As I stepped out onto our fourth-story porch this morning, wrapped in silk long underwear, thermal clothing, fleece, down, and wool, almost everything but my eyes peeking out, the cold did not feel that bad. As long as the 30+ mile-an-hour wind didn't hit me, it was just a normal winter's day, at least for this year. Once the wind hit, though, it was painful, like some combination of ice and fire and knives and lasers and big sharp teeth, ripping through all the layers in one big wave. When we got downstairs, our gate wouldn't open, which meant that we were stuck. As I tried to jiggle the gate, fidgeting with the remote, I got colder. Even without the wind, anything over a few minutes in this temperature sends messages to the central nervous system that sound something like, "FREAK OUT NOW. THIS IS NOT GOOD. SERIOUSLY, FREAK OUT."
By the time we were able to get some help and pull out of our parking lot onto the icy alley, an idea was starting to form in my frozen brain: the extreme cold is a metaphor for how stress works all the time.
Metaphor work is a big part of what I do when I coach clients and organizations; as someone who uses storytelling to help solve problems, metaphors are my gate-way drug to larger narrative approaches. They are powerful, but ubiquitous, and as they are constantly evoked, they are much more approachable to most people than saying. "Write a story about [fill in the blank.]" Just try not to use metaphors for a day, and see how long it takes you to use one almost unconsciously. You might begin to feel like you are an artist trying to express him/herself with only a few paint colors, and…bam, there's a metaphor.
If I were to look outside today, it doesn't look any different than any other day. It's bright and sunny, actually, with the kind of clear sky that can come with the deepest cold spells. The bitterness of the weather, if viewed from inside the house, is imperceptible. If I am only out in the weather for a minute or two, and I am well bundled up, I can pass it off as any other winter's day. But if I am out for even a second too long, or am hit by one of the many frigid winds speeding through, I feel as if I am being cut through; the air, which I cannot see, is able to cause physical, crippling pain for an instant.
When I return home to the house, make myself some coffee or some chai, and thank God for the wonderful heat from our radiators, and the ability to be in a safe, warm home, I might forget about that cold. It is still there, though. It lingers. It waits. It surrounds.
Stress is like that, right? You can manage it in small doses, you can guard yourself with protective clothing to manage it better, and you can take comfort in a warm, safe place to rejuvenate and even forget about it for a moment. But when that stress is there, lingering, waiting, surrounding, all it takes is one event—it doesn't have to be a big event, just something that sweeps through powerfully and sharply, like an arctic wind—to leave you doubling over. You can't see the stress, but the more you have, the more vulnerable you are to its effects, as if your ambient temperature is below zero, and you don't have any available tolerance for wind or snow.
There are a million stress-reduction techniques and habits out there: learn how to say no, participate in physical activity, keep a schedule, get enough sleep, eat well, be honest in your communication, maintain healthy relationships, set goals, find meaningful work/hobbies, breathe, mediate/pray, etc. Sometimes stuff just happens though—your kid gets sick, you lose your job, a loved one dies, you can't sell your house, you have a new baby, you have a new job, etc.—and there is only so much stress you can eliminate. Using the metaphor as a help, I would say that knowing the cold is out there—reading the weather report, and using your head—is sometimes the most powerful step you can take. "Yes, this is stressful. I am not going to deny that. I am not going to walk outside to run a lemonade stand in shorts when it feels like -52 degrees outside. And even though I will bundle up and take precautions, when I feel the pain of the wind, I will use it to push me back to a warm, safe place, even for just a moment, so I can venture out again without hurting."
Stay warm, friends.