Tag Archives: stress

How to try harder

The normal thing to do is to frame mental illness as something the person is going to recover from by making more effort.

Practice self care. Practice mindfulness. Practice gratitude. Challenge yourself to overcome your anxieties with a supportive CBT booklet. Talk to a therapist to get a plan in place for how you are going to do better. You know the drill.

No one is going to sit your abusive or neglectful family members down and explain to them what they should be doing to stop messing you up. No one is going to write a letter to your boss about how your toxic workplace is destroying you. The odds are that if you’ve suffered trauma, you’ve experienced nothing that was restorative. The odds of even experiencing any kind of justice around that are always slim.

It would be possible, through the medium of politics, to end the brutal toll that poverty and insecurity takes on people’s mental health. These are all situations that could be changed. Poverty is manufactured and is a deliberate aspect of capitalism. It isn’t natural, or necessary or unavoidable, but it does keep that system in place. Take away the massive stress caused by financial insecurity, work pressure, fear of losing your home and not being able to afford decent food, and a lot of mental illness would ease and disappear pretty quickly. Stress makes people sick.

From first hand experience, there is an extra layer of distress that comes from being made personally responsible for sorting out things you didn’t cause and can’t fix. There’s a weight to it, this a tough burden to shoulder on top of everything else. To have to try harder to be well and functional when something is gnawing on your guts, is a harsh thing to face. Your suffering is added to when there is no one willing to help you deal with the thing that is, metaphorically speaking, eating your innards in a slow and painful way. It doesn’t help to be told that you’d probably feel better if you could take a more positive approach to the thing that is destroying you.

Of course there’s no way of turning yourself into a happy and well person when the causes of your suffering are real and ongoing. Instead, you get to feel like a failure for not managing that impossible task. You get to feel like it’s your fault. I don’t think this is an accident. Misery makes it harder to push back and make change. The more of us there are feeling responsible, and useless and full of despair, the harder many of us will try to keep jumping through the unreachable hoops, and in so doing, continuing to be part of this toxic way of life.

If you are in more pain than you can bear it is probably because you are being asked to bear an inhuman load.

Observations on coping

Like many people, I can generally focus in an emergency and get the needful things done. And then, as is usually the way of it, I’ll have a meltdown later at some point when it is safe to do so. We’ve probably evolved this way, and for a short term emergency, it’s fine.

One of the problems with modern, white, western culture is that it perpetually manufactures crises. Even without the pandemic, people are forced to work as though there’s an emergency. Exams are manufactured emergencies and I think testing very young people is an appallingly bad idea. High speed living, 24/7 culture, and all the rest of it puts us on high alert all the time. Adverts are designed to make us feel like there’s a problem we must urgently solve by purchasing their product. It’s relentless. Everything is dialled up to eleven all the time.

So when do you get to stop and feel safe enough to have the needful meltdown? You can’t be on high alert and obliged to treat every day like an emergency and expect to cope with that forever. Sooner or later, a mental health crisis is inevitable for anyone trying to live like this. For many of us, the pandemic has meant living in a state of emergency, and that’s taking a huge toll.

In terms of coping, there are three things I think are especially helpful. Firstly, is getting time off when you don’t have to cope so that you can process your feelings and aren’t saving up for your own crisis. Secondly, good information. I cope better when I know what I should be doing. Uncertainty makes any emergency more distressing and I think that was a widespread issue around the pandemic in the early part of this year. The third thing is community – people who care, who can help, or listen or otherwise connect with you can make a lot of odds. They don’t even need to be able to fix things, the feeling of not being on your own with whatever it is makes a lot of difference.

Wherever possible, don’t ask yourself or anyone else to tough it out in a situation that is challenging. If you’ve got to deal with something for more than a few hours, breaks are essential. We did not evolve to handle a perpetual state of crisis, and we need to avoid creating situations that feel like crisis. We need to reject ways of living that put us in permanently stressful situations, for ourselves, and for the people who have little power and are unable to resist.

Dealing with being overwhelmed

The point at which you are overwhelmed is not the ideal time to be trying to find a strategy for dealing with this kind of thing. It is as well to have some plans in place before you are struck down. If you suffer from poor mental or physical health, you may be especially vulnerable to becoming overloaded. Here are some things I’ve noticed that I hope may prove helpful to others.

Rest is the best antidote to being overwhelmed. However, if everything is getting on top of you, then you may feel too panicked to rest, or unable to stop. If you are overloaded for too long, you may not remember how to stop, much less when to do it. It is important to plan rest time in advance if you think things are going to be tough. It’s good to be in the habit of planning rest time and setting time aside for it so that you have reminders that this is a thing you need to do. It’s surprising how easy it is to forget this in a crisis.

