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Don’t wait until it’s too late: how to find your way out of stress

Illustration of stressed individuals

Submitted by Olivia Lewis

In November 2021 I was signed off work with stress. I had been working full-time for 10 months in a high-pressure job and parenting my two primary school-aged children, all during the pandemic. I raised concerns with my manager that I was struggling and asked whether I could reduce my hours, but unfortunately that wasn’t considered possible. I ploughed on, while getting increasingly unwell, hoping I would possibly get used to it and the stress would evaporate. Instead:

  • I felt like I could only using a fraction of my lung capacity to breathe

  • I ate poorly and erratically; always in a rush

  • I was waking at night, mulling over work issues for hours on end, relying on caffeine and sugar to stagger through the day

  • I was snappy with my husband and children, and constantly tired.

Sound familiar? Because this all happened over the course of several months, I didn’t realise how bad it was getting; that this stress was impacting me and my relationships in this way. The stress was growing, and what finally tipped me over the edge were my youngest son getting Covid, followed by a three-day work trip several hours from home.

The initial consultation

I ended up going to visit my GP, and when I was signed off work, I felt a mixture of relief, shame and upset. I cried on the phone to my manager and put away my work laptop for the next 7 weeks.

For the first week away from work, I was still running at 100 miles per hour and instantly set about designing an ambitious recovery plan, involving all manner of activities. Taking a break or switching off, isn’t as easy as we think. My GP had put up the dosage of the antidepressant I was taking and urged me not to think about when I might be expected to return to work. My husband also encouraged me to slow down and rest first, but I didn’t heed his advice until I found myself in the kitchen wanting to cause serious harm to myself so that a minor injury might get me some time in a hospital bed, on some medication and, finally, where I can be left alone.

I realised then that I really needed to take this seriously.

Switching off

So, I finally rested and switched myself, and my brain, off. From 9 until 3, I made sure to be on the sofa under a blanket to rest. After a few days of this, as the adrenaline slowly leached from my body, I began to feel quite depressed. So I took baths and slow walks in the field behind my house – it’s essential to get some physical activity going. I watched TV (Queer Eye) and read books (Scandi crime). In other words, I was taking time to unwind, focus on hobbies and not worry. This led to taking the time to eat nutritious foods and stopping caffeine drinks. I even started taking CBD oil which helped keep me relaxed (whether it’s just a placebo and psychological, I’m not sure, but it certainly made me feel better!). The interest in socialising increased, I slowly started to arrange to see close friends for long talks over cups of tea where I felt brave enough to often disclose how I was feeling.

A change in attitude and perspective

When we give ourselves a break, we can go beyond our most basic needs of shelter, food and water. Once I was able to re-energise myself, I was in a place to also try new things and test my limits. I went swimming in a river with an instructor, my brain entirely focused for those few minutes on how very cold I was and not on anything else. Afterwards I felt wonderful and free. We also cancelled the Christmas plans we had made, feeling too fragile and tired to manage so much and stress myself out. Instead, we cocooned at home, I wanted to be with my husband and kids.

I changed my perspective on myself – I realised that if I wasn’t looking after myself, I couldn’t look after the ones I loved. So many of us focus so much on what we should be doing and have to do, that we forget what we need. Without our mental health, we can’t do simple things, let alone the complicated ones, and had I not spoken to my GP, or understood my changing behaviour, I’m not sure where I’d be.

I wanted to return to work, but in a limited capacity, so in January I took on a different role and part-time. I know that’s not a luxury everyone can afford so I feel very fortunate to be able to prioritise my mental health for now.

Some tips for those who are feeling stressed

I have taken away a few lessons from the experience and use them as touchstones to try and stay well. I hope you find them helpful too:

  • Don’t ignore how you are feeling. Your body and mind will give you early warning signs of burnout. (See my list above and check in with yourself).

  • Don’t be afraid to talk to others about how you are feeling, and to ask for help. It might not always get you what you need, but at least give people the opportunity to do right by you.

  • Do remember to keep your perspective in check. Work is rarely a matter of life and death; try and keep perspective on this when you are feeling overwhelmed or stressed.

  • Do prioritise the most basic ways of looking after yourself. No matter what your circumstances are, the basics in living are good for you. By this I mean getting enough rest and sleep, eating a balanced diet, moving regularly (preferably doing something you enjoy) and spending time outside.

  • Do try and spend some time relaxing by doing something that isn’t looking at your phone like reading or listening to music.


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