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Do We Want Our “Hair on Fire”?

illustration of hair on fire

The definitions are clear, the phrase Hair On Fire refers to a situation in which someone is impassioned, wild, crazy, filled with rage, frantic, and/or overwhelmed — but not necessarily out of control. You can probably remember one more realities in your life when you felt like your hair was on fire. You might have experienced it as a smoldering sense of steam tendrils floating out of your ears. Or, had a sensation akin to a volcanic eruption. Alas, neither is a good look. And both sensations are actually stress. But, I digress …

fighter pilot

The phrase “hair on fire” may have started in Navy Aviation as a concept of those times when you have too many things going on. You keep everything in the air and eventually manage to complete the mission safely, as if you always knew exactly what you were doing. The image morphed from Navy slang to Top Gun (1986), when Flight Instructor Charlotte Blackwood observed to Lt. Peter “Maverick” Mitchel, “You’re not going to be happy unless you’re going Mach 2 with your hair on fire. . .” [I’m not sure how that worked out for him.]

woman with 'hair on fire' juggling too many tasks

Of course, when an aviator flies like her hair is on fire, it looks like everything is under control. And when earthbound mortals have the same sensation, it isn’t nearly so attractive. [And let me take this moment for a shout-out to Navy Lt. Amanda Lee, the first female F/A-18E/F demo pilot in the Blue Angels.]

Despite the fact that a stress level akin to flames, is bad for our physical and mental health, the concept of being able to accomplish a myriad of tasks while on a deadline continues to be culturally appealing. We feel like a superhero until the first bat falls, and our human frailty is once again obvious.

Can We Exchange Fiery Hair for Inner Tranquility?

women in front of computer grabbing her bowed head
woman in forest sitting in lotus position

Self-help books and inner chaos present a goal to convert the meltdown depicted on the left into a semblance of the tranquil relief shown on the right. Techniques for reducing stress and creating inner calm abound.

Sitting in a lotus position is not required. However, breathing slow, deep breaths is generally recommended as a way to disconnect your mind from your body so you can experience soothing sensations and slow down conscious thoughts. Sort of like a cosmic time-out.

strawberries in a dish

There are many ways to douse our mental flames. A non-comprehensive list includes, focusing on gratitude over aspiration, journaling on whatever comes to mind {to-do lists don’t count}, exercise to release tense energy, a balanced diet not based on snack food, getting restful sleep, going to a ball game or a ballet. The choices of activities to break through our fiery obsessions and release our minds is lengthy.

illustration if items flowing into a box

If we free up mental and emotional space, we can consider our goals from a more healthful perspective. For example, I may want transform my entire house into a Marie Kondo paradise, but I don’t have to. I can start with a corner…or not. Maybe a Marie Kondo house isn’t my real goal. Perhaps what I really want is a sense that my environment is not beyond my control, and I have choices about how I spend my time.

figure in meditation position

There’s a truth underlying the naval slang of “hair on fire.” Our exterior cultural reality pushes us from one apparently required task to the next so quickly the activity becomes the flames that fuel our actions. But what happens when the flames consume us and smolder into ashes? I’m pretty sure it’s nothing good.

Cartoon woman running against the clock.

Instead of stoking the flames, we need to step back, take a few cleansing breaths, and let our minds float freely. Eventually, our true needs will become apparent, and we can choose which “flames” are to our benefit and worthy of our attention.

Otherwise, we’ll just keep “running.”

🪷 🪷 🪷


Icon to symbolize stress. Public Domain.

Woman Stressed at Work by CIPHR Connect.

Air Force Training Exercise. Public Domain.

Luca Pferdmenges Juggling by Ursula111133.

Person shows stress by pulling hair by stuartpilbrow at Flickr.

Raja yoga Meditation at Sri Lanka by Amila Tennakoon.

Tea Party by James Petts.

Toys to Tidy Up by Thibault fr.

Meditation by Victor Tongdee.

Cartoon woman running against the clock. Free Clip Art.

Rachel Nostrant. “Blue Angels Names First Female F/A-18 Pilot in Squadron’s History.” Navy Times. July 20, 2022.

John Woestendiek. “Engulfed by Lingo.” Baltimore Sun. March 26, 2004.

Julie Corliss. “Six Relaxation Techniques to Reduce Stress.” Harvard Healthy. Feb. 2, 2022.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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