My Journey with Stress
April is Stress Awareness month. It has been around since 1992 to “increase public awareness about both the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic.” (stress.org.uk). In 1992, there was barely an internet, barely mobile phones. Most of us still had to be at home or in the workplace to make or take a call. News was disseminated via column inches in newspapers. There was limited space and time for it. No one ever had to think about newsfeeds, status updates, comments, likes and internet trolling. When you were out, you were out. When unavailable, unreachable. Yet still, we were stressed and nearly 30 years on, we are even more so.
Why so stressed?
It begs the questions: what is it that we were and still are so stressed about? And why? Obviously, we all have our own reasons, but it is worth zooming out to take a look at the bigger social picture: society is brutally competitive. It starts with academic banding in primary school and intensifies year on year with exams, CVs, higher education, the job market, the housing market. All the while having to juggle these with our changing social landscapes of family to friends, partners and beyond. Overall, I would say that in our society, Stress is the acceptable baseline on which individuals are expected to build their lives despite clinical evidence directly linking Stress to anxiety, depression, heart disease, insomnia, digestive problems and weakened immune system. But, says stress.org.uk, “it is still not being taken as seriously as physical health concerns.”
I experienced my first anxiety attack at 17, though I didn’t recognise it as anxiety. There wasn’t really a name for it. All I knew was that I had a crippling tension in my chest that did not dissipate overnight. My breathing was irregular, as was my heartbeat. At the time, my family situation was tense, but by anyone’s guess, including my own, I was coping well. The anxiety would come and go throughout my early and mid-twenties as I completed A-levels, took an undergraduate course and travelled about, looked for a job. In my mid-twenties, unable to earn gainful employment, I experienced a painful and debilitating bout of constipation that went on for many months. The doctor waved a hand, declared “probably stress” and gave me some laxatives. This would remain another regular feature in my life.
In my late twenties came the insomnia and sleep deprivation. I was juggling several jobs while trying to manage personal projects and maintain a social life. To my mind, I was a calm, collected, resilient person and also a high achiever. To my body, I was a fallible human being and I learnt that you can’t be any of the above if you haven’t slept for three nights running. At that point, several people in my life suggested I might need to learn to relax.
Physical side affects
Still, the call to action – to be doing things – was more compelling than not and I continued filling every waking hour with errands, events, work, people, projects, parties, social groups, tasks, chores and if for one hour none of that was happening, exercise. Life was exciting and the goal was to keep it that way. Over three years, I lost a lot of weight, but that was OK because I ate what I wanted and burnt it off. For three years, I hadn’t menstruated, but that was OK because it was convenient. I never had to plan anything around mood swings and cramps. I could just crack on. But something deep down niggled. I ignored it but the more I ignored it the stronger the niggling became. When I took a moment to study it, I read it as the painful notion of having lost my femininity. I wondered if I could ever have children. I didn’t like it, so I put it away and carried on.
Fast forward to 2019. Having spent the best part of a year in and out of Bristol Unity Sexual Health Clinic for unexplained uteral pains, the doctor had eventually referred me to psychosexual counselling. I arrived sceptical, uncertain what psychosexual counselling entailed. Sitting amidst the books on the female orgasm and marital relations, I was surprised when the counsellor did not once direct the conversation towards my sex life. In fact, across the six months I attended, sex was barely touched upon where every other element of my life came up for scrutiny. About half way through that time, the counsellor placed her hands calmly on her lap and said, “It all sounds very stressful.” I burst into tears.
It took another three months for her to help me come to the realisation I was allowed to be stressed. I saw (and still see) my place in society as privileged. Therefore, I had no right to be stressed, let alone acknowledge stress and what it was doing to my body. My body had shut down what it deemed to be non-essential, preserving energy for my lifestyle.
Fast forward another year. April 2020 and one month into a national lockdown. My lifestyle now reduced to three days of working from home and a walk in the evenings before or after cooking and eating. There are no parties to attend. My fledgling business has been put on hold. There is nowhere to travel to and the pressure to do any of it has been erased. The days pass by one just like the other until one evening, I recognise a surging cramping sensation. My period. In the quietude of modern life put on hold, my body is recalling its most primordial rhythms. In tears and embracing every sharp, shifting sandbag sensation in my womb, I finally admit that I was really quite stressed.
We are all aware when we feel stressed but generally, we are conditioned to believe we should and can plough through it. As a result, we are not able or not willing to recognise the long term damage this is doing to our bodies and minds. Perhaps we don’t care enough about ourselves just as ourselves without the accolades of achievement. We place too much value on productivity.
Health is wealth
Stress Awareness Month should not simply advocate awareness of stress but a new paradigm of success and achievement. As we re-emerge into our former busier, more competitive reality we would do well to remember that old adage, “health is wealth”. Earning health I have learnt, is much harder than earning money or reputation and much more important. It takes long term awareness of oneself, being in touch with your body’s rhythms, time spent on personal reflection, the strength to say “no” and the ability to admit you have limits.
Fast forward another year. April 2021 and I’m now six months pregnant, thanks to the fact that lockdown forced me into readdressing my lifestyle. I have honed an awareness of my stress levels and am becoming better at recognising the early symptoms and when I’m taking on too much, though doing something about it still remains difficult. In fact, I’m still more inclined towards punishing myself with more work, more distractions. The difference now is that I know someone else is relying on my health and that has become the impetus.
Earning health should be something we place value on for ourselves and others, meaning we might have to start respecting the art of kicking back and doing nothing. And even if we can’t do it for ourselves, we can rest assured that we are much more helpful and enjoyable for others when taking time to revel in a life less stressed.
Thank you to Ali from the Bristol Wellbeing College for taking the time to write this very personal post. We all want to congratulate you on your pregnancy, what a perfect end to your story.
If you want to know more about how to live with Stress here are a few useful links: