Get some tips on how to find a healthy balance if you struggle to relax.
I’m just back from a week’s leave. I’m being strict with myself this year about taking regular and frequent breaks. It’s been an interesting and useful experience; it was very much a conscious decision, and because a bit of me thinks it’s ‘self-indulgent’, I’ve been challenging that thought by talking about it – getting it out there to counteract any tendency to feel ashamed about it.
So many people I encounter – not just clients, but colleagues and friends too – find it difficult to prioritise time off. This has been the case especially in the last year where the usual ‘reasons’ for taking leave, many of which are connected to other people – visits to family, plans arranged with others, booked holidays – have been unavailable, leading to many people realising belatedly that it hasn’t occurred to them to take a break for a loooong time.
I feel a sense of responsibility to look after myself because of my work with clients; I use myself in my work, I owe it to my clients to offer value for money, and I’m less effective when I’m less healthy or emotionally unwell. This makes it ‘easier’ for me to take time off out of a sense of duty. That’s just the way it is for me; I’m a people-pleaser who worries about getting it wrong, and while I’m alert to that being a driver, changing it is an ongoing, slow process. In the meantime, if it encourages me to take time off, then I make the most of the result, without worrying too much about the initial impetus!
Exactly halfway through my leave I felt I had to make a significant decision – ‘how best to use my week off’. Essentially, having had the opportunity the day before to meet up with family for the first time in nearly 6 months, my attention up until then had been focused on that; and indeed, it WAS a highlight – being able to spend a few hours together eating, and walking, outside, filled me up. But after that, I had empty days in front of me and a sense of responsibility to not ‘waste’ them.
Of course, reality-checking after the event, I realise that the idea that there was a ‘right’ choice was a myth, and it was being faced with the emptiness of unplanned time that felt disorientating.
I was talking to someone a few days later who said they experienced a similar sense of pressure at weekends:
“During the week I’m just busy with work and eating and sleeping and recovering, then at the weekend I feel I have to make the most of it and often I end up not enjoying my time off because of thinking how else I could be spending it, and it’s almost a relief when Monday comes and I just slot back in to automatic work pattern.”
I’ve heard people say they need a week off just to get used to being on holiday, to let go of the feeling they should be ‘doing’, after which they can start actually enjoying it. But sometimes we only have a week, or even a few days (or a weekend).
And it can spiral into self-criticism too; for example I felt anxious about how to use my time off, then felt guilty for being bothered by such a first-world problem – ‘poor me, I’ve got a break’. It can sometimes take me a while to pull back, to recognise that yes, I am fortunate, and no, feeling guilty about it doesn’t make one jot of difference to people worse off than me, any more than enjoying it would.
So how to deal with that anxiety and fear of getting it wrong? For me, learning to tolerate that thought or feeling, rather than distracting myself from it by getting busy, has helped. I recognise it – not immediately, I’m not that expert – for what it is, a thought generated by my perfectionist tendencies, rather than an actual real-life risk. Being able to sit with it for a time helps it feel less urgent.
A few other things that I’ve found are useful:
1. Using my Focusing practice to sense bodily what I need.
You can read more about Focusing at How to ease coronavirus-related anxiety. ‘Clearing a space’ was a particularly useful exercise in my week off. Once I had settled inside myself I used the phrase ‘what’s stopping me feeling really fine right now’, seeing what appeared, acknowledging it and putting it aside. This is particularly helpful when there’s a few practical problems or life events that take up mental space. You can read about clearing a space here.
2. Giving myself options.
Sometimes ‘sensing into what I need’ can bring an urge to hide away or retreat. While hibernating is OK, I know from previous experience that connecting to the world by getting outside, getting moving, or being with people is often better at getting me ‘unstuck’, even if it feels like an effort initially. Sometimes it can be helpful to give myself options – ‘How do I feel about X? or Y?’ – and seeing what my gut response is. If I have a week off, making just one plan for something I usually enjoy takes some of the pressure off figuring it out.