Good things can also be overwhelming. I find this one all too easy to forget and am often caught out by it. Good things need processing and digesting too, and need recovery time.

Know what helps you process things and cope. For some of us, reading, or walking, or crafting can be a quick route back to sanity. Know what works, and make sure that the people around you also know what works. That way, if you are overwhelmed and unable to think straight, someone else may be able to steer you towards the wool, or the woods, as required.

Planning ahead is good – if you know something is likely to be tough, planning the rest and recovery time is a good idea. Pacing is good – pay attention to your limits and respect them more of the time than not and you may be able to stay on top of things. However, it is so easy to be knocked sideways by the unexpected, and you can’t see everything coming. Try to keep some slack in your routines so that you can deal with the unexpected. Don’t be hard on yourself if you’re caught out by things you didn’t anticipate.

Anyone can be overloaded. A person who is overloaded too much and for too long will find their mental and physical health deteriorating. None of us cope with this well. There is no shame in being unable to bear the unbearable. There should be considerably more shame attendant on piling stress onto people, with unreasonable deadlines, impossible workloads, unfair demands on time and so forth. There should be considerable shame in asking people to act like everything is on fire, every day. Too many employers do it. The government does it to us as well.

A brief selection of my stories about my body

On the one side there’s the issue of no pain no gain, and on the other is the Taoist notion of effortlessness – do without doing. For much of my life, my awkward body has meant that any kind of activity courted pain and I’m used to thinking in terms of having to push. Recently I’ve started questioning this.

The assumption that I needed to push through the pain has been with me for a long time, unquestioned. But, there are stories in my family about laziness and pushing, about not getting comfortable and not letting yourself off the hook. Or at least I’ve understood it that way.

How much pain for how much gain? And at what cost?

My fear is that if I don’t push myself hard all the time, I will be lazy and crap, and still fat. The relationship between fatness and assumed laziness has been an ongoing issue for me. The desire to prove that my body shape is not a consequence of lack of effort or lack of discipline on my part, has been with me since my teens.

Faced with the impression that there’s a crisis, my body stores fat. I am fantastically efficient in this regard. The impression of crisis can be created by missing meals, and otherwise reducing calorie intake. It can be created by sudden bouts of intense exercise, fuelled by shame and not sustained. Ironically it turns out that on a higher calorie diet, I am more likely to lose weight. No pain, no gain around the middle.

Do without doing suggests a state where how you are gets the job done. Getting more sleep has encouraged my body to think there isn’t some kind of emergency going on and to stop stocking up. There’s reason to think that stress caused by what happens when you’re fat can help keep you fat – again it’s about the feeling of emergency and what a body does with that. My physical survival method is clearly not to be able to run away easily, it is to be able to sit out the problem and have another go when things calm down. Doing without doing.

I’ve never really listened to my body. I’ve internalised the idea that expressing discomfort was just making a fuss, so when my body complains of pain or weariness, I have tended to over-ride that for as long as I can. Whatever gain there is seeming more important than the pain. Only in the last few years have I started listening to my body about what it might like to eat. Extra toast, and more protein have featured heavily. And yet I am not gaining flab. It’s almost as if my body knows what it needs to be a healthy size, and what it needs is not what I had been told it needs.

Trusting my body and going with it looks a lot like do without doing, to me. Not a big, sweaty push for change, but a softer acceptance of what actually works. Letting my soft animal body get on with things rather than trying to flog every last ounce of effort out of it. It’s possible that all the things I have done to try and overcome pain and fatness, have in fact been making the pain and fatness worse for me because it results in my body feeling threatened and under pressure all the time. But as a culture this is what we do to fat people, layering on the blame and shame and the pressure to force change and not asking why a specific body reacts as it does.

Fat, I am inclined to think, is really a symptom of other issues, and the key thing is to find out what the other issues are and deal with those. Comfort eating has emotional reasons driving it. Storing can be driven by all sorts of physical pressures. Body chemistry, malnutrition, stress… there are many reasons a person may store fat that have nothing to do with discipline and effort. Try to solve that by adding to the strain, and for some of us, there can be no winning.

Qualities of weariness

It’s worth noting that our bodies are set up to handle physical exhaustion, and have nothing like the same mechanisms for responding to mental fatigue. One, we evolved for, the other we didn’t, and it’s the one we are not equipped to deal with that has come to dominate modern living. Not one of our better plans, that.

First up we have the lovely endorphins, the body’s natural pain relief. Bounce around being active, and you’ll kick of a chemical reward system designed to leave you feeling satisfied. You’ll also get shot of your stress chemicals, so even if you are wiped by the end of the excitement, you’ll feel good about it – satisfied and relaxed. Mental exhaustion does not deliver any chemical rewards. It just leaves a person feeling depleted and flat.

