When stress is too much
Updated: Apr 26
"Stressed" is "desserts" spelled backwards - both will make you sick if you have too much of it
I remember my first anxiety attack. I was in my office. My chest felt tight, catching my breath was a struggle, which made me panic even more. It was a scary experience and I didn't quite understand what was really happening at the time.
I was promoted to manager about a year before the incident; I was given two sites to manage. I really liked my job at the time. It was fast-paced, very demanding and challenging in many ways but I was learning a lot and developing new skills. Fast forward a year and I was managing four practices. The number of people to manage increased, the amount of paperwork doubled but the expectations stayed the same. There was a lot to juggle.
The manager I was taking over from gave me some advice just before he left - "if you ever struggle, don't speak out, just deal with it. Don't show any weakness." I know now that this possibly was the worst advice I could have received but back then as a freshly promoted manager, I took it to heart and "just dealt with it" and by that I mean, kept it all inside. I wanted to prove that I could do it, that I was good enough for the job.
The anxiety attacks became a regular occurrence. I started having stomach pains on my way to work every morning. It's funny because even after I had left that job, I would still experience those same pains as I drove the same route (albeit to my new job). My brain must have made an assumption that I was going to work where of course I would have another stressful day.
The stress was creeping into my personal life. I could not relax. I was always checking my phone to see if anyone had called in sick and if I needed to try to find cover. No cover = cancelled patients = unhappy patients = complaints for me to deal with = more stress. Or I would worry about stuff not getting done, or the training I had to deliver or the equipment not working.
I couldn't handle it anymore. As I didn't feel I could speak to someone about it I thought that the only way out was to run away from it all and change my job and I did just that. I could finally live stress-free... but not for long.
10 stone lighter
When I experienced my first panic attack I was in a supermarket. My chest felt tighter than ever before, I couldn't catch a breath... My eyes started to fill up with tears, I was scared and felt like I was going to die. I didn't know what to do... I kept thinking that I was in a public place and I couldn't embarrass myself therefore had to keep myself together. I left and sat in my car for a while before going home.
Things at home were not great. My long term relationship was ending. The panic attack was a build up of months and months of difficult conversations and unresolved issues. Through it all my stress levels were sky high. But I am an expert at hiding it well. Going to work everyday, putting a smile on as soon as I walked through the door; replying "I'm fine" to every "how are you". I carried on same way through the break-up and the house move. Not many people knew about what was happening. I didn't allow myself time to grief the relationship that just ended.
But every sink will overflow if you don't remove the plug... And that's exactly what happened about a year after. The break up was just a tip of the iceberg. The amount of stuff I brushed under the carpet for so many years decided to come out in one go. I had a breakdown. I couldn't face going to the office and pretending I was OK anymore. I took a few days off work. I felt like I had hit rock bottom. I didn't have any energy to pick myself up. For the first time in my life I decided to ask for help. I called the Employees Assistance Programme and booked my first ever counselling session.
It wasn't easy opening up to a stranger about some of the things I had never even told my closest friends and family but it sure felt good getting it all out. I felt 10 stone lighter, like a huge weight I had been carrying for years had finally been lifted from my shoulders.
Fill in the blank: "When I'm stressed I..."
Throughout all these years, I've tried many things to help me relax but my favourite has always been running and long walks in beautiful surroundings, close to nature. Some days a 5k would do the trick and others 20k, just to be sure my head was clear and all the troubles were left behind.
Another favourite of mine is meditation. I've tried so many different guided meditations and I now have my most-loved saved down, ready for me to press play when I need it. My go to meditations are:
Below is a list of other great ways to help you relax and lower your stress levels. I recommend trying these and finding what works for you:
Reading a book - it could be a fantasy, a crime, a biography, whatever it is that draws you in and takes you away from daily worries. If you are looking to learn more about how to manage stress I recommend grabbing yourself a copy of "The Stress Solution" by Dr Rangan Chatterjee
Breathing exercises - nowadays you can download apps that will guide you through it or find it on most fitness watches. It is such a great tool that can be used anywhere and it only takes a couple of minutes
Listening to your favourite music - I like listening to jazz when I feel like slowing down but also have a feel good playlist when I need a little "pick me up"
Get active - join a class at your gym; get some dance classes, play badminton in your local park or try something you've never tried before
Go outside - often I feel the need to go away from the city and hide away from all the noise and fast paced day to day life. Having access to green environment and being in nature is proven to reduce depression and anxiety
Get creative - drawing, colouring books, jewellery making, learning to play an instrument are all great and help you be in the moment
Make a list of all the things that stress you out - write it all down. Then separate everything that is in your control from things that are not. Can't control it? Let it go, no point losing sleep over it. Is it in your control? What are you going to do about it? Write down your actions
Hotpod Yoga - I signed up to the 10 day intro offer and went every single day after work. It really helped me wind down after a long day and I slept better. The music, the smell, the dimmed lights and warm tent made me feel like I was on holiday
'A problem shared is a problem halved'
We cannot always control certain situations but we can control how we react to them. I can't say that I now live this completely stress-free life, I don't think this will ever be the case and besides, small doses of stress can be good for us - it can motivates us and it can also keep us safe and away from danger. However, I know my triggers and I know when I need to take a break, and I am more open to talk to someone about it.
I want to encourage you to start talking to one another when you feel it is all too much. Whether it's your manager, your partner, your friend. Carrying it all by yourself can be overwhelming and it can seriously damage your mental and physical health.
If you're feeling stressed and want help sign up to my 1 to 1 Stress Management Workshop. This session will give you some clarity and will empower you to make changes. You will leave with better understanding of your stress, concrete plan and some actionable steps to take away, to help lower your stress levels and feel more in control.
What do you like to do when you're feeling stressed? Can you do more of it on regular basis to prevent rather than cure stress?
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