3. Remembering that there’s no ONE right answer.
The reality is that whatever I feel I need, it has to fit in with life. Yes, it might sound great to be able to always follow my sense of what I need at any moment, but realistically it’ll be dependent on time, resources, other people, etc. So finding something that’s, say 60 – 70% good right now, rather than looking for the perfect answer, is fine. Good enough for now IS actually, sometimes, the perfect answer. I was talking to a friend who said:
“I had a few things I really wanted to do, things I like doing, but I felt like going back to bed. And when I was sitting in bed, I was thinking ‘Oh, I’m not doing x, y and z.’ And I had to remind myself that I WAS doing something else that I needed, by just being. But it took effort to do that.”
4. Noticing when I’m content!
When I can notice that I’m enjoying the moment, that’s really bloody useful. Because if I can do more of it (right now) then it’s fulfilling a need. That happened to me when I was sitting in the sun reading a book and – having finished my coffee – I thought ‘This is really nice. Oh, actually, I can carry on sitting here!’ It sounds so obvious, but it can be tricky to catch yourself at these moments – particularly if your pattern is that you can only do the thing that you LIKE once you’ve finished the task that you don’t (and it can lead you to NEVER getting round to the thing that you like).
5. Finding a balance.
On my week off, Covid restrictions at last allowed travel round Scotland. There was a temptation to rush around the place seeing people, to recharge my social battery. But one thing I’ve learned in recent years is that although I need people, I also need solitude. Someone told me recently:
“I’ve learned I need to consciously rest more to actively counteract those stress hormones…..I love lying cosied up with a book……and when I feel a bit sluggish or melancholy from that quiet time I know it’s time for a little activity”.
Most of us live such busy lives of doing that it’s no wonder we find it difficult to change gear and slow down. It’s also normal, as you get older, for transition from one thing to another to take longer – and that includes transition from one way of being to another.
It’s OK and normal for relaxing to not come naturally AND there are things that you can do to support yourself to let go a little. Although I’ve shared some of what works for me I’m really interested to hear if there are ideas or tips you have for how you help yourself relax.
The most important thing, I think, is that ANY relaxation is better than none. So if I can let go of ‘getting it right’ and allow it to be Just Good Enough For Now, that really helps. And if that letting go only lasts for half an hour, or a few moments, that’s OK, because that’s relaxation time I wouldn’t have otherwise.
When I want to escape to another world, I do it through reading. For that half-hour, I’m not in my own life anymore, I’m inhabiting a different world, where I really care deeply about the experience of someone else, where I feel their feelings, even becoming a different person.
I believe reading can change your life in different ways.
Throughout history, education has literally changed people’s lives, and there is a political and humanitarian argument for literacy being a right for that reason. While I completely subscribe to that (after all, restricting educational access to males, or to white people, has been a way of subjugating different parts of societies in order to keep power in the hands of the few)- what I’m talking about here is at a more individual level.
I grew up with my nose in a book. We didn’t have a telly in my house, a fact that I was resentful of at various points in my childhood. (If you want to know how to nurture a child’s belief that they’re the odd one out or will never belong, deprive them of the ability to engage in playground conversations about last night’s Grange Hill episode – I used to watch TV round at my best friend’s house, but Grange Hill came on just at the time when I had to go home for my tea.)
However, setting aside the injustices of my upbringing for a moment, what I did have plenty of was books. Apparently even before I learned to read, my parents would be woken up each morning by me calling from my cot “Light on and books!” I’m not sure I would describe reading as a favourite activity – it was, simply, an indelible part of my life.
When I grew up and left home for uni, then work, reading time was squeezed by the demands of adult life – and by my developing tendency to, at some level, believe that ‘unproductive’ time was self-indulgent. I wonder now if there’s some connection for me with reading being ‘lazy’ because it’s a sedentary activity. I still really enjoyed to read – but I wouldn’t let myself do it as much as I liked – I was always too busy.
I was well into my 30s when I started a bookgroup with a friend. Having to read a book a month, for that, encouraged me to make more time for reading. I think the logic probably went something like this: “Reading a book for bookgroup isn’t self-indulgent because I’m answerable to other people.” But I began to feel resentful that everything I was reading was chosen by others (we take it in turns to choose a book) and so that prompted me to carve out more time so that I could read what I wanted to read too.
My time was often constrained, especially when I started psychotherapy training alongside work – and transferred my ‘shoulds’ about productive behaviour to the self-expectation of reading books by therapy experts. But at least personal therapy, and psychotherapy training, helped me to recognise what a strong ‘Critical Parent’ lived in me – telling me what I ‘should’ be doing – and I gradually started to allow myself to trust my instincts into what I wanted – or needed – once more.
