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Lowering our stress frequencies together

April 12, 2024

Sara Coughlin

I was feeling overwhelmed. My unfinished work had been piling up higher and higher. Now it felt as though the work was peering down at me from an intimidating seven-foot stature, with a disapproving look on its face. I had spent the evening with a friend in distress, and as I turned back to my work, my tasks glared at me with more disdain than before.

That evening, I rediscovered how another’s presence can lower my stress frequencies. Good company is like good guitar tuning. When you loosen a guitar string, you change its natural vibration frequency and lower its pitch. The people close to me have the power to loosen my strings and reduce my frequencies. Together we reach lower frequencies that feel better and last longer than the glass-shattering pitch of stress endured alone.

As I sat myself down to work that night, the stress of my unfinished tasks and the distress of my friend distracted me. I tried to put my head down and focus, but the pangs of distress struck too frequently for me to sustain any line of thinking. I would read a section of my assignment instructions, begin figuring out my first steps, and “PANG!” By the time I was approaching a good idea, I would be yanked back up to distress or distraction. Yank, yank, yank, my mind kept squeezing with stress. There was not room between each squeeze to make real progress on my work. My frequency was too high, like a heart squeezing too rapidly to make room for blood to flow.

When a heart beats too fast, it is having a type of heart arrhythmia called tachycardia. There are different types of tachycardias with different causes and outcomes. Tachycardias can be a non-issue, but they can also interfere with the proper circulation of blood. The rapid beats one after another may not make enough room between them for blood to fill and leave the chambers of the heart. When I am acutely stressed, and I try to study alone, my mental state is tachycardic (metaphorically speaking, of course). There is not enough room between the pangs of stress for my thoughts to flow.

To reduce my frequency, I seek out the company of other people. When I am overwhelmed, I head to the first floor of HL library or to the atrium in Druckenmiller, and I surround myself with other students. We work together and we breathe together and the fever pitch of my panic relaxes to the tenor of a tight but manageable stress. I can fit my work in between the less frequent crests of these pressure waves. When I was alone, I was like a small column of air, vibrating at a high natural frequency. When I joined the company of a room full of students, studying together, breathing together, I reduced my natural frequency, like a trombonist reducing the pitch of her trombone. A body of air, in a trombone, or a wine glass half filled with water, will vibrate at a particular natural frequency, determined by its size and physical properties. To reduce the frequency of her trombone’s vibrations (ie. the pitch of the sound it produces), a trombonist increases the size of the air column in the instrument. A room full of company, I find, acts like an expanded air column.

This strategy does not always work, though. Sometimes the screeching sounds of distress are too high to be reduced by a library full of students. In those times, we need something more powerful—we need something closer than the nearby presence of community members. The close company of dear friends will do the trick. A hand-hold, a hug, a cuddle, a walk in parallel or a laugh in synchrony will do more to calm the distress that rings at glass-shattering pitches. Individually, our natural frequencies of vibration may be high, but when we come together, we can combine our little columns of air. Instead of two little columns that vibrate at high frequencies, together we can be a larger column with a lower frequency. When we hold each other, we stretch out our waves. We lower our frequency. We loosen our strings.

Yet I have resisted this loosening and lengthening. “What is really so good about low frequencies?” I asked myself. High frequencies seemed more valuable to me. Stress motivates me to get things done. High pitched sounds carry more energy than low ones. Soprano voices seem to inspire more awe than bases. Being tightly wound has worked well for me, but it only works for so long. The problem with high pitches, I found, is that they do not last as long as low ones. The energy of the high frequency sound waves is more readily absorbed than that of lower frequencies. The sound of a mouse’s squeak rapidly loses energy and dampens as it travels. Lower pitches travel further. I do not get very far on solo, high-intensity stress. I can work for hours in a social study space, but when I am alone, I may not last more than ninety minutes. Lower stress levels can be sustained for longer. If we come together, if we hold onto one another, we can bring down our frequencies and maintain these slower waves for longer.


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