Nailing Stress

By Erika Nelson

“I actually used to be a nail tech … not that you can tell.” I force a laugh and brandish my bitten stubs. I admit it — I’m a nail biter. Gross and unattractive in the best of times, it’s a literal life-and-death habit in Corona times — a danger to not only myself by introducing new microbes to my system, but to other people as well. Each bite transfers germs from my mouth to what I touch. I don’t bite in public, sanitize regularly and thoroughly scrub my fingers with soap and water before leaving and after returning to my apartment. But when I’m at home, in front of my laptop … I find my fingers floating to my lips.  

I’ve mostly been able to kick this habit. I say “mostly,” because no matter what methods I use to quit, I always come back to the form of tension-relief that borders on self-cannibalistic. If there’s a pervading collective emotion in the world today — it’s stress. Stress from isolation. Stress from economic turmoil and job insecurity. Stress from systemic injustice. Stress from having to “keep calm and carry on” with our regular lives, as if all of this is normal, when things are as abnormal as they’ve ever been. When I spoke with a PSU employee earlier this week, he summed up what I, and a lot of other people, are feeling: “a kind of stress I’ve never known.” We’re all bobbing along with the bumps and dips of the new-case graphs; paddling however we know how while the water continues to rise. 

Stress. So much stress. Meditation apps abound. #selfcare tips feature prominently across social media. The CDC even has a page on ways to deal with stress during the pandemic. I’ve tried pretty much everything I can to translate an unsanitary, destructive coping mechanism to something constructive that involves minimal microbe transfer … but gratitude journals and deep breathing never seem to be as instantly satisfying as shredding the tips of my fingernails with my teeth. 

The only thing that seems to work to curb the compulsive nibbling is engaging in what I used to do for a living — doing nails — but on myself. The process of meticulously applying polish is soothing, and forces me to slow down and exercise hand-eye coordination. Carefully placing polka dots and painting tiny flowers on my nails is just what I need to distract my thoughts — even for a few minutes — from everything else. When I’m done, I can’t bear to chip my painstaking work by biting!

Decorating (and maintaining) my nails has been helpful at chipping (haha) away at stress. Stress always comes back … but in the moments that I’m picking a color, filing, putting brush to nail … stress is on vacation. There are myriad reasons why I decided to ditch being a nail technician to go back to school — that’s a post for another day — but I still adore everything to do with it. There are many ways to de-escalate stress: for some people it’s yoga, video games or screaming into pillows. Some people are taking this time in quarantine to experiment with new hobbies or re-discover old ones. Thank goodness for my stockpile of polishes to get me through another day without mangling my own fingers.

Growing Pains: Turning Discomfort into Change

By Erika Nelson

This summer, I’m taking my senior Capstone, Grantwriting for Shelter Pets. Our community partner is Furry Friends, a no-kill cat shelter in Vancouver. Our mission this term is to draft the proposals that will compel donors to fund important shelter projects, such as medical care and a new kitty condo.

Before I signed up, I thought this would be a lighthearted, fun experience. I love animals, have a passion for animal rescue and love writing. It seemed like a no-brainer. I assumed that upsetting images and facts would be present in the coursework — after all, animal welfare is an emotionally fraught topic. What I didn’t anticipate was the extent of the information. To help us understand the real-life implications of the work we’re doing, a book and corresponding documentary about the history of animal shelters and the no-kill movement were assigned. These materials were difficult to get through — images of shaking, pacing animals in cages; upsetting statistics (millions of shelter pets are euthanized every year); graphic descriptions of euthanasia that turned my stomach and brought tears to my eyes.  

My discomfort in the first weeks of the Capstone made me question my involvement, and I thought maybe I should have signed up for a different Capstone altogether. However, I began to wonder: why is discomfort bad? Why do we avoid it, and seek out situations that avoid discomfort instead of facing it head-on? After all, change stems from discomfort in the first place. Just as we must face the discomfort of noticing and calling out oppressive institutions, we must push through to change things for the better — to harness that emotion and translate it into concrete actions. 

For example: no one becomes a veterinarian because they don’t have compassion and empathy for animals. Yet veterinarians regularly see sick, injured, neglected, or abused animals, and continue to do their jobs. Discomfort is a regular part of the profession, yet people find their calling in veterinary medicine. While vets no doubt are affected emotionally, the opportunities to improve animals’ health outweighs the discomfort from seeing suffering animals. 

It’s tempting to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the important issues in the world. Sure, you could purposely only sign up for innocuous courses with benign subject matter and tune out everything upsetting. Yet college is an opportunity to grow, and growth comes with growing pains. Knowledge and awareness of the injustices and difficulties of the world is a springboard to change. Ignorance is NOT bliss — ignorance only perpetuates the status quo, whatever it may be. 

The hard truth is that many aspects of life are inherently uncomfortable. This is inescapable. Instead of avoiding the negative emotions that come up in this Capstone, I’m choosing to embrace them. I’m challenging myself to persevere through discomfort to help these shelter cats, and I’m looking forward to documenting what I learn and how I grow along the way.