In recent years, reading has become a form of self-care, and I feel more connected to that little Lucy who liked to escape from the real world with a book.
One of the things I’ve appreciated about lockdown is that I’ve been able to indulge (that word again!) that love, because there’s not so much than I can do (regardless of whether I want to or not), and because so much of my work is screen-based, that looking at a page instead is a way of looking after myself physically as well as mentally.
The experience of recently ramping up my book-reading has prompted me to reflect on how I experience emotional benefits from it.
How is reading a form of self-care?
1. It can ease symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression
Reading a book that you can lose yourself in gives you a break from life. I don’t generally advocate distraction as a technique for managing anxiety or depression, as it can shore up a habit that if there are feelings that are too uncomfortable to deal with, they get ignored or suppressed, and however that might feel comfortable in the moment, those feelings don’t go away; they just get stored up.
Having said that, if you get into cycles of overthinking, ruminating, feeling anxious and trying to think your way out of it, interrupting that cycle can be helpful. The fight or flight hormones (that are running through your body as a result of some part of you panicking that it needs to do something to keep safe by ‘fixing a problem’) get a chance to dissipate. That allows your breathing to steady, your blood pressure to drop, your muscles to relax; there’s a physical as well as mental and emotional benefit.
Note – I’m recommending a book you can ‘lose yourself in’, that will allow you to switch off, so preferably one unrelated to the situation you’re worrying about or trying to fix. I know only too well that when my imposter syndrome kicks in, and part of me believes I’m not a good-enough therapist, I feel a pull to read ‘professional stuff’ – about techniques, or presenting problems or theory. That kind of reading has its place – but not here.
This is about taking care of your whole self, not about fixing the problem your busy brain is worrying away at.
2. It helps you make connections
There’s nothing like being immersed in another world to help me develop my empathy for what someone else, with a completely different life experience from me, might be feeling. The process of doing this by reading is different from that of watching a film because the brain engages and involves itself in a different way – for example, reading about riding a bike activates the parts of the brain that would be involved in riding a bike.
Even if you’ve never left your country or particular area of the world, you can visit other places through books and build your understanding, and that will help you connect to others – virtual travel broadening your mind. If you want a further stretch then reading in another language from that of your mother tongue can also help you shift your perspective, because the way that different languages behave shapes the way that people think.
Obviously this has potential to benefit others – if you meet people from different places and with different backgrounds from you, you’ve developed your intuition and empathy to respond to them – but there is also a benefit to you, because of the emotional experience of connecting more deeply.
You might make connections to experiences too, perhaps to something you didn’t notice you were missing. For example, I’m often drawn to books that are embedded in the landscape or nature and reading them benefits me in at least two ways; firstly, I get something of that experience of actually being in the place described, of feeling that awe or wonder or amazement; and secondly that they remind me to notice my environment when I’m outside, often at quite a small scale – they prompt me to rediscover the world around me and to really notice where I am right now, grounding me.
3. It improves your communication skills, helping you be heard and understood
Reading develops your language skills because it introduces you to different ways of expressing things you may experience around you, and to new vocabulary. Many languages – and certainly English – have a huge vocabulary providing potential for saying one thing in a myriad of very subtly different ways.
This isn’t just about ‘sounding more intelligent’(although I have had situations in my life where wielding words has helped me level a power dynamic) but also about being understood. If you can express yourself in different ways, it gives you more options when talking about difficult subjects, or when asking for what you want in your important relationships, and this can make a real difference to your ability to be clear about communicating your needs, setting boundaries and for saying No gently.
4. It can build and deepen relationships
As mentioned earlier, reading can be a way of connecting to others, but there’s another way that reading can develop relationships – through sharing your reading experience. That became important to me in the last few years when I moved away from the UK to live elsewhere for a while, and then, a year after returning, found myself in a different kind of isolation because of Covid 19 stay-at-home restrictions!
The book group I’ve been a part of for 15 years has been a precious lifeline over the last 4 – a steady mooring rooted in my diary when I’ve felt adrift and isolated. We’ve continued to meet and talk and argue and laugh via webcam when we haven’t been able to do it in person. (Obviously this would apply to many other types of groups as well as reading ones.)
