What Birds Can Teach Us About Stress
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Health and Wellness

What Birds Can Teach Us About Stress

How we cope when things pile on and it seems to be too much.

What Birds Can Teach Us About Stress

Stress is so common from adolescent to adult life that it’s become commonplace, almost like a discordant buzzing always in the background of an audiotape. We are a generation that is constantly pressuring ourselves to do better while being just helpless enough that our efforts get the world nowhere. We’re the gerbil generation, and there seems to never be an end or solution to it. The question is if stress is inevitable and we can’t get away from it.

I went to a boarding school that prided itself on (which I think is code for taking some sort of sick pleasure in) challenging students. With an 8-6 school day, Saturday classes, and a minimum of 45 minutes per subject per night, it certainly looks like they met the challenge. I remember nights studying for two tests and a paper, not to mention readings and extracurriculars—and I was an extraordinarily average student. Some rise to meet the challenge and go on to excel, some manage to not-care their way through four years, but the majority scrape by on stress and exhaustion alone. With a mountain of assignments that never seems to get smaller no matter how much we seem to work, there’s never really a revelation that makes the Sisyphean struggle all better, all “worth it.” How do we handle putting energy in, and in, and in, and getting next to nothing back out?

Everyone you’ve ever talked to with their life together has a solution for coping; no matter what it is, they will swear it’s tried and true. Finding which ones are reliable and which ones aren’t is a tough one: first of all, if the person recommending a strategy to you isn’t stressed, how are you supposed to know if it’s because they tried it and it worked or because they were simply never stressed at all to begin with? It’s all very well and good to tell people that yoga and drinking lots of water cured you of all your ails, but it’s not very convincing when it comes from people Instagramming raw vegan meals and perfect scenic everyday life, preaching about how #blessed they are to be living on cloud nine. What about the people who don’t need a method to channel their life into perfection--what about those who just need to manage so they can get on with their lives? Of course with a working method that magic may end up happening, but it’s not always the endgame. Most people who have trouble dealing with stress in their lives are looking just a foot in front of their faces. The short-term is always the most important: get this paper done, handle this issue, get through this week to the weekend until I can relax and collapse. It seems at though there’s no solution to be found, and that even if something works for other people, it might never work for you.

I didn’t find my own solution until this year, well after graduating, that I found a concrete answer. It was in my rhetoric class with an assigned reading by Anne Lamott. In it, she tells a story of her childhood:

[T]hirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” (emphasis mine)

It seems so simple at first. Just bird by bird. It seems almost dumb common sense. How else would you take a task? I don’t do homework assignments all at once. I don’t write papers all at once. But it seems like such a small shift in mindset, a much more forgiving one, that lets us allow ourselves to breathe through the assignment, to be kind to ourselves. The truth is, the simple statement isn’t that revelatory, and it’s easy to write off if you’re in the middle of climbing up the mountain of work. Paralysis is the enemy to productivity, yet somehow that’s the path of least resistance when the work and the responsibilities start to pile up. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is just to take a deep breath and start with the smallest task, the smallest pebble on the mountain. Now I keep a note on my bedside for when I’m up late working on assignments even if I’ve left for the last minute. It helps me out of short-term pits, and over the long term lets me chip away at work so that it’s not so daunting anymore. Bird by bird, I read every day. It reminds me to be gentle with myself. Just take it bird by bird.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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