I spent my childhood relatively stress-free. I look back on my days in school as a great time, full of freedom to be an idiot and chat utter rubbish with friends. My friends today say it’s probably my blissful ignorance that got me through school like that. They’re probably right.
Skip forward to today, running my own business and trying desperately to be an adult who lives up to some sort of reputation (most of which is self-inflicted). I’ve suffered anxiety, down and dark times and a real rollercoaster of emotions since setting up my freelance career and then my first business. It’s tough. I suddenly gained insight into what all my friends had been talking about for years: anxiety sucks.
I’m a private person. However, the other day I read a wonderful piece in The Guardian by writer John Crace called ‘Getting out of bed is the first hurdle’: how I cope with my anxiety. This brilliant, funny man was suddenly so open and honest. I can only empathise with some of his big struggles but the first three paragraphs felt so familiar – “a voice that tells me I’ve failed at the day before it’s even begun” is one of the striking first lines. I realised after reading the whole article that I felt better. It isn’t just me. This is pretty obvious – huge numbers of people suffer worse than I do – but it helps to feel less alone.
In the spirit of the good John’s article did for me, I thought I’d share 10 points that help me plough on when times get rough.
10. Talking (even when I don’t want to)
Social situations are quick stress relief. I’ve had moments where I’ve been so down I can’t be bothered to go out, even to hang around with people I like. But when I’m there, I am stress-free and generally having a great time.
I’m lucky. If I have problems, I’ve got Niamh – my wonderful fiance. I know I can always share hardships, even silly ones, and she will get me. Most importantly she won’t be afraid to tell me to buck up and stop being an idiot. Which I need sometimes.
I am most stressed and anxious before bed. There’s always something I didn’t get around to during the day. It also happens to be the least happy time I am to talk about it. But there’s no going to bed in a bad mood. Whether I’ve drunk litres of black coffee in the cafe all day and stressed to my eyebrows that I’m having heart palpitations, or I’m just worried I didn’t email someone, or the usual entrepreneur cashflow hardship, Niamh will make me talk about it.
I sleep well and dream sweet thanks to her. So, even if you don’t want to, talk to someone. If you’re lonely and feel like no-one’s out there, for the wine and spirits trade there is the wonderful Benevolent charity (who have a helpline) and there’s also Mind, whether you’re in the trade or not. Someone is always there for you.
9. Having nowhere to be, preferably on a walk
When I reflect on times I’m most stressed it’s usually because I’m late for something. Whether that’s physically, like being the other side of town with five minutes to make a meeting, or mentally, such as needing to do something for a client that’s due by the end of the day. When I’m relaxed I’m on holiday with nowhere to be.
While I can’t exactly be on holiday all the time, I can have nowhere to be. Last year I started getting up early and going for walks. I’d walk around the park, listen to music, walk into town and circle back home. The idea was I’d just walk, turn whenever I felt like it, jog down a hill if I felt the momentum go with me. It’s my therapy.
If you’re feeling stressed by all your responsibilities (including all those extra ones you’ve piled on yourself) then try it. Go for a walk to nowhere.
8. Listening to music with my headphones in
Music can always lift a mood. I forget it often but every time I’m working to good music, I’m happier and more productive. I generally listen through speakers in the office but if I’m feeling stressed, I put my headphones in. Simply doing this focuses my attention, gets my mood high and I’m often bobbing my head or tapping my feet before long.
I can’t really tell you what music. For the obvious part, music taste is subjective but my taste seems to have taken a real artistic licence on my part; I’ll listen to everything from Elvis, soul and blues to rap and grime, EDM by Underworld or a pop hit from Sigrid. But no Ed Sheeran.
7. Warmth (fire, blanket, hugs, you name it)
This is perhaps the most animal of the 10 ways I control stress but thermo-comfort is a charmer. In winter I long for an evening in front of my parent’s fire. It reminds me of Christmas. My feet get too warm and one of my cheeks goes fiery red while the other is cool from a draft, but I am stress-free.
In my flat we don’t have a fireplace, so a good cuddle with the other half under a blanket is one of my favourite places to be.
6. 3 Things to do
I don’t plan (which is not helpful if you’re trying to control stress). That means trying to write a to do list is an exercise that, with all the best intentions, lasts for one week at best.
Someone told me just to write the top 3 things to do tomorrow the night before. It’s simple and it works, if you’re like me. I also sleep better.
5. Discover something completely “irrelevant” and new
I only started doing this before Christmas but it’s magical for me. My free time was getting so merged and messy with work time that I lost what was procrastination (watching Netflix at lunch) and what was enjoyable (reading a good book or catching up with my fiance). My brain needed a rewire. In a way of saying, “Look, you’re not working now” to myself I decided to dive into something completely new and irrelevant (to my career).
I listened to the audiobook Homo Deus (which is excellent). I bought books on art theory, The Brain and Adam Kay’s hilarious This Is Going To Hurt, a book about his time as a junior doctor. I didn’t really know I had any interest (apart from curiosity) in science, art, doctors or the future of the human race. But it turns out I enjoyed all of them.
I’m now listening to an Stephen Fry’s Mythos as an audiobook with glee.
4. Put down the damn phone
I’m addicted. I think most of us are. I post stuff for work, justify checking my phone every twenty minutes to see how it’s doing. I scroll mindlessly through updates and content I don’t care about. After years of Facebook and Twitter (I don’t really do Instagram yet) I’ve shortened my attention span to the length of a snapped match.
For all the good social media does for connecting people, in my opinion it is terrible for your mental health (unless you’re strong enough to avoid its dopamine hit). Sometimes the easiest fix to stress or anxiety is to just stop. Emails will wait. Phone calls can be returned. Social media doesn’t actually need me 24 hours a day, every day – and even if it did, it can screw off.
3. Sunshine snooze
I might be alone in this but one of my favourite things to do on a sunny, dry day is to stop off in a park for a while. I just lay down with the sun beating down and relax. I fall into a kind of half-awake snooze. The sunshine keeps my thoughts positive and for a moment I turn off. If I’m having a full suit day I imagine some folks passing by might find it strange, but I’m in my element.
If you spend a lot of time in your head, this can help just organise all your messy thoughts into a clear picture.
2. Laughing out loud
One of my hobbies is a good laugh. Just putting a stand-up comedy DVD in the player or booking tickets to a comedy gig will get me smiling. When you spend a good hour and a half laughing at the world, it’s hard to feel all that bad about it.
Besides, I’m still convinced a series of belly laughs is keeping some of the wine fat off the abs.
1. Don’t forget about the good things
No matter how bad things get, there’s always the good. For me that’s my family and friends. If everything went the wrong way – professionally, or whatever – there’s people there for me, a safety net. There’s also tasty food, a warm bed, a walk in the park, a smile from someone you love.
Sometimes taking a moment to think about those things, it keeps you having many, many more good days than bad.