Never Tell a New Widow to Relax
Aug 18, 2016
I have just returned home after two months on Nantucket—my happy place, the place where I completely relax, where even writing a weekly blog slips to the bottom of my list of priorities. It took me four years to get to this place—literally and physically—and so I keep going back.
If I were wiser, I could create this mental space anywhere; but telling me to relax doesn’t help any. In fact, telling me simply reminds me that my tension, stress and anxiety are showing; and I grow more tense as I try to cover up.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Why You Should Never Tell Someone to Relax,” reminded me of my constant stress in the last years of Lev’s life, as his health failed and I took on some caregiver responsibilities; and then, what followed in the aftermath…
Sue Shellenbarger wrote:
“The directive has exactly the opposite effect on most people. People who instruct a colleague, subordinate or loved one to relax may have good intentions. But it is usually better to resist ordering people to change their emotional state and try a different strategy. If you are on the receiving end of an order to relax, there are countermoves that can keep your blood pressure from soaring higher….
“Relaxing on command is physiologically impossible if ‘the body is already too acutely stressed to turn it around,’ says Wendy Mendes, a professor of emotion at the University of California, San Francisco, and a researcher on stress. While the body responds rapidly to stress, returning to a relaxed state can take 20 to 60 minutes, she says.”
Shortly after Lev’s death, when I saw my doctor for a routine annual physical, she gently probed me both about my emotional state and my responsibilities. I described my racing heart, my difficulty swallowing, my aching neck and shoulders, as well as my effort to learn the business, close the downtown office and find a new bank. I was unexpectedly sole executor and trustee, as well as CEO and managing partner; and I felt completely unequipped. As a friend had warned me, “They will not give you time to grieve.”
“Oh, you have to be able to function! You can’t be a zombie,” my wise doctor exclaimed. “I will prescribe a medication that you will not feel but that your family will thank me for. Thus began another first—about eight months on a daily psychotropic drug before weaning myself from dependence under her careful supervision.
When I went back for my next annual physical, she asked me how I was doing.
“Generally fine, but I still have occasional anxiety attacks where all the symptoms return.”
This time she prescribed something different—an antianxiety medication to take as needed. I still keep it on hand for those moments when I am overwhelmed—a half tablet perhaps two or three times a month. It unties the knots in my jaw, my esophagus and my stomach. I am very careful. I am aware of the dangers of mixing medications and of interaction with alcohol, but this is one place where I do not have any pride. My efforts to tough it out and “be strong” were a failure.
She reminded me that grief has many dimensions: physical, psychological, social and spiritual…. She said that she always advises those she counsels to get a complete physical. Our immune system is compromised. If hormones are too low or too high, clinical depression can set in. For weeks or even months, we have cognitive issues: We simply don’t remember things. Diet is important.
So much that we once thought was emotional—perhaps even a character flaw—is neurological, physiological. Treatment is available. Those who grieve and suffer great loss of all kinds can relax again.
I’d like to hear from you: How do you relax?
Photo: Relaxed on my neighbor’s porch