Reading together with others has encouraged me to try and explore other worlds that I might not have done (even while complaining about being made to read about the real life drama of a college American football team, for example). It has given a focus away from the other struggles of life for a few hours a week. It has brought the joy of connecting through shared experience.
Our book group is the best in the world, which helps. Though I may be a bit biased.
5. It’s an overt message to yourself that you matter
Pausing to read a book is a commitment to yourself that you are important and deserve this time. It’s just not possible to read a book ‘busily’. (Actually, one member of my bookgroup, realising that they weren’t going to get the book finished on time, decided to listen to the audiobook at 4 x normal speed. They arrived at the meeting in a wide-eyed manic state having got quite a different sense of the book from the rest of us, and they didn’t recommend it as a relaxing activity.)
It’s one of the most common things I hear when friends say ‘Oh, I love reading, but I just don’t have the time’. I used to say it myself – especially while studying, when I would make time to read neuroscience tomes, but not to pick up a fantasy novel.
No one else is going to make that time for you. If you think you don’t have the time to read because that’s not ‘productive time’ – think again. Think of the longer-term benefits of allowing yourself to take a break, to do something that you enjoy, something that relaxes you, that slows you down.
6. It can teach you how to be healthier and happier
Personally, I very rarely read self-help books. Anything with a title that seems to be saying ‘This book will change your life’ is a definite turn-off (note to self: don’t title this blog ‘reading this will change your life’).
Having said that, I do read books to educate and ‘improve’ myself. Like many other white people, over the last year I’ve been reading more literature by Black authors on addressing my privilege and unconscious racism, and of course, that hasn’t been comfortable. But without building my tolerance to that discomfort, I can’t engage in the antiracist behaviour required to mend that disconnect between ‘thinking I’m a good person’ and ignoring the benefits I enjoy by living in a white-centred society – i.e. I see it as enabling me to become more true to who I think I am.
Lots of people find self-help books useful, either because of the practical steps that they introduce to doing things differently, or even because – as mentioned above – picking up a book that promises to improve your life sends a little message to yourself that you matter.
If you’re attracted to self-help books, but find that they don’t seem to bring the change that you want, it might be useful to reflect on whether the subconscious message you’re directing at yourself is ‘you’re not good enough and need to change’ rather than ‘I want you to be happier because you’re important’. See if reframing this shifts the sort of book you want to read!
7. It can take you on a voyage of self-discovery
In another form of self-help, I believe books can help you become more understanding of yourself and more aware of what you need. If you have a strong reaction when you read a book, taking some time to reflect on this can lead to you learning more about yourself.
What is it in this book that triggered that anger, or feeling of being overwhelmed with love, or despair, or feeling a bit lost, or defensive? Did something about one of the characters speak to something in you? Was it a sense of affinity that you felt with a particular event?
I sometimes find that a book that I didn’t feel I was particularly enjoying at the time of reading can stay with me for days or even weeks afterward, returning to my mind as if there’s some kind of message there that it has for me. I can be prompted to notice something that I’ve let go in my life, that feels missing or that I need more of, by my reaction to what I read. Even if I can’t pin my finger on exactly what it’s about, spending a little bit of time alongside that part in me that responds strongly feels therapeutic, as if it’s meeting a need of something that wants attention.
Reading tastes are so personal, and what some people find therapeutic, others may feel is just too much hard work. Here’s 7 books that do it for me in different ways.
A book (or series – the Winternight trilogy) that I really lose myself in, this story has the flavour of a Russian folk tale, with a very strong young female main character – who is only too aware of her own vulnerability. A fantastic illustration of resilience, set in a wonderful magic realist sweeping fantasy.
A book that has stuck with me long after reading, this novel is set during the real life events of the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in 1935, and tells the story of the women who fought in that war. It pushed me to read more about Ethiopian history as I realised how little I knew of one of the world’s oldest civilisations, and how much my perceptions of a country had been influenced by growing up in the 80s amidst white Western media depictions of famine victims.
One of my all-time favourites…….a novel, but also a poem to the land, and humans’ relationship to it. Every time I read this book I’m reminded of what it is to be human, and how imaginary and transient many of my worries, fixations and anxieties are. Books like this give me a way to talk about and develop my understanding of what really matters to me at my core. This book is an antidote to social media life of the 21st century.
This was almost unanimously popular (an unusual occurrence!) in my book group. Evaristo manages to succinctly capture on paper so many different lives, of mostly – though not entirely – Black British women. For me this was a fantastic combination of entertainment and exposure to lives different from mine, but also, in sharing our responses to the characters, and which ones we loved, a great book group read.
For escaping into new worlds, NK Jemisin, a science fiction / fantasy writer I’ve only recently discovered, takes some beating. (As a Black woman, she also challenges stereotypes of what a sci-fi writer ‘looks like’.) This book is set in a New York that is – and isn’t – just like the real one, and as well as having some full-on sci-fi concepts that take some bending your head around, is chock-full of strong female characters.
The closest I’ve got to self-help recently, Rewilding Yourself is a gentle book that brings you closer to nature. In a year when taking cruises to Alaska to see arctic wildlife hasn’t been an option (even for those who can bear to burn the fossil fuel to do it), this little book is a great introduction to becoming a small-scale David Attenborough in your own back garden or field.
Le Guin was an amazing writer – her Young Adult Earthsea books were a part of my growing up – and I recently discovered her adult fiction. I never read one of her books without being given pause for thought – about the assumptions we make about what is ‘normal’ or ‘real’ based on our experience, environment and upbringing. She deals with philosophical questions with a light touch. The Left Hand of Darkness – written in the 1960s – challenges concepts of sexuality and gender with a delicacy that is impressive 50 years later.
If you think you don’t like reading – perhaps you just need to give yourself more of a chance. Start with something that fills your soul. Read a love story, or a children’s book. A graphic novel (I’ve just finished the fantastic ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi, which tells her early life story, as a girl growing up in the Iran of the 1970s and 80s). When I need the reading equivalent of curling up under a blanket and hiding from the world, I read Joan Aiken’s children’s books, even now. Reading takes practice – but the rewards are so worth it!
It’s cheap, too, especially if you’ve got a library that is operational at the moment, or by making use of charity shops, or Betterworldbooks – although it’s also great to support authors by paying full whack for their labour, when you can afford it.
Of course, reading isn’t the only way of taking care of yourself! But it sure has benefits that can include learning more about yourself, giving yourself a break, connecting to others and building relationships.
If you’re a reader who struggles to prioritise time to read as much as you’d really really like to, I hope reading this may have helped you to recognise the longer-term benefits of doing what you love.
I’d love to hear what reading means to you, if you feel reading has a therapeutic benefit, and whether there are particular books you return to again and again.
And if reading isn’t enough, and you feel you could benefit from learning more about yourself through talking to someone, please get in touch here.
When is it OK for a therapist to talk about their pants? The answer is (I hope 🤔) right now!
Putting on my therapy pants!
My training was in Transactional Analysis. The ‘transaction’ is any interaction with another person, and one of the aspects that we ‘analyse’ is what ego state someone is in when they are interacting with someone else.
Too much jargon? Sorry. But ‘ego states’ is really shorthand for describing a way of being that is related to past experiences – and I love this model because it’s really easy to understand.
There are three ego states – Parent, Adult and Child. When you’re in Adult, you’re operating in the here and now; it’s a useful state for problem-solving and for managing day-to-day concerns.
Your Parent ego state is influenced by messages from your parents and other care-givers or important authority figures in your life. It’s the voice in your head that says “Don’t speak with your mouth full”, “Always put others before yourself” – and various other instructions and accepted wisdoms for getting on in life. Many of these help you get on and be accepted in society, but this voice can tip over into criticism and an internal voice that tells you you’re only OK if you’re keeping people happy, for example.
Your Parent can be nurturing as well, with messages like “You’ve overdone it this week, you’ll get overwhelmed if you see too many people” that can help you take care of yourself – but that can also tip over into “Don’t run! Don’t do anything spontaneous!”
Then your Child. Your Child often adapts to the Parent by responding to critical messages, and sometimes rebels by behaving badly, for example eating or drinking too much.
But you also have a Free Child somewhere in there. And this is the part that gets excited when it snows………..or enjoys swimming in the sea……or doing some kind of fun or joyful activity. For some people, this little guy doesn’t often get a look-in. It has its roots in a very young you, before all that conditioning and learning how to behave, and its focus is itself and what it wants. Selfish in a completely natural and positive