Julie Exline, Ph.D.

Julie J. Exline Ph.D.

Light and Shadow

Breathless: When Everything Is Just a Blur

How can you cope when your life is spinning way too fast?

Posted Feb 25, 2014

Last month I described a ride in a tram car with a floor that slowly rotated in a circle. Although the steady turning meant that I couldn’t focus on any single scene for very long, the movement was slow. But what about those times in life when things seem to be moving much faster? Sometimes you might feel as though you’re on a carnival ride like the Roundup. Unlike the slowly turning tram car, the manic spinning motion of this ride allows no real view…unless you count the view of your shrieking co-riders. Outside of your wildly spinning circle, everything else is just a blur.

I have a sneaking suspicion that some of you can relate.

When life feels like the Roundup, there’s constant activity, high speed, no chance to catch your breath. You feel stressed, disoriented, and profoundly unable to focus. If someone (or something) outside your immediate circle of awareness tries to catch your attention, your most likely response may be a distracted, bleary-eyed, “Huh?” or an irritable, “WHAT???” Unmet emotional and spiritual needs melt into a haze as the world whizzes by.


Even beyond the wild spinning of the Roundup, carnival thrills reach new heights with the Rotor. From the outside, this classic ride looks innocent enough. You venture into a small, circular room and stand against the wall. But then the door closes behind you, and that little room starts to spin…and spin faster…and faster!! Eventually centrifugal force takes over, and you find yourself helplessly pinned against the wall.

Then, without warning…the floor drops out from beneath you.

Been there? 

Ahhh, yes. It’s so easy to judge when you’re standing outside the ride. You can watch from a safe distance and make smug remarks: “There’s no way that you could drag me on that thing,” or, “You’d have to be a total idiot to get on that ride.”

In everyday life, you can sometimes take steps to avoid these wild rides--those times of crisis, breathless urgency, and frenzied activity. You can offer yourself some protection by planning your time carefully, getting enough rest, and saying no to unnecessary commitments. But sometimes you may find that you’ve accidentally wandered onto the ride…or maybe someone else talked you into it or pulled you on. Regardless of how you got there, once you’re on, you’re on. You can’t stop the crazy spinning, and you can’t stop that floor from dropping out from beneath you.

So once you find yourself riding your life’s personal version of the Rotor, what can you do? 

Marvel at the forces that sustain you. Even though that floor has dropped from under your feet, you seem to be held in place by a mysterious force. Actually, it’s not quite so mysterious in this case of the Rotor; we’ve already unmasked it as centrifugal force. In life crises, there may be many supportive factors at play, holding us up when crises strike. Gifts of encouragement and social support from friends, family, loved ones or coworkers can remind us that someone cares. If you believe in a deity, you might think of the hand of God holding you up or divine energy sustaining you. You may even surprise yourself through your own inner reserves of strength and stability. Although you're certainly not comfortable, you're hanging in there.

Amaze yourself with spectacular stunts! The Rotor's centrifugal force actually makes you feel as though you are lying on your back rather than standing up. This sensation of lying down allows for one of the most exciting aspects of the ride: the chance to work your way into some strange positions. You can turn yourself sideways—or, if you're really bold, upside down. As shown in research on stress-related growth, times of unusual stress often provide opportunities to do things that seem a little weird—but also exciting and challenging. Moving outside your usual zone of comfort and security, you may find yourself positioned to achieve things that wouldn't seem possible in the context of your normal day-to-day routines. If you're a person who approaches life in a responsible but cautious manner, it can be valuable to see that you can survive—and maybe have some moments of fun—even when your once-so-orderly world is turned upside down. 


Laugh and scream with your co-riders. When things are spinning around so fast, the only other people who may seem to be in reasonably clear focus are those who are riding along with you, experiencing at least part of the craziness that you are going through. Yes, mistakes will be made. Communications may be more blunt than normal, and tempers may flare at times. After all, you are all experiencing stress and depletion. But this can also be a great time for humor, camaraderie, and general rowdiness. Studies by Arthur AronStanley Schachter, and others suggest that people often bond closer together under times of high stress and excitement…so you might as well take advantage of it. 

Be assured: The ride will eventually stop. It is not going to go on this way forever. Yes, your exit may be a bit clumsy. You'll probably stagger off the ride feeling dizzy. You might fall down in a heap. Worst-case scenario: You barf in the bushes. But ultimately, you will be OK. And even as you return to your more normal rhythms, you just might find a smile or two as you remember the thrill of the ride. 

About the Author

Julie Exline, Ph.D.

Julie Exline, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. She is a licensed psychologist and a certified spiritual director.

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