Apparently it’s National Stress Awareness Week and as usual I didn’t know this in time. I say “as usual” because I almost never know what national/international day/week/year it is. I’ll be honest: I don’t like these events. If I care about the topic – as I do for many things, including reading, books, libraries, stress, wellbeing, kindness, dogs, cats, sisters, daughters, men, women, friends, gardens, tomatoes and caterpillar-free brassicas – then every day is Whatever It is Day. And if I don’t, well, whatever.
Of course, I understand the reason for having these occasions and respect the organisations and individuals who work hard to make them a success. But forgive me if I say that, frankly, I’m a bit too stressed right now properly to acknowledge this one.
“I have no desire to prevent stress. Stress is a biological response to threat or the need to super-perform. If we don’t have stress, we don’t super-perform.”
People talk too much about “stress prevention”. I have no desire to prevent stress. Stress is a biological response to threat or the need to super-perform. If we don’t have stress, we don’t super-perform. We are more likely to lie around on the sofa eating chocolate. Lying around on the sofa eating chocolate is perfectly OK every now and then but doing it too much, instead of stepping up to the challenge before you or aiming high or getting off your backside and throwing yourself headlong at whatever your target is, is not the way to rule the world or even your little corner of it. We need stress. Embrace it!
All my teaching about wellbeing and stress management is about first understanding what stress is and why it’s important; second, welcoming it when it comes at the right time; third, controlling it so that it stays in its box when it’s not needed, such as those times when it’s appropriate to relax (even to lie around eating chocolate); fourth, recognising when we’ve got the balance wrong; and finally putting great strategies in place to prevent the negative effects of too much stress at the wrong times. Or, if we’ve failed to prevent it, stepping in and dealing with it quickly.
‘Stress’ is not bad. It’s a natural and necessary biological process that makes our body and brain ready for immediate action.
So, what did I mean when I said “I’m a bit too stressed right now”?
- I recognise that I have quite a few stress triggers. Some of them – a writing deadline, for example, and the fact that I’m currently signing contracts for three more and have a secret project – are good to be stressed about because the stress will keep me on task. Others – **losing my younger sister less than three months ago, for example, and all the fallout from that – are not good to be stressed about, but perfectly natural and just need to be worked through so that they heal. Others – having too much work, and anxiety about how to get it all done and wishing I could have a break – are also very natural and common but these are the ones I need to get better control over. (I wrote about losing my sister here and here.)
- I am sensing a few symptoms pushing at the barriers I set up. No one is immune. I’m acting on them.
- Getting “better control” means putting into practice what I preach. It means not leaving it too late.
My stress is under control but only just. I’m being vigilant.
I’m really fine, by the way. No one needs to worry! No hugs required.
When it’s not under control, it looks like a rushing wave, gathering force. (People talk about depression being like a black dog or a dark heavy cloud. I think stress and anxiety are more like a wave.)
Sleep is affected immediately, either with difficulty getting to sleep, or frequent waking or waking early and not being able to go back to sleep. (NB people naturally wake quite often but if you wake and can’t get back to sleep quickly or you feel you’re constantly waking, that can be stress-related.)
Poorly-controlled stress intrudes everywhere. It stops you concentrating. It can make you snappy. It can give you headaches or stomachaches, dizziness or nausea. It can make you eat too much (especially snacky things, sugar and fat) or take your appetite away.
You might feel your heart racing, your skin prickling.
I get a feeling of brain overwhelm, as though there are so many thoughts and demands flicking about that I can’t catch any of them. It feels as though none of my thoughts completes, but snaps and vanishes before it does whatever it’s meant to do. I hate that.
- Stop (as soon as possible, which might not be immediately – it’s a bit like a driving emergency: you might not literally be able to stop right there but you pull over the very moment you can)
- Find fresh air, peace, water and food
- Switch to a different task
- Take a break – do something nice in it. The break might be five minutes or an hour or a day – but if I can only manage five minutes, I’ll find an hour or a half day as soon as possible
After the first aid emergency, you might need another stage:
- Work out what happened – why did you have this experience? Is there anything you can learn from it? Did you say yes to too much, overthink?
- Put some prevention measures in place – build in breaks, see friends, improve something about how you live your life, talk to wise people
- Rationalise your worries with lists – I do love a good list! See #41 here.
- And, very importantly, build up every leg of the Table of Wellbeing:
There are two things you can do tonight (and every night) to reduce your stress and build up your wellbeing and resilience against the negative effects of too much stress:
- Decide to prioritise sleep – plan an early night tonight, aiming to turn your light off up to an hour earlier than usual
- Read for pleasure before you sleep – readaxation works!
Don’t be afraid of stress: understand it, know it, and tame it. It bites but you can learn to stop that happening.
Most of my main books will help you understand, embrace and control stress, and you’ll be able to choose the one that matches your needs. Two of them are included on the Reading Agency’s Reading Well Books on Prescription scheme. They are all available in public libraries (ask for them if you don’t see them!) and shops (ditto!) My books are widely used in schools all over the world and they have a strong reputation for being loved by young people themselves, because of their totally non-patronising and reassuring tone and great science.