You might – or might not – have noticed that I haven’t been here much for the last few weeks. It’s been a tricky time. Each compartment of my life has been jangling with clamouring voices demanding that I do this or that or think about this or that or worry about this and that. It’s not been all bad – I turned 60, which was fun! Unfortunately, my father died a few days before, with the funeral a few days later and me being sole executor and the person who had to do my father’s eulogy.
The last time I went to that particular church was another funeral, two years ago: that of my younger sister, who died of cancer. My father was buried beside her last week. This was, as you can imagine, extremely difficult to go through. When I say “extremely difficult”…
A few hours after that eulogy (which I had devoted a crazy amount of time to, including when I should have been – wished I’d been – asleep) my husband and I went for a lovely three days by the sea, long-planned and much-desired and badly needed. I’ll be honest and say that although I had a lovely time, I never switched off. Too much to think about, brain constantly spinning. My first grandson is two today and my second one is due in six weeks, which is the amount of weeks early the first one was (they were due on the same date) and some of you might identify with the underlying worries there.
The need to be all things to all people is immense – I’m that kind of woman/mother/human. And that’s even before I think about work – I’d postponed a couple of talks but I still need to do them at some point; my publishers have been so kind and thoughtful – and sent me flowers! – but they have a schedule, too.
Oh, and I’ve been ill since the end of August, with bronchitis/persistent cough/voice loss/stuff. Managed to get a face-to-face appointment after eight weeks and was diagnosed with a chest infection. Don’t get me started on the difficulty of getting to see a GP these days…
I can’t escape it all – nor do I want to, because I’m a doer and achiever. Aren’t I? But no one is invincible. Everyone can go under. And sometimes I’ve felt I might.
Years ago, I did. I refuse to again. And I do believe I have agency.
So, what am I doing to make sure I don’t? You might find some advice in here. Or just store it up for future need.
That’s why I told you all that in the first two paragraphs, because sometimes offloading is the healthiest thing to do. I hope someone is listening! But even if you’re not, I’ve offloaded to a couple of friends, too. Having a good moan to someone who won’t diminish or dismiss what you’re saying is really important. Even if all someone can say is “poor you”, that’s better than going over and over it in the darkness of the night. I also – and here I acknowledge my privilege – paid for an appointment with a private GP. It was incredible being able to say everything to a sympathetic and knowledgable person and to have the time to tell her enough for her to make some really interesting conclusions. The word “stress” came up a lot… And she recommended that I try to cut back on some of my work.
See next point.
I’ve increased my determination to say “no” more. Friends have heard me promise this before. But this time it’s happening. It has to because I’m starting to spot the danger signs.
See next point.
Spot the danger signs
What are they for you? Although we’re all a little different, I’m ready to bet they’re on this list:
- Waking in the middle of the night or very early, and not getting back to sleep
- A racing heart – my resting heart rate is over 70, whereas a few months ago it was usually 64/5 – still high for a runner but not a high as now
- Shallow breathing – any time I think about it, it’s as though I’m breathing through my shoulders, not my lower chest, and my abdominal muscles are tight all the time
- Forgetting to eat – and then snacking on sugary/salty things
- Forgetfulness, walking into a room and not knowing why
- Making mistakes – including while driving; or saying the wrong thing
- Stomach-aches, digestive upset, head-aches – I actually don’t suffer from these (apart from migraines which in my case are not stress related) but they are common over-stress symptoms
- Getting stupidly* anxious about small things (*It’s not “stupid” but it can feel so)
- Not having time for looking after your health
See next point.
Frankly, I’m a tad sick of this word, “self-care”. Of course we should take care of ourselves and it does not need to be said. That’s like saying “eat and drink enough” and “go to sleep at night”. Also, the word has become hijacked by the Paltrow end of the woo spectrum and pilloried by the stiff-upper lip end who seem to think self-care is only for snowflakes. (Their word.)
- Balance work and relaxation – if you’re working too much and not building in breaks, you’re wearing yourself out and then you are not looking after the body and brain and life you’ve been given
- Make good food choices overall – learn what those are but allow yourself a few indulgences, too, as it’s important to get pleasure from food
- Give the best chance of good sleep by having a great pre-bed routine – you’ll find everything you need to know about healthy sleep in my book The Awesome Power of Sleep or why not buy the recorded webinar, Teens and Sleep, which comes with loads of handouts and advice for teenagers and adults
- Do the right things for you
See next point.
What will these be for you? Here are some ideas – pick four or five and pledge to do them each once each day.
- Spend time with a friend or loved one – could be by phone or online or face-to-face
- Be physical, ideally outside – doesn’t matter what it is but at least half an hour on your feet, moving your legs and arms; could be walking, running, gardening, shopping, housework
- Get a task done – keep a list of little jobs, each under half an hour, and do one each day
- Prepare food – could be making a meal from scratch, inventing a smoothie, baking flapjacks, making a pizza, using a new recipe
- Treat your body for half an hour – perhaps you’ll give yourself a manicure, use a face mask, soak your feet and apply moisturiser; or maybe you’ll do some stretches or strength exercises
- Have a hobby – hobbies reduce stress, open our minds, take us out of ourselves
- Read for pleasure – I have lots of info about why this is a great choice! See here and scroll down to “Reading Brain”
- Or, if you don’t like reading, how about writing, or drawing, or doodling, or puzzling
- Have a screen-free hour – do anything that doesn’t use your screen and have your phone on silent or switched off
- Let your brain spend time in “default mode” – this is when you’re just doing something that requires no thought, such as walking, ironing, looking out of a window, and some hobbies that don’t need concentration. This allow your mind to wander and it’s great for processing emotions and boosting creativity. it’s when ideas come!
Write your choices down and stick the list where you can’t miss it.
Top tip: If you can build these into a routine, you’ll stand a far greater chance of keeping them going.
You read that right: I don’t give myself rewards and I don’t want you to have any. Let me explain.
Many years ago when I was suffering what I now realise were symptoms of stress and anxiety, a well-meaning GP told me I should have “frequent small rewards”. But there’s an enormous problem (for some people) with the word “reward”. It’s connected to “deserving”. But if you’re a high-achieving, ambitious, Type A person (as I am) you don’t think you “deserve” a reward until the work is done and done well, until term is over or it’s a weekend or holiday, and even then you still might not think you deserve it. This type of person waits far too long for the reward and risks burnout.
No, you – and I – need small, frequent breaks and nice things, not rewards. We owe these things to our bodies and brains. Our body is like that of a valuable racehorse: it needs, deserves and responds to good treatment, the right amount of work, rest, nutrients etc. We are our own owner and trainer: we have to look after, respect, care for, nurture, guide and grow our body and brain like the valuable entity it is.
So, no rewards, just wonderful, healthy, pleasurable actions and decisions.
This is not about “victim-blaming” someone who finds themselves suffering badly from stress or feeling they’re not coping. I dislike victim-blaming as much as anyone but I do think that there’s a fine line between the need to avoid that and the risk of the opposite: not accepting some responsibility for our own health and wellbeing. We can’t affect so much of what happens to us and if someone is battered by the storms of bad luck and becomes clinically depressed, for example, they absolutely should not be blamed. Nor should they if they suffer any mental ill-health for any reason at all. BUT there are always things we can do – that anyone can do, sometimes with help – to give ourselves the best chance of sailing through the storms and surviving.
So, back to the point of my telling you about the struggles I’ve had recently and why I’ve been quiet: I am responsible for my health – in as much as a person can control that. I am responsible for doing the best I can, making the best choices I can. No one else can sort this for me.
If I want to achieve good work, help people, enjoy my family and friends, be strong enough to grow the plants that give me so much pleasure, then I have to take back control. I have to remember that I can’t control everything but I can control lots of things and that the whole key to my philosophy is to untangle what can and can’t be controlled or affected and spend as much time and mental effort on the things that can and as little as possible on the things that can’t.
There we have it. My reasons for being a bit quiet. I’m just giving the racehorse a bit of care and attention. I’ll be racing again soon! (Actually, I don’t like racing… I prefer my usual analogy of life being like an ocean, our body being the boat and our job being to keep the boat strong and repaired so it can weather the storms.)
Really, this is all summed up by resilience. By pure coincidence, I wrote Be Resilient in just the year when my own resilience has been most challenged. Although I’ve cancelled/postponed three events (ironically two of them about resilience!) I reckon I’ve actually practised what I’ve preached. I’ve made good decisions, have picked myself up after mini-meltdowns, I’ve taken what help my friends and husband can give, and every now and then I’ve put a healthy action before a piece of work.
LOOK: For more about building resilience in yourself and your young people, see the recording of Boosting Teenage Resilience?
FOR YOU: 10% OFF ANY ITEM in my shop except for books and live events if you use the code NOV10 before the end of November. All the recorded webinars have both a school/organisation AND an individual licence – both terrific value. Tell your friends!
Meanwhile, if any of you have been suffering waves of overwhelm, I hear you. But you can do this. You can.