It’s a well known piece of music history that Dolly Parton wrote her smash hit “I Will Always Love You” as a way of parting ways with her manager and mentor, Porter Wagoner. Together they had achieved great success on The Porter Wagoner Show, but Dolly knew deep down that she had a greater dream to pursue. Working with Wagoner had been her first taste of success in the music business, and leaving meant losing the safety of having a reliable audience and losing the security of having someone else make the tough decisions. She wrestled long and hard with he idea of striking out on her own. In her retelling of the story, she sat Porter down and explained that she would be leaving and then played this song for him on her guitar. Porter responded “That’s the best thing you’ve ever written.” Decades later, of course, Dolly was already a sensation when Whitney Houston made the song infamous with her film “The Bodyguard”.
Changes in our lives can produce great stress and anxiety. Changing careers, moving to a new home, changing partners, losing a loved one, retiring, and other changes bring distress and discomfort. And, it’s perfectly normal. Some people will respond with anger, frustration, and yelling. Others will become extra giving, making sure that everyone else is OK during the change. Still others will completely resist the change, holing up in a metaphorical corner emotionally until it’s all over.
Our bodies react to changes with anxiety and anger and depression. This is because our nervous systems perceive changes as threats to our safety. This is not a logical response, of course, but a visceral response from the bodily systems that protect us. We don’t have to be in actual danger to elicit these responses. We just have to feel emotionally threatened by situations we can’t control. A very basic part of the brain, the amygdala, then responds by bypassing the logical thinking part of the brain and telling the brain to release cortisol, a stress hormone. Pretty soon we’re in threat mode. We’re prepared to fight, take flight, or freeze toward whatever the threat is.
If we were being attacked in a dark alley, this would make perfect sense. We’d obviously need to either punch and kick or run away or stay extra still in hiding. But what about when our job is in trouble? What about when an important relationship we have is struggling? Logically, we know that we are not in physical danger* in these situations but our bodies respond the SAME as if we were. Our bodies experience great anxiety at the physical level and prepare to fight, take flight, or freeze, all before logical reasoning ever occurs.
In a 2021 speech about mental health, Dolly recalled the buildup of anxiety before splitting with Porter. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think straight.” She went on to normalize and de-stigmatize mental health trouble, saying “We all experience moments of anxiety or depression at one time or another…And I believe it’s how we handle those moments that ultimately defines us.” Lastly, she admitted that she’s not always the cheery person we see on TV. “I’m often told I look so happy, but to honest - that’s the Botox, well not all of it, but some of it, anyway!”
This next bit is the really important part: How did Dolly handle the distress? What did she do with it? She leaned into being Dolly, that’s what she did! She wrote another song on the way home that day. No, it wasn’t a career-defining mega-hit like the song she’d just played in Porter’s office, but it didn’t have to be. It just had to tap into and release something important about the conflict that she was feeling inside. Most of us don’t know this song today, but it’s called “Light Of A Clear Blue Morning”. She dug deep and put her difficult feelings into words. She bolstered and emboldened herself with encouragement despite the dark and worrisome situation that she was in:
“‘Cause I can see the light of a clear blue morning
I can see the light of a brand new day
I can see the light of a clear blue morning
Oh, and everything’s gonna be alright
It’s gonna be OK” (it's 60's-level sappy at first, but here's the vid:)
And it is. And I will. And you will. It’s gonna be OK.
The most important thing to remind ourselves when we feel anxious about difficult changes is that we are physically safe and capable of managing our distress. Sometimes difficult situations remind us of past experiences that were highly distressing. In these situations, we have to remind ourselves that we are not back in that stressful situation. We are here, in this separate situation, in this present moment, and we are safe. No feelings are ever permanent. All feelings are fleeting. They will change in intensity over time and new feelings will eventually emerge. This too will pass. Everything’s gonna be alright. It’s gonna be OK.
If this article was helpful and you would like to pursue counseling, let’s meet! I would love to chat with you by phone to discuss beginning a therapeutic relationship. Give me a call and we’ll get it set up. 770 615 6300 or visit my website at www.altmancounseling.com I look forward to speaking with you!
______________ * Footnote: If you find yourself in a dangerous situation in your relationship, take your safety seriously! Call 9-1-1, 9-8-8, or enlist the help of shelters for victims of domestic violence.
_____________ Reference Material for this post: https://southernillinoisnow.com/2021/05/14/dolly-parton-shares-one-of-her-own-anxiety-struggles-to-de-stigmatize-mental-health-issues/