Navigating Stress

I’m guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

On the fourth day of the #RoadToCACUSS, I foolishly volunteered myself for the graveyard shift of a gruelling 25+ hour drive from Illinois to Alberta. Around midnight, I entered the disorienting limbo that is Fargo, North Dakota. In the dead of the night, with high-beams casting eerie shadows around the hollow edges of an endless, empty road, I accidentally ran over a skunk and a raccoon. And that was just the beginning. I may or may-not have caused some minimal damage to the RV (ask me off the record, and I’ll tell you the full story). And I was hesitant to cross the U.S. & Canada border out of irrational fear (a bearded, brown man driving an RV with five sleeping white passengers).

In the dead of the night, I chugged a cocktail of deep discomfort: fear, anxiety, anger, shame, frustration and guilt. For starters, I was afraid of falling asleep at the wheel; I was anxious about crossing the border; I was angry that I was anxious about crossing the border; I was ashamed of running over innocent wildlife (and waking my colleagues in the process). And I was frustrated that I had caused some minimal damage to the vehicle. Ultimately, I was wrought with guilt for the rest of the day, for I had incurred unexpected costs, time and aggravation. The ride through North Dakota brought me to the brink of my breaking point. Hungry, angry, lonely, tired, I should’ve had a meltdown. But I didn’t. For I had already rehearsed these stressful scenarios several times before, and I had taken precautions and flipped multiple kill-switches along the way: I took breaks, I listened to upbeat music, I had deep, engaging conversations with my co-pilots Brandon Smith and Jen Gonzales, and I ate some ridiculously tasty cookies (shoutout to Adrienne Crookshank). I regulated my stress, and was ultimately sheltered by a collegial, supportive attitude that was encouraged by Heather Lane-Vetere at the outset of the trip. Food, friends, music, rest, and more – things I knew that would keep my stress under control. Not to mention a friendly mental-health check-in from our very own Dr. Sarah Thompson.

You could say that I was ready for Fargo, North Dakota long before the #RoadToCACUSS began.

It’s human nature to avoid pain and discomfort. For that reason, many choose to stay far away from adventure, conflict and stress. These three scenarios introduce too many variables that require a combination of creativity and perseverance to overcome. It’s exhausting work, and so it’s naturally easier to stay in your comfort zone than to confront the uncertain possibilities that exist beyond its borders. The problem is that we typically view stress as a negative output or outcome. But administered in careful, small and planned doses, stress is exactly what you need to grow. The Ancient Greeks had a name for this technique: hormesis. It’s the term for generally favorable biological responses to low exposures to toxins and other stressors. Stress – something that can literally kill you – administered carefully, is actually good for you.

If you’re stressed, it’s likely that you’re evolving. You’re introducing into your life a series of people, scenarios and objectives in brand new combinations that are forcing you to use your body, mind and spirit in new and inventive ways to solve a problem. If you’re stressed, it means that you’re exerting yourself – it means that you’re not stagnating. Consider the process of bodybuilding: the physical act of straining your body is what prompts it to grow. And very closely related to this analogy is the idea of rest, recovery and gratitude – all three factors are amplified considerably more following a stressful situation: the joy of eating a meal that you cooked; the satisfaction of having a baby that’s been in your womb for nine months; the first home that you’ve purchased after saving for years and years. The very things that stressed us out on the #RoadToCACUSS are the very things that made this trip worthwhile.

For starters, the six of us forfeited our comfortable homes for a week in cramped and shared quarters. We shared a bathroom, we shared food, we shared clothes. We threw our sleeping patterns completely out of whack. We lost our ability to stay connected to the world regularly. We lost our ability to focus for long periods of time on our work. We were in difficult (but hardly new) scenarios, meeting with counterparts and prospective students, being “on” most of the time. Our morale was rattled by long drives, quick sprints, and an endless stream of challenges smacking our collective windshields as we traversed 5,000+ km of road.

I speak on behalf of the team when I say that we gained so much from the stress that we absorbed: it made us value what little free time that we did have; it made us appreciate each other in ways that would’ve taken years to fully realize normally; it made us all a bit older and wiser. I considered throughout the trip an alternative reality in which I was extremely productive all week: I lost six hours on a flight, and I ended up at CACUSS ready to immerse myself in the conference. No additional work. No period of refraction. Nowhere near the amount of hardship. Looking back, the #RoadToCACUSS was a better choice for me. In this reality, I opened up my mind to new possibilities; I gained new perspectives; I explored new areas of my mind; I forged stronger relationships with my friends and peers; I pushed my productivity to new limits. In one week, I experienced several years of accelerated professional development. And, at a fraction of the cost.

Sacrifice is the act of forfeiting or delaying short-term satisfaction for long-term gains. To be quite frank, I’m not sure if I could do the #RoadToCACUSS again (not in the near future, at least). While on social media it may have looked like we were having a fun-filled road trip with friends, I assure you that what you see in the pictures is the highlight reel. The B-Roll footage is full of images of the six navigators hard at work. Heads buried in phones, laptops and notebooks;active reflection through daily blogs, videos, photos and social media; poring through itineraries, shaking hands, kissing babies and trying to absorb everything that is to possibly know from our peers and contemporaries across two countries. The #RoadToCACUSS wasn’t  easy, and it put our minds, bodies and spirits to the test. But it was absolutely worth it. A week of hardships for what is guaranteed to yield years of inspiration, energy and collaboration. To see Sarah’s smiling face, to see our colleagues’ eyes light up, and to see our fellow #CACUSS15 attendees share their own #RoadToCACUSS, was absolutely worth whatever we endured on the road. Six concentrated days is a small price to pay for a triple-shot of inspiration, perspective and creativity. The Hamza that is emerged from the other side of this journey is older, wiser and has an expanded capacity for stress.

Looking back, the #RoadToCACUSS was a much-needed reminder that all stress isn’t bad – that some stress is actually necessary for growth. The stress we experienced on our trip has made us better people, better professionals and has prepared us for the bigger mountains that we must climb and the longer roads that we must travel as student affairs professionals. When the Class of 2019 arrives at our doors in September, I know I’ll be a sharper, more insightful and more inventive student affairs professional for them.

To paraphrase Lao Tzu: “The journey of five-thousand lives begins with a single road trip.”

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