If I have a day of intense physical activity, that can leave me in pain. This is a good thing, because the next day I have a fair idea of what I won’t get away with. Mental exhaustion is not as self announcing, and shows up in apathy and reluctance at first – all things it is easy to feel obliged to overcome. If I keep pushing, so long as I am eating and sleeping well, my body will adapt and toughen up over time. You can keep pushing against mental exhaustion until you have a nervous breakdown. My body, I have observed, is much more willing and able to toughen up in response to a challenge than my mind is.

Certain kinds of thinking are more problematic than others. I can use my mind a lot and be fine if I can go at my own pace. Time pressure and stress create issues. Time pressure and stress is how we build our workplaces and careers. They are the most reliable raw ingredients in the mix. If I can think about things when my head is in the right place, I do a better job and suffer less. Again, most conventional jobs don’t allow this. I do better with interesting challenges to chew on, but what many jobs give us is work that requires effort and energy, stress, focus and thinking, but not problem solving or anything that produces a sense of achievement. Just churning it out, endlessly.

But then, ‘work’ as a social construct does not exist to improve the human condition. We don’t do it to solve the problems of our tribe, or take care of our home. We don’t do it for the glory of achievement, most of us. It’s not about some heroic outcome, but about making money, usually for someone else. Most of western human life revolves to an alarming degree around work. Work that leaves people exhausted, apathetic, demoralised, with no feel good factors. As systems go, it’s a shoddy one, and it is well worth wondering if we might come up with something better that could deliver a better quality of life to the vast majority of us. Not the absence of work, (because that depends on exploiting someone else) but work that has value enough to cheer us, and patterns that don’t make us sick.

Sick Systems

Health minister Jeremy Hunt is out there talking about how we have a rather high premature death rate in the UK. That’s the number of people dying under 75. Obesity and smoking are on the agenda as things to sort out. No mention of course of the growing correlation between obesity and poverty, or the influence of food prices, inadequate incomes even amongst those in employment, and the ease of filling up on empty calories that will leave you overweight and suffering from malnutrition. There’s a sick system for you. The way in which food is organised in the western world is not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. There’s still not enough food education out there. Without fixing the system, it’s unrealistic to expect individuals to get this right.

There is an elephant in the room (no, that’s not a fat joke). The elephant is stress. High blood pressure, heart attacks, cancer, and pretty much any other ailment you might think of will be aggravated by long term stress. Add in people whose work lives do not give them time to exercise properly, eat properly, rest enough or sleep enough, and you have a sick system. Why are people in Europe not dying off young in the way we are? How about shorter working hours, a better work-life balance and things of that ilk? To even suggest that is to challenge the work longer harder faster for less and less philosophy that underpins our current economic model.

Fear of unemployment, of losing your home, or being stigmatised – these do not contribute to a well and functional populous. That kind of thing may push you towards comfort eating. There’s a known correlation between sleep deprivation and weight gain as well, but we aren’t talking about the sleep deprived when it comes to obesity. As a culture we do not value sleep nearly enough. Light pollution and noise pollution contribute to our sleeplessness. Shift work plays havoc with circadian rhythms. For someone caught up in the pressure to work longer hours, the fear of losing their job, the difficulty of paying the bills, sleep can be hard to find, and this in turn will make said person ill.

Unfair systems are about as stressful as it gets. Governments that break the law and then change the law retrospectively to make what they did ok… do we feel relaxed and comfortable about that? As legal aid dries up, it will be increasingly easy for those with wealth to use the threat of the law to bully into submission, victims who cannot afford to fight them. If that isn’t making you feel a little bit sick, you’ve not been paying attention. Systems that we know are likely to encourage the innocent to plead guilty and the guilty to plead innocent.

There is a relationship between happiness and health. There is a relationship between stress and poor mental health. Stressed, frightened, overstretched people are going to be more vulnerable to disease than relaxed and happy people. And really, if life is miserable and the one comfort is your tobacco, or getting smashed out of your face on cheap alcohol, or eating too many cakes… are you really going to deny yourself the one little pleasure remaining to you? Sure, it may be going to kill you, one day, but there are days when for a person living on the edge, that would just be a relief and an end to all the struggling. And yes, under the new systems we have, more people are apparently reporting suicidal feelings to their doctors.

You will not get a majority of well people in a sick system. If you have a system that pays no regard to well-being and treats humans like disposable commodities, you are not going to have well people. Sorry Mr Hunt, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t grind people into the floor and except them to stay well and not cost your health system anything. It comes down to what you value, doesn’t it, and how good your maths is. My government sows policies that are bound to make people ill. Sooner or later, the medical bill for that is going to come in. If you don’t pay it as a medical bill, you’ll pay it as a crisis in mental health, or in lost work days.

If we valued quality of life more than GDP, we would not be here.