Jessica blogs about her experience of stress and how she has found ways of coping.
I’m writing a blog about stress for Stress Awareness day and it is stressing me out. What if people don’t like it? What if I can’t fit my writing within the word count etc? As you can already tell, I am someone who finds it easy to create stress or fall foul of it in all situations.
I now realise that stress has always been a part of my life, even as a child. I care deeply about people – I always have – and also worry desperately what they think of me. A top notch people pleaser, if someone else was happy because of something that I’d done, I was relieved of stress. For a short while at least.
I put enormous pressure on myself to succeed at university and ended up with glandular fever and depression in my second year, so stressed by the pressures that I had to take a year out. I did graduate finally, but stress was a huge part of my daily life there.
That was ten years ago. Since then, I have chosen jobs and a career pathway which have, by coincidence, been extremely challenging and stressful. For me, each day started before I woke. I dreamed about the day ahead: in my first job as a teacher, I dreamed I was planning a lesson for year eight: how would I cope with the screaming and special educational needs whilst trying to teach Romeo and Juliet?
Now, as a business advisor, I regularly have dreams about spreadsheets: how to collate the data to convey the information I’m working on effectively? How I should present myself in order to be accepted as a member of the team?
At one previous employer, I suffered such severe stress from the lack of support I received from my manager that I decided to leave. The aftermath was a serious episode of stress-related depression, which was debilitating, distressing and led me to address the stress that has been the common thread through my life.
I’m now becoming more honest about stress at work and being braver in my self-belief that I am not necessarily at fault for this situation. This is tough because we exist in uncertain times, with few jobs for people at any level, and I worry being honest about my stress puts my career progression at risk.
However, I’m now getting better at telling myself that my health is more important. Also, why would I want to continue working in a way that makes me more stressed than ever because of the pressures I put on myself to achieve what may be impossible? I take breaks from work every hour if I can, just for a few minutes. I take my lunch and get out of the office and I feel that I have a right to do this because it makes me more productive.
I have learned about mindfulness (a practice of focusing on the present moment, while acknowledging and accepting my feelings, thoughts and sensations at a given time). I was diabolically bad at this at first. I just don’t sit still and I definitely don’t focus on one thing at a time. There is too much to be done!
However, I now realise that I need to find a way of coping with the hundreds of thoughts that enter my head and find at least a few minutes every day to put them aside and try to relax. Headspace, incidentally, is a great app for this – I’ve even used it on crowded commuter trains and managed to stay calm on the way to work, so it really is effective!
Finally and simply, I have begun the daily practice of deep breathing. I take four slow breaths in and then try to exhale over 6-8 counts, using my diaphragm to breathe deeply into my body and focus my mind on this exercise. As stress turned to acute anxiety this year, the deep breathing has been a tremendous help to shift my focus away from the root of the anxiety and has gone at least some way, every time, to calming me down and enabling me to carry on through the day.
Stress is a really difficult issue, especially in the busy, competitive world that we live in. But by being more honest with myself about the stress in my life, I now feel calmer, more in control at work and in my life. And this makes me more productive and happier too!