Some thoughts about managing long term stress
Over the last month or so, I have sensed the increasingly debilitating impact of a build up of stress and fatigue. A mush of indefinable emotional silt, gradually clogging the system. Then someone asked me if I was keeping emotionally up to date with myself and it didn’t take me long to realise that the answer was no. I had definitely not been keeping emotionally up to date with myself. And that’s probably why I’ve been feeling a bit grim. As I’ve continued to reflect, it has struck me that within this question there is a kernal of hope. And some interesting clues about the differences between managing long term and short term stress. Let me explain.
The last few years have been really tricky, but towards the end of last year, I was starting to find a new optimism and energy. Why? Well, because I had very good reasons to believe that the pressure was going to ease off a bit in the new year and there would be time and space for new things. It was like I was on a long walk and I had been slogging up a particularly steep hill, but the top was in sight and the ground was about to level off. Except it hasn’t quite worked out like that.
If you’ve done much hill walking you’ll know that some hills have false summits. Moments when you think you’re about to get to the top, but then when you get to where you think the top is, the view changes and you realise that there is a whole lot more hill to climb. Well, this has been one of those moments. January saw a resurgence of a whole pile of stress that I thought I’d seen the back of. The light at the end of the tunnel has dimmed considerably and all my frenetic attempts over the last three months or so to find a way of turning the lights back on again, have so far been firmly thwarted.
And now I’m emotionally weary and all out of optimism. What I am rapidly realising is that I need to get a smarter about how I understand and manage my stress. In an attempt to do that, I am starting to unpick a few things that have all been in a big blob inside my head. For starters, I need to remember again that there is a big difference between managing long term and short term stress. If stress is short term, you can dig deep, throw all your energy at the problem, sort the thing out and then stop and recover. That can be really rewarding. Enjoyable even. If you’re nearly at the top of the hill, you don’t have to worry too much about getting out of breath. You can give it all you’ve got, because the top is a perfect place to stop and catch your breath and admire the view. Mistime your dash to the top, and you find yourself out of steam with a whole lot more hill to climb.
It’s a lot like the difference between sprinting and long distance running. If you’re sprinting really fast, your lungs can’t provide all the oxygen your muscles need. But you can find some extra energy by burning glucose anaerobically. It’s not very efficient and it produces toxins that your body will need to process as soon as you stop running, but it will do the job if you’re running a 100 metre race or you need to catch a bus. For a long distance run, you need to pace yourself so that you’re not building up toxins in your muscles and you’re getting your energy from longer term food stores and not just a quick fix from the glucose in your bloodstream. You can sprint to the finish at the end of your half-marathon if you like, but you’re really not going to thank yourself for indulging in a random sprint in mile six. Over the years, I’ve gradually got better at managing long term stress and emotional demands. I’ve got better at making sure I’m refuelling and doing some emotional detoxing as I go along.
But what happened in January is that I suddenly swapped tactics without really noticing what I’d done. I thought I was getting near the end of the stress, when actually I wasn’t. And instead of taking a breather and giving myself some space to process the fact that things had got difficult again, I went into problem solving mode. Over the coming weeks, I put a lot of energy into a series of attempts to change the situation. Thinking, planning, hoping, taking action, not succeeding, starting again. It’s only now that I’ve exhausted my current supply of good ideas to try and dashed hopefully towards a whole load of false summits, that I realise that my problem solving has completely distracted me from the fact that my levels of emotional exhaustion have been slowing creeping up and up and I haven’t done anything about it.
It’s not that problem solving is a bad thing. If there are problems to be solved, it’s a jolly good thing to do something about solving them if you can. But solving problems and processing emotions are not the same thing. In fact, problem solving is also a really good way of distracting yourself from the fact that you might be in a difficult situation that you’re currently powerless to change. And coming to terms with that state of affairs is going to require a bit of emotional processing.
Of course, problem solving brings with it its own demands and stresses that need accounting for. Particularly when it requires negotiations and initiating difficult conversations. Because I have seen ‘sorting things out’ as the positive thing that will end the stress, I have forgotten this fact.
All in all, it’s not really a surprise that right now, I find myself with a bit of an emotional backlog. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about difficult emotions in the last few years it’s that they don’t generally take the hint and go away if you ignore them. Instead, they sit in the corner passively aggressively sulking, making themselves less and less pleasant to be around. They want a bit of TLC, a kindly space where they can dance their dance and say what they want to say and then they’re generally happy to be on their way, taking their energy sapping negativity with them.
Keeping up to date with our emotions, giving them some space, allowing them to work themselves through, although not always an attractive prospect, is entirely doable. That’s why the question: ‘Are you keeping emotionally up to date with yourself?’ gives me hope. I can’t eliminate the things that are causing the stress. That’s not currently in my power to do. But I can take care of myself on the journey. And I don’t need to wait until I get to the top of the hill to stop, take a breather, crack open a flask of tea and admire the view. Catherine Cowell
This post was first published in Catherine's blog on Medium