew one girl who was running the student organization I volunteered with, was double-majoring, taking the maximum course load, had not one but two part time jobs, and got into med school.
How the F was I supposed to compete with that!?
Fortunately, I did reach a point where I started looking for a way to change.
I was sitting in the middle of the student centre, eating lunch and reading a chapter of one of my psych textbooks at the same time. I looked up and noticed these two girls and a guy walking past. They didn’t seem drained and half-dead like so many other students. They were relaxed and moving smoothly, and smiling. One of the girls actually seemed to be flirting with the guy.
And I thought: “How could you possibly think of flirting under conditions like these? There are papers to write, obnoxious customer service jobs to work, and graduate programs to get into. How could something totally frivolous like flirting even enter your mind!?”
And then I got that even though we went to the same school, this girl genuinely lived in a different world than me. I started to think that maybe the world wasn’t this shrill, demanding, judgmental and intense place. Maybe that was just how I experienced it.
Because of what I was reading, I started thinking I might have one of these anxiety problems my courses kept talking about.
And that meant these bouts of sleeplessness, this tension whenever I talked to anyone, this constant fear of not getting high grades on absolutely everything, and feeling like it wasn’t possible for life to ever actually be fun, were the result of something that could go away.
And suddenly the world seemed like a very different place.
Having just decided I gave myself the best news of my entire life, I packed up my things and immediately went to the student wellness centre: I was going to get counselling so the anxiety would go away and I could live in the same world as the inexplicably relaxed girl who felt like flirting.
On an unstoppable determined mission, I actually checked in with the receptionist on the wrong side of the wellness centre and ended up in an MD’s waiting room. Oops.
When the doctor arrived, I explained to her: “I’m not sure what happened, I actually meant to speak to a counselor. I have an anxiety problem and need therapy,” then got up to leave and go to the other side of the wellness centre.
She said, “Okay but first, let’s just talk about this,” and got me to sit back down.
She took me through a long and weirdly invasive questionnaire and concluded: “You’re right, you do have an anxiety problem, and you’re right, counselling would be the best course of treatment for you.”
She then took out her prescription pad and wrote me a prescription for counselling.
So, with a confirmed anxiety diagnosis complete with a prescription, I went straight across to the other reception desk in the student centre and booked a counseling appointment ASAP.
Much to my dismay, the earliest appointment was the next week. I had a problem that was slowing me down and needed it fix it NOW so I could drop jaws with what I was able to accomplish, get an advanced degree, and prove to the world that I was a worthwhile person.
I took the slip with the date and time of my appointment, went home, and filled out a self-assessment questionnaire the doctor had given me.
I was really surprised when my result told me my anxiety was not mild, moderate, or strong, but “EXTREME/SEVERE”. After all, I was still able to work, go to school, and volunteer. That didn’t seem like something someone with “EXTREME/SEVERE” anxiety logically should be able to do.
I’d also felt like this FOR YEARS, and no one had ever seemed to come close to suggesting I might have a problem like “EXTREME” anxiety. They just thought I needed to relax and stop stressing so much.
Finally, my first counselling appointment came. I liked the counsellor and she seemed to know what she was doing. I felt a little bit better after.
Then I had to wait ten f****** days for the next appointment.
For a couple of months, I went to see this woman, feeling like I was holding my breath in between sessions, and anxiously hoping that the next session would in fact make me feel better.
They usually did, but sometimes I felt just as bad after the session as when it started. Which drove me crazy.
Not only did I have to wait for an appointment and depend on someone else to stop feeling all this anxiety, every once in a while, the appointment … didn’t really work.
I’m sure most counsellors would assure me they all worked, but to me if I left feeling just as stressed out as when I arrived, that was not the result I wanted.
After five sessions, the counsellor told me she was moving back to Toronto to finish the coursework for her Master’s degree. I could see another counsellor at the wellness centre if I wanted more counselling.
I was SO not ready for this woman to leave. The sessions had helped, and I felt less incredibly stiff and terrified, but I still felt pretty messed up.
Of course I booked more appointments with another counsellor. I knew this was a problem that could go away, and I was going to get rid of it so that I could live in the weirdly light easygoing world I’d glimpsed when I saw those three relaxed flirting students at lunch.
And so I could sleep and be productive. And not randomly lose blocks of time as I went into some weird trance where my mind came up with all the possible worst-case-scenarios to everything happening.
This other counselor was really just not a fit. I went three or four times and felt no difference, I didn’t learn any strategies I could use on my own, (she seemed to think that was a weird thing for me to want) and didn’t really feel I had any insight into why I was the way I was.
Frustrated, I stopped going.
Some people might say I just didn’t give that enough time, but paying for a service for four sessions without experiencing any shift, getting any new tools or strategies, or understanding why that hasn’t happened yet… Makes you feel like it’s not the service for you.
I still had a pretty strong case of a problem that I knew could go away, so I kept looking for solutions.
I got really into self-help. I spent a lot of time meditating, got up early and exercised, and wrote out lists of things I wanted and why, lists of good things in my life, and tried using affirmations to train my mind to come up with happy thoughts more easily than it did.
The nice thing about self-help was that if something didn’t really work I could try something else right away. I could do something every day to reduce my anxiety, without even spending more money.
I had control over the process, and I wasn’t dependent on someone else.
That was very pleasing to my independent spirit.
This did also help me feel better, but I spent a lot of time doing these things. If I was rushed in the morning and didn’t meditate, I really noticed it.
One of the pieces of advice was to avoid people with negative attitudes or who said things that caused you to start thinking negatively.
That was pretty hard to follow, because the people I lived with often said and did things that triggered really unpleasant feelings in me. As a student who wasn’t eligible for loans, moving out wasn’t something I could do easily, or without causing A LOT of upheaval.
Then one morning I was reading a personal improvement blog, and the blogger posted about a new technique she’d just found. She wrote: “This is amazing! It changes how you feel about things! You can even use it on feeling tired!” She had a link to a video that walked you through the process.
I clicked the video link, and found a red-shirted English guy telling me to make sure I wasn’t in a public area because he was about to walk me through a process that looked strange: Emotional Freedom Techniques, aka. “Tapping”.
I went through his odd-looking process, using it on a feeling I had when my mom said something that bothered me. At the end of the video he invited you to try feeling the feeling you didn’t like that you’d tapped on. I could. Not. Feel. It. Even when I tried to.
When I went back upstairs to the kitchen and my mom said the thing that always bothered me, I didn’t get the unpleasant feeling in my back.
I felt like I’d just been handed the keys to the universe. This was completely amazing. I learned everything I could about tapping and tapped as much as I possibly could.
I devoured all the information I could find on tapping and got all the support I could in doing it.
The best part was the effects of the tapping lasted. If I didn’t tap one day, I didn’t feel a backslide. The results were cumulative.
And every time I tapped, I felt better.
After a while, I started talking to people in my classes. Without even feeling tense about it.
I could go to bed, fall asleep as soon as my head was on the pillow, and wake up energized when my alarm went off in the morning.
If a guy started making flirty eyes at me, I just felt flattered. My mind didn’t start pulling up every awful statistic I’d heard on violence against women or inequality in heterosexual relationships.
I stopped being stressed out about money, even though I was still a student and didn’t have a full income.
I was able to work more at a job because I didn’t lose as much time to stress and worry. I had more energy because I consistently slept properly. I was way more efficient, because my headspace wasn’t taken up with all these upsetting “What if’s?” that used to just generate themselves and consume me.
I stopped worrying about getting into grad school. I actually chose not to go. I didn’t need it to validate my existence anymore, and I’d changed my career plans because of how well this tapping worked. I was also really excited to pack up and move to a different city by myself when I finished school.
I started going to friends’ parties without even worrying that there would be tons of people I didn’t know yet. I went on dating binges (thanks PoF, haha) and guys had a hard time believing me when I told them I used to be really shy.
…And don’t worry, I still finished my bachelor’s with distinction, and I was still promoted into management just a few years after that. I almost always received good performance reviews and references at work, and had no trouble finding jobs.
I say that to show that separating my sense of worth as a human being from outward achievements didn’t evaporate my drive.
Not being outrageously stressed all the time didn’t stop me from achieving things. It just made achieving things not suck. (Because before, it did).
Because I’m pretty sure no one actually wants the path to success to include loads of sleepless nights, stomach cramps, and a quiet fear of making one mistake that causes them to be a complete and total failure. Getting it with ease (and maybe even fun) is WAY better