The stress Watt

A stress wall is a barrier most people build to keep strangers from getting too close too soon. It keeps others at arm's length. Like small talk, the walls we construct to protect ourselves have gotten a bum rap. When built properly (out of movable and removable building blocks rather than cement), emotional walls serve a very handy purpose. They keep dashing, yet deadly, Attila the Huns from jabbing a spear into the center of your heart, or nine-headed Hydras from swimming across your emotional moat and slithering into your life. The notion that instant vulnerability is a desirable trait is dangerous, indeed. After all, we're not in Eden anymore.

What I'm trying to get at is the sense that some feelings of stress are a normal and essential part of being alive, and — dare I say it? — of staying alive. Dating, by its very nature, is one big, fat unknown. It's okay to feel a bit of trepidation. It's good to drive cautiously with your eyes on the road and your hands at "ten and two" on the steering wheel. What's not productive, however, is to work yourself into a tizzy because you're suddenly convinced a serial killer must lurk in the soul of anyone who would date you or that a vengeful ex in an eighteen wheeler is about to cross the median and obliterate you.

Stress history

I'll tell you one of my secrets as a psychologist: I'm trained to evaluate patterns of behavior more than single incidents. You can always tell more about a person by examining what they do repeatedly than by holding a magnifying glass up to one mistake or one incredibly romantic moment. Unless this is your first ever date (in which case, you can look at your behavior in other stressful situations like final exams, sports try-outs, school play auditions, and so on), think back to other first dates you've known. Did you feel the same way? Act in a similar manner? Call everyone in your address book and obsess for days? My guess is the answer is yes. And there's a very simple explanation why.

When stressed, we regress, which means that we revert to an earlier form of behavior that's familiar and comfy. It's why kids become unpotty-trained when they get a new sib, or why most of us become childlike when we get sick. Often, you return to the way you behaved with your family when you were growing up. This doesn't mean the circumstances were always good, just familiar. Remember that old joke about the man who wouldn't stop banging his head against the wall? When asked why, he responded, "It's the only thing I know how to do really well, and it feels really good when I stop."

We all learned really well how to respond to stress. This does not mean we all respond really well.

Think back to the morning of one of your childhood family vacations. Or just before Thanksgiving dinner at your house. Or watching your parents get ready to go out. Pick the scenario that best describes the scene:

1 Serenity reigns. The bags were packed the day before and are lined up at the front door. The kids are lined up, too, ready to march single-file into the station wagon. Or, the table was set the night before. Roasted turkey smells fill the calm air. Your mom relaxes on the couch watching her kids play tiddlywinks. Or, the baby-sitter is early, Mom is dressed and waiting, Dad has the directions in hand and made the reservation weeks ago and is always so efficient Mom never once has to ask him, "Did ya remember to . . . ?"

1 Chaos reigns. You're riffling through the pile of dirty laundry in the corner of your bedroom searching for your favorite T-shirt to stuff into your suitcase. Dad keeps yelling, "If you don't get into the car now, we're leaving without you." Or, you're polishing silver as the doorbell rings, the kitchen looks like Hurricane Andrew blew through, and your mother vows, "Next year, Thanksgiving is at Grandma's!" Or, Dad is yelling at Mom, who's been in the bathroom for the past 45 minutes, "If you don't get in the car now, I'm leaving without you!" When Mom is finally ready, she asks your dad if he has the address where they're going, and he says, "I thought you had it."

If you picked the second scenario, your family is like almost everyone's family. If you picked the first, your parents were probably hatched from an alien pod. In most families, chaos is a part of all big events, at least to some degree. Your family life was the school in which you learned how things are "supposed" to be before a big event in your life right now.

The goal of this section is to show you how to manage your stress and make it work for you, not wear you out. First, ask yourself the following questions:

1 Was I sober and of sound mind when the date was originally arranged? 1 Have I spoken to this person since the date was made? 1 Is excitement buried beneath my feelings of stress (as opposed to dread)? 1 Is this someone I would unhesitatingly introduce to my mother?

If all or most of your answers are "yes," your stress wall will probably start lowering a bit as soon as your date laughs at your first joke.

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