My stress and I were friends for the longest time: I went to sleep with it and I stood up with it. Heartbeat constantly elevated by those few extra beats, “relaxation” not in my personal dictionary – that’s how I lived. When people remarked: “Laure, you just have to relax for a bit!”, I looked at them as if they were from another planet – I genuinely didn’t know HOW to relax. My head was always “in on-mode”, and had been ever since childhood. Back then, I used to get over-stimulated rather quickly, and social situations meant the epitome of stress.
Thus, I spent most of my time in my room reading books. My status of being a bookworm certainly didn’t help my popularity at school – which is why I really struggled my way through middle and high school. After having finished 12th grade, I’d completely succumbed to stress: I was one big ball of it. The situation was so bad, it’d taken over every aspect of my life; I barely recognized myself.
I then made the drastic decision to take a gap year. My parents weren’t at ease with the idea of their anxious, stressed-out daughter leaving for an entire year to a foreign country; in retrospect, it must’ve delivered them a lot of stress, too. Either way, I managed to convince them, so that was that.
The journey begins
A few months later, I was at Zaventem airport with a large suitcase on my one side, and my dear family on the other: I was all-ready to leave for Paraguay. (I’d specifically picked this country for its relaxed lifestyle.) Once I sat down on the plane, I felt a massive weight being lift off my shoulders: at that moment, all that stress I’d had, I left in Belgium.
The best and most beautiful example to illustrate Paraguayan life, is the way the citizens there experience time.
While in Belgium, I constantly felt a certain pressure at all times: one had to achieve, one had to do something useful, one had to uphold a number of hobbies – at all times, mind you. In my case, this caused quite a bit of stress.
In Paraguay, on the other hand, people live at a slower pace; verbs like “to be obliged” or “to must” aren’t (proverbially) present in their dictionaries. Punctuality is a rather strange concept in their books: this is why, when you arrange an appointment at 10 AM with a Paraguayan, chances are they’ll be two to three hours late. They don’t let themselves be restrained by time and handle things in their own rhythm. The first few times I came into contact with this Paraguayan way of dealing with time (hora Paraguaya), were absolutely horrible. Every time someone was even a tad bit late, I’d already convinced myself they’d forgotten about me (of course accompanied by the obligatory stress). After a few months, I let myself live at this slower pace as well – even though I knew I’d never be a natural, like the Paraguayans.
Stress: a western illness?
The year truly flew by. I learnt to enjoy the little things in life, and finally felt like I’d regained my true self again. When I look back to said year now, almost ten years after, I realize how very little stress I had experienced then, although I had “stressful” things happen either way: I landed in the hospital with a severe asthma attack – I still remember lying in the ambulance whilst laughing out loud at the same time -, had to change host family thrice … and through all that, I succeeded in keeping my stress under control, something I couldn’t’ve possibly imagined doing the year before.
What’s there to learn from Paraguayan society?
Life is a whole lot different in Paraguay. People there live at a slower pace (though more true to themselves), society is less structured there, and there’re way fewer obligations; above all, living comes first, with everything else coming after. Stress seems to be something they … don’t have time for. And even when “stressful” things do happen, Paraguayans give themselves enough time to properly reflect on them. They stay positive and believe in a happy outcome; confronting life lessons I took back home to Belgium, and which I still carry with me today.
Eventually, learning to deal with stress turned out to be an achievement in the long run, and living at a slower pace turned out to be anything but evident in a crazily hectic society like ours. I’ve reminisced back a lot to those days in Paraguay; my first steps towards getting a complete hold of my stress, certainly were made there.