I was recently asked to speak at a women’s event on the topic of stress and anxiety. Ironically, as I prepared my presentation, I was left thinking “woah, this message is about me!”
I had become so used to living a stress filled life, that the symptoms were starting to seem normal. Over the past couple of months I had complained to friends, family and colleagues about my poor quality of sleep, always waking up at 3 am and unable to fall back asleep until 5 am. Not to mention the unexplainable buzzing and whirring noise in my head, which I likened it to a computer processor that refused to switch off! If only I had a control-alt-delete button. Imagine how irritable and exhausted I felt.
The word stress is commonly used these days to convey everyday strains, hassles and inconveniences, to the extent that we may overlook it’s severity. The other day my seven year old daughter cried out “Mummy I am so stressed!” after a few minutes spent tidying her room. Whilst some stress is good and needed to keep us motivated, energised and productive, negative stress or distress is no joke and can be damaging to our mental and physical health.
An article I read described stress as “ your mind and body’s response or reaction to a real or imagined threat. The word “threat” struck me. Picture an intruder breaking into your house and setting off the alarm (hoping you have one). In this picture, stress would be the alarm bell, responding to the intruder, the threat (also known as a stressor). Thinking of stress in this way was a real eye opener for me and made me reflect on my own situation. What threat had I experienced or imagined enough for my body to sound off warning bells, waking me up at 3 o’clock on the dot every morning? What was my stressor? Unfortunately the mystery wasn’t so easily solved. My intruder was much slicker, donning camouflage gear, well disguised and hidden.
Whilst the experience of loss, tragedy or change can be intensely traumatic and difficult to overcome, we can clearly identify these external stressors. However, the more tricky ones to identify are the internals — our thoughts, beliefs and fears- which are unseen and often unfamiliar. They lurk, fester and pester us. We usually need space and time to explore, process and delve deeper into recesses of our minds. Effective therapy or coaching can be particularly useful to access blocked or stuck emotions. Some people are able to gain clarity and insight through their own introspection, mindfulness and self-awareness. However, unfortunately, many of us do neither, carrying on and soldiering through, until the symptoms become part of daily life that we forget the existence of our pre-stress days. When we are so desensitised to the dangers and effects of stress, we can easily become dismissive of its seriousness and even trivialise it. I recall situations where people have rolled their eyes at news of colleagues being signed off for stress, implying that the distressed person was either taking liberties or was a weakling.
As a therapist and coach, I know well enough that stress induced mental health problems is on the rise! And what I am learning through my own process and my clients, is that in these modern times, stress is an indication of something deeper. If I could whittle my many conversations on this topic down to a few words it would be “more” and “not enough”. We seem to be living in a world of More — striving for more; attaining more; achieving more; comparison to get more and competing for more. Perhaps we are confusing our high and demanding perfectionist standards with excellence, which only expands our insatiable appetite, causing us to keep doing more so that one day, we will be enough. Author and Researcher Brené Brown brilliantly explores this scarcity and never enough mentality in her book “Daring Greatly” and “The Gifts of Imperfection”. The quote below is my daily reminder that my being enough is not dependent on how much I have or do.