Author Megan Stielstra Addresses the Ways We Tackle Fear, Anxiety, and Stress

Sharon J. Rehana
Sharon J. Rehana in ASUG Women Connect March 16, 2019

To some extent, everyone—women, men, C-level professionals, managers, or business users—experiences fear, anxiety, and anger. Often, the stress of not knowing how to manage it can affect your ability to be productive and accomplish goals you’ve set out to achieve.

Megan Stielstra, a Chicago-based author, tackles fear, anxiety, and stress in a series of personal essays in her latest book, “The Wrong Way to Save Your Life.” Her work has appeared in the Best American Essays, the New York Times, and other publications and story-telling platforms.

Megan identifies as a writer and an educator. “I care equally about helping other people tell their stories as I do about telling mine,” she said. She is currently an artist in residency at Northwestern University where she works with 18- to 22-year-old students looking to find their voices. “I find them brilliant, and hopeful, and fierce,” she said. “I wonder what would happen if we listened to their concerns and anxieties, as well as their hopes, excitements, and ideas for how to change things.”

ASUG News spent some time talking to Megan about her book and discussed how she copes with fear and anger. She shared some thoughts on ways to face fears and refocus energy, and what it means to be human and aware.

Sharon: How do you deal with challenges and experiences that cause you anxiety?

Megan: To be honest, I don’t know if I do deal with it. Or, perhaps, I don’t know if I am doing so particularly well. There are many days where I want to launch my laptop into the sea, or when I don’t want to get out of bed. When that happens, I just internalize those frustrations.

But then, at the end of the day, I get up because I have things I need to get done. I have a child that I am raising, and I have young people that I’m trying to help. And despite all my reasons not to, I realize that I also have privileges others don’t, be it an identity or the will to get up and engage at that moment. I know that I need to find a way to use that to help make the lives of other people better. Because when privileges or will weren’t on my side, I depended on others. At the end of the day, we all need each other.

A more tangible way to deal with challenges or anxiety is to read. I have a public library card and I use it. When I’m challenged or feeling anxious, I read. I can’t engage if I don’t fully understand. I look to see the human experience through written word. And that’s where the conversation begins.

Sharon: Fear is inherent for everyone. In your book you talk about being taught to really “look at something.” Can you talk about what that means and how it’s helped you deal with fear? What do you do with it, and how do you look at it?

Megan: I don’t think I handle fear very well. And I don’t think I’m unique in that way. So, the idea behind writing my last book, “The Wrong Way to Save Your Life,” was my way at looking directly at fear—both negatively and positively.

Through personal essays, I examined fear and all the different ways it has manifested in my life. I started by making a list of all the things I fear—physical, emotional, innocuous, or even silly—and just looking at how I approach each of them.

The first essay is about an old roommate, Pete, who taught me how to really “look” at something, and then to keep looking at it again and again. He’d ask me over and over, “what do you see?” There are a million different ways to look at something and I think it’s something we all need to do a little bit more of.

Sharon: In another passage from the book, you wrote that your friend once told you “being in the music is like being in a book.” What does that mean?

Megan: Heather, who was one of my first roommates, was an event producer at a bar in Chicago. She booked all sorts of musicians, and she was a fantastic vocalist herself. She was just really into music.

I’ve always been an anxious and self-conscious person, and she was always so free. She would get lost in the music and just dance like no one was watching and everything else would just go away. I didn’t know how to do that.

What I did know how to do was sit down with a book and just be gone for hours. I would disappear into the words. She observed that and said, “being in the music is like being in a book.” She was drawing a connection between her love of music and my love of books and how each of those allowed us to be free from everything else. Her freedom was through body and mine was through mind.

At the time, I was coming from a place of great self-consciousness. But now, 20 years later, I’m really interested in how I was so in my head and she was so in her body, and what that meant. I’m interested in what it means to write now from the body, especially coming from a place of fear.

Fear is such a physical, immediate, and visceral reaction. But it also can be an action of the mind where we convince ourselves not to do something. For me, “being in the music is like being in a book,” means how can I look at how I feel about a book and a story and then try and see other things in that way too, to make the connection from mind to body. To be able to lose myself in other subject matters in that way, freely.

Sharon: How have you been able to apply it in other ways in your life since then?

Megan: Last year I started charting the things that made me mad, and there were so many things to chart. I wanted to look at why I was so angry and really see it for what it was. That exercise, to look at something and then look at it again, involves your mind. And I tried to deal with my anger by participating in ways that I thought would counter what was making me angry. But even still, that anger lives in your body.

So, I signed up for a weekly membership at an ax throwing club. Every week, I’d go and throw things for an hour. I just wanted to feel my body interacting with this object that could be both a weapon or a tool, depending on how you’re looking at it.  But ultimately, it was a connection between the head and the body, and I was free.

We need to look at what our bodies are telling us and how that is connected with the things that are happening in the world that scare us, or infuriate us, or even that make us happy. We need to listen to our bodies and our minds and find the connection.

Sharon: You wrote, “The mind’s got nothing on the gut.” Are there any other ways that you have found you can refocus that energy when the gut is not aligning with the mind?

Megan: When I think about that line, “the mind’s got nothing on the gut,” I want to emphasize the need to bring our minds back into the conversation.

The writer Roxane Gay has this great essay about the movie “The Help.” There’s a line about how if we’re going to walk into a movie, we have to know when we should leave our brains in the glove compartment, and when we should take our brains in with us.

There are a lot of times that our gut tells us things that we have learned over time. And there’s a push and pull from what our mind might think in the moment. Something that I’m trying to do now is challenge my gut impulses. This can be tricky because you need to know when to trust your gut, too. But it’s important to start to ask questions. Is your gut telling you something because it’s a real instinct feeling, or is it because you’ve been training to believe something to be true.

Sharon: Talk to me about guilt and shame in fear. You wrote about an encounter you had with another woman who felt guilt and shame: “It was heavy, way too much for one person to carry alone. I held out my hands to her and asked if I could hold it.” How valuable is it to share with each other, and to be the one sharing, and then also to be the one who’s listening?

Megan: It is everything. I had an encounter with a woman, a stranger, who approached me after a book reading and shared with me a story of her own pain. What she perceived to be shame and something she’d never shared with anyone else up until that moment. She asked if we could go talk in the corner, and she told me her story. I won’t go into specifics because it’s not my story to tell. But at that time, in that moment, it was mine to hear.

So, what is the power of this stuff? One of my favorite writers, Lidia Yuknavitch, has a line where she says that our bodies can’t hold all our stories, but the page can hold it. And I think that everyone has lived these huge moments—either profound joy or profound trauma. There’s no way we can ever know the depths of what a human being has gone through.

And so often these stories can hold us back or make us feel like we can’t move forward. I think it can be really freeing to be able to set it down and move forward. It doesn’t mean it’s forgotten, but maybe that it can help us get a little closer to healing or forgiving ourselves. Part of sharing it is getting it out of us so we can see it. So that we can look at it. For me, I do that with writing.

In my initial drafts, I’m not thinking about craft. I’m not thinking about audience. I’m not thinking about structure, or point of view, or character development, or scene construction, or any of these building blocks or tools, that make my work what it is. I’m just letting this thing out of me so that I can look at it, and I can try to understand what’s happening, either to me or to the world. It all comes back to when do I need to be talking, and when do I need to be listening?

Sharon: Can you summarize this book in one simple message?

Megan: Yes. We can either say this is scary, and I’m going to hide under the bed, or we can say this is scary and here I go.

Save the date on April 2, 2019 for the first Women Connect happy hour at ASUG's headquarters in downtown Chicago for a chance to meet Megan Stielstra, author of “The Wrong Way to Save Your Life.” Find out how to get involved with ASUG Women Connect year-round.