Mama Always Said

My sainted mother once said to me, “When I get anxious, I get stupid.” She was anxious a lot, and with good reason. Seven kids, four of them boys (including a pair of twin boys), and all of them Burrowes children.

Her husband was caught in the publish or perish grist mill of university life, where grant renewals created regular uncertainty, as did departmental politics, state funding cuts, and shifting public policies. Dad would occasionally disappear on scientific expeditions for weeks at a time (no cell phones, no landlines, no nothing), leaving Mom with a houseful of teenagers–oh, joy!

Mom looked after aging parents, who chose to make their final home five miles from where she was still very much raising children. Grandpa was a type I diabetic with a bad heart, Grandma eventually succumbed to a lymphatic cancer. Good thing Mom was a registered nurse who could provide her parents free hospice care, huh?

Mom’s life was hard, and she and I often didn’t get along.  I sometimes thought she wasn’t very bright and her summation of parenting me was, “No job worth doing is easy.”

She was plenty bright–very bright, in fact–but she was pushed beyond her limits, and that, it turns out can make us dumb. As somebody who deals with child welfare law, I bump up against psychological testing a lot. I’ve heard many experts testify that our intelligence in particular is a stable trait over the course of our lives.

Mom and I in Ireland ca 1981.

Turns out, Mom was right and the experts are wrong. If you test intelligence when people are under stress, they will score lower–by as much as thirteen points in some studies–than they test when the stress has been alleviated.

This works whether you’re testing Indian sugarcane farmers waiting, waiting, waiting for the harvest to begin, or Princeton mall shoppers who are barely getting by.

The effect of being broke, worried, and without a safety net has the same cognitive impact as always, always, going through life as if you didn’t get any sleep last night. When it comes to stress–exhaustion, money woes, health concerns, loneliness, mental health issues, job worries–that which does not kill you makes you dumber, less able to cope, and less able to think strategically–at least temporarily. With this fact in mind, I hope we re-evaluate our 60-hour work weeks, 24-hour medical rotations for doctors, and miserly attitudes toward family leave.

I think romance readers, like my mom, know what the experts are only now proving. Readers know that if they dwell for too long amid the stressors of life, if they never take a break from worry and work, they can’t be at their best. They know that for a few bucks, a well written novel can hold all of the to-dos, must-dos, and honey-dos at bay long enough to allow for some breathing room and heartsease.

They know that a good book can help life feel more manageable. I’ve never met a reader who said that her  TBR pile made her smarter, but in fact, it just might be doing exactly that.

How do you keep the stress from stealing your wits? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of No Other Duke Will Do.








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41 comments on “Mama Always Said

  1. My mum was a short good looking lady who was kind and loving to us three girls.We were brought up in the fifties when Britain was still recovering from the war and everyone helped each other.My elder sister suffered from cerebral palsy and could not walk she needed special care and mum and dad provided this.But they still had to work the fields and harvest the produce look after the livestock.I can remember my mum saying to me when I asked for help with my homework after school that her body and brain had runaway so I was to ask my father.I would go to him only to find him snoring in his chair by the fire.I am ashamed to say I would complain and sulk and be a not very nice child.Many years later when I look back at our childhood my sister’s had I realise it was happy we were loved and cared for.Our parents worked so hard in difficult times to keep it all together.My mother died when I was 29 married with two small children who adored her and could not understand her passing.I sometimes think that today we expect all the answers to all our problems to be solved by others but of course we must own a fair share of them ourselves and work it out.I think that was my parents plan all along=Brenda sort it yourself?

    • “Sort it out yourself,” was also among my parents strategies, or as my mother used to day, “If you’re not choking, passedout , or bleeding from an artery, LEAVE ME ALONE.”

      But it’s also true that when a family has one special needs child, the remaining children usually have to step up in ways that kids in other families don’t. That’s hard, even though it’s nobody’s fault, and everybody is doing the best they can.

  2. Deep breathing and reading are my two main stress relievers. Someone told me that if I have trouble sleeping to try taking 10 deep breaths. I didn’t expect it to work, but to my surprise it did. I never make it to 10.

    Of course, reading is my drug of choice nowadays. When I feel really sad, laughing helps a lot. So, I have go-to books specifically for that. Thank you Barbara Metzger and Joan Smith. The rest of the time, except for mysteries and biographies, my TBR pile consists of historical and a few contemporary romance. Thank you Grace Burrowes and too may others to mention. I consider myself a true romance junkie (smile).

    • I’m a romance junkie too! For long stretches, I’d limit myself to one book a day. That was my entertainment budget. I’d stock up at used book stores, occasionally splurge at Borders, or go back to the keepers, but a book a day kept the despair away. Cheap medicine!

  3. I read when I am stressed out or need to think something through. Sometimes I need the positive lift from the characters and other times it’s the escape.I have a couple of favorite books on my bedside table.

    Work has been stressful; layoffs, department reorganization and a new more expensive health plan to puzzle through. Have made an effort to get away from my desk during lunch.
    I walk the office complex with a friend or walk to my car and eat my lunch and read. The hour away from my desk re sets me.

    Having a positive attitude during times of stress and change is difficult; I find reading helps me. Am looking forward to the last 2 Windham sister books, Shana Galen’s new series and Samantha Chase’s new Montgomery series. Plus anything else Bookbub may tempt me with!

    • That Bookbub… a genius idea, that truly seems like a win-win for readers and authors.
      I’ve never spent the lunch hour in my car, but I have spent it playing solitaire or hearts. Just changing gears mentally, or popping over to the post office to get some fresh air.
      Little things can make a big difference.

  4. I have learned to power through and apologize. When my mother was dying, not only were my brother and I handling (arranging) her home hospice, being kind to our dad as he watched his spouse of almost 60 year fade before his eyes, making sure groceries were bought and other day-to-day necessities were in the house but handling most of the rest of our six siblings behaving badly too. The various sibs who were NOT in contact decided to come back and make Mom’s last week or so uncomfortable, the sib who didn’t believe us when we begged her to fly home from California to the Midwest (then was upset after Mom’s death when she thought we didn’t insist enough), and their trying to plan Mom’s funeral….while she was alive…..when she had already planned it. I realized then my mind and soul can only fit so much into it at a time because I was forgetting things in my own life and for own family.

    There have been a few times since Mom’s death to cause me to have things slip out of my mind……now I surround myself with supportive people on purpose and avoid people who are not supportive. It doesn’t solve the *stupid* but it does help. Oh, and lots of chocolate, that helps HEAPS!

    • I understand completely. Not only did I have to deal with my parents dying — my mother died a year after my father — but the dysfunction in my own family was such that, even over a decade and a half after my father first became ill (with a heart condition related to his diabetes that resulted in quadruple bypass surgery on the operating table), my sister and I are in joint therapy learning to really understand each other for perhaps the first time. My father, having had a childhood that could have qualified as Dickensian — Depression-era child, his mother married too young, 9 other living siblings to complete with, etc., etc. — had, understandably, major trust issues he passed on to me in order to protect me from the outside world. Unfortunately, I tend to do things very well, and in the end, I wound up not trusting HIM. When my sister married, he cut her out of the loop because he didn’t trust her new husband — for DECADES. “She’s got her own life, don’t bother her,” was the message my parents gave me, and to my regret, I was much too obedient a child. Hence, the joint therapy now.

    • One of the triggers I often saw in my divorce mediation cases was death of a parent, especially death of a second parent. (The other two were major illness and career loss.) Something about having to smack up against death–the utter finality and mess of it–has no precedent elsewhere in a life.
      Your siblings were lucky that you and your brother were willing to shoulder that burden, Madam California made the bed she’s lying in. Maybe the next time you tell her to pay attention, she’ll listen.

  5. I’ve known for a long time that my reasoning and decision-making skills decrease when I’m stressed. In college, the papers that were completed at the last minute were always subpar. I learned to work on papers and projects early to avoid the kind of stress that caused me to convey ideas poorly.

    Years later, I worked very briefly in an emergency room. Each and every shift was stressful at a level I had never experienced before. Even the calmest periods were intense, because there was always a chance that everything could go belly-up in the blink of an eye. The stress levels were affecting my ability to make sound decisions, which is just not acceptable as a nurse. After a few short weeks, I transferred to a unit that was a better fit for me and it was the best decision of my career.

    Now, I’ve learned to not make big decisions when I’m stressed. I know that my ability to reason things out and troubleshoot problems are dramatically decreased when I’m anxious and stressed. I come up with better solutions/ideas after a walk outside or a good night’s sleep. And, of course, a good book always helps, too!

  6. I’ve had to stop watching as much political news as I started doing around last November’s election. Since I mostly watched it in the evenings I was going to bed more wound up & stressed. I still watch a bit, but turn more to watching comedies like ‘Big Bang Theory’ or even better – Reading! And I try to remind myself that ‘ this too shall pass’ & that ‘learning often comes thru adversity’.

  7. I am not surprised at what you had to say. There are times when I have so much stress that I can not think straight. I try to step back and read a romance novel then determine what is stressing me the most or what of the myriad of problems has a finite time limit. Someone once told me that the best way to get through a situation like that is to priortize and not try to solve everything at once. There are things in my life that cause me life long stress but even with those if I can read for awhile and put myself in someone else’s life it helps. Since last year’s election I have to stop watching the news for days at a time as it makes me so angry and depressed. As a single mother my mom had a difficult life but she managed by finding things to laugh about. That does not work for me because I am too serious. I enjoyed seeing a picture of your beautiful mother and hearing about her.

  8. When I’m going full tilt boogie, and I have been lately, my enjoyment goes 2nd, or even 3rd place. This may be why I have an open Mary Stewart book waiting for me too long on my reader…Now and this is important…cause it is to hit Grace where her heart is, and we all know she has a big heart she has shown it to her fans over and over again. I am only able to sit down and relax (enjoy) a book by a favorite author. I’ve got a few to look forward to, but I’ve been throwing my hat into the ring a lot lately. There is a reason for it. Completely at my limit with everything…And I know I’m Blessed. Ain’t that the worst of all of it, I know I’m Blessed. I swear I’m going to slow down, I swear it. I really do..Really. Love you Grace Burrowes. You know I’ll have that book sooner or later. So Good Luck to all of us.☺

  9. 5 years ago, I left my husband and had to deal with a bunch of crud. He is a manipulator, emotionally abusive, among other things. We have three girls – at the time the twins were 11 and my oldest was 12. My youngest was deep in the throes of anorexia, and I couldn’t get anyone to agree with me. On top of all that, I had gotten a job that was a bad fit all the way around. When I was married, I would escape into books – up to 75 a year! At this point, I couldn’t even think. I started to walk. I would come home from work, walk a mile or two, then go over and pick up my kids. It was a true lifesaver! I still walk all the time, and I have also added cardio-kickboxing to burn off most of the stress. However, a book is still my favorite way to escape!

  10. Books are a great stress reliever. I also play the trumpet, and band rehearsals are a great time for me to just relax and not think of anything besides playing the music.

  11. Your Mama was absolutely, completely correct. Over the past eight years (literally – eight years ago today, my mother had a major brain bleed, which changed her completely for the last 4 and a half years of her life) I’ve discovered correlations between my stress levels and how much and how well I sleep, how much I eat (too much), how much I exercise (too little), my actual physical health, and my mental health. Not only that, but there are some days when I can’t concentrate, forget things, and am just not smart. I’m generally a pretty highly intelligent person, so this is terrifying to me, even though I know the reason behind it.

    What I’ve learned to do when my brand of stress gets to be too much is that I need to remove myself from the stressor(s), so I go spend the weekend with friends, or sequester myself in my apartment with not much more than some sort of sustenance, books, and downloaded shows on Netflix. If I’m lucky enough to have some extra money to spend, I take myself to dinner somewhere, and do some window shopping. I get away, whether it’s physically or in a book or TV show.

    Whether it prevents the stress from stealing my wits, well. That remains to be seen.

  12. Your mother had it exactly right! I have almost completely stopped reading anything that makes me feel negative, there is enough of that in the world right now. My TBR list is full of romance books from favorite writers and new writers recommended by book club members. That list of books every American should read holds no interest at this time. I am starting an online course on the history of food at the royal palaces of England from Henry III to Victoria. History, food, singing yoga keep me from becoming an anxious mess.

  13. How do I combat stress? Chocolate, dragons and zulily online shopping. Sometimes I just look at my baby grand-nephew’s face (if I was there I’d be touching his soft cheeks and listening to his baby voice saying his one clear word: daaa-dee!). I find cranky, powerful, sexy dragons, like G.A. Aiken’s Dragon Kin and Teddy Harrison’s Gideon, are warm & fuzzy. Also, powerful women – such as Jacqueline Carey’s Phaedra, or Ilona Andrew’s Kate Daniels or Seanan MacGuire’s Toby Daye are comforting. Sometimes historicals are good for a getaway too – I like yours, Eloisa’s, Loretta Chase’s, Sarah MacLean’s. I also used to like contemporary billionaire ones until the wealthy emperor thing now brings out my anger and disgust at selfishness and greed – so that fantasy getaway is on hiatus until our real billionaires get put on hiatus.

  14. I read, listen to classical music, and play with my cats.

    Tomorrow I’ll be going to my daughter’s to help celebrate her third child’s 12th birthday. Spending time with my grands is also very relaxing.

  15. I don’t know that I manage to keep stress from completely stealing my wits, but I do relax at the end of the day by reading, petting & cuddling with my cats and dog, talking to – and sometimees cuddling with – my husband, and occasionally going out with friends. I’m really not suprised that people’s IQs are lower during times of stress.

  16. Since I first learned to read, it has been my escape. And for the first time in my life, my reading has suffered. When I worked I had an hour commute each way and lunch hour to read. When I quit working to raise my children I always found some time to read. When they were older I spent hours late at night reading. But now I have a part time job, I visit my mom who is in assisted living and my daughter just had my first grand child (and maybe only) and I’m helping to baby sit. I must admit I’ve spent too much time on the computer or my phone – I have to remedy that and go back to making time somehow for what I love doing – reading!!!

  17. To keep from losing my mind and myself when under stress, I just slow down, force myself to ignore the big g picture and just go moment by moment or task by task. I just worry about one item at a time or getting through just that moment, and move on to th next one. Sometimes I know what that next one is sometimes, it’s so bad I can literally only concentrate on the one minute or task at hand and when it’s done I worry about the next. Other times, I know what is next but I just focus on one at a time to get through and lower my stress. And I always reward myself with some time reading when the stress or crises has passed so I have something to work towards

  18. Being part of the “sandwich generation” is a vague idea until one lives it. So many responsibilities to children and parents. My dad was in hospice for two weeks. I watched other residents come and go. I joked that somehow Dad was going to eke out every day of his two week free stay. It was difficult to read. Hard to stay with a book and not let my mind wander. I’ll always be grateful to Lisa Kleypas and “Sugar Daddy”. The story was so engrossing that I lost myself in it. It was my respite and also my outlet. That was 2012. To this day, I use reading to fill my brain and calm my spinning thoughts.

  19. To relieve my stress I knit. The repetitive motions sooth me and bring my stress levels down to manageable. I like the feel of the yarn, the motion of the needles, and the thought I am creating something to share and show my love. Knitting has been my therapy for many years. If I am not knitting an intricate pattern I can lose myself in thought while knitting.
    My other form of relieving stress is to read. From the time I was a very young girl it was my way to escape from the world and find myself in another one. I love to get away to wherever the books take me. I have traveled the world in books and its been a marvelous voyage so far.

  20. I make time to read (romance, of course), which takes me away from the stress. I also make sure I spend at least a little quality time with my husband every day, even when we are really busy. If I catch myself feeling really stressed when I can’t do either of those things, I’ll take several deep breaths, and that helps a lot.

  21. When I get stressed out, I have to address the source. If I can get the issue resolved, I’ll be less stressed. Of course I read to reduce stress as a form of escaping into another compartment in my brain! Also, I confide in my husband who is the best of everything to me!

  22. Reading is my number one response to stress. Catching up with my friends on Facebook and getting some creative time via digital scrapbooking are also stress-relieving go-tos for me.

  23. I have used reading to conquer stress since I was a kid. Given the size of my TBR, I must be a genius! Seriously, I don’t know how non-readers cope.

  24. Knowing that one is loved goes a long way. I have all the stress breakers: books, computer games, music, meditation, a garden, meds, but stress doesn’t have to be “real” to be stress. My friends and family wish I’d get a grip and when I can, I do. But they love me anyway.

  25. Sometimes I just go to bed early. Other times I hole up and read. Or I go for a long walk. Once I stood in the middle of my room and screamed at the top of my lungs. I think I have a low threshhold of stress because I will let someone know immediately if I’m annoyed or irritated. Then I let go of it.

  26. Well my answer is easy, I read a romance novel. I am currently taking a Russian History class. I have a little paper due tomorrow. I have a big paper due on November 14th. I am just a little exhausted and a little stressed out. I read a little bit today about Catherine the Great. I wrote page one of the big paper. I will send it to my co-worker and get her input on it. I am also reading Wild in Love. I never thought I would find a baby skunk cute, but they sound adorable. But I think I’ll stick to cats.

  27. Reading and doing puzzles, two of my favourite activities and two things that always help me with daily stress. Since I´m not a mom, but I do have a stressful job (lawyer at a law firm), puzzles and books keep me sane. When everything is wrong, I can always depend upon my books (maybe that’s why one of my favourite genres are romance, for the HEA).

  28. I’m going to spend the New Year really, really, trying very hard to find a man that’s totally acceptable – within the realm of what still exists of Polite Society somewhere in this universe – who can maybe, please, have at least one (okay, maybe two) of the most compelling traits of one of the Lonely Lords. Unfortunately, I’ve fallen totally in love with Valentin Wyndham (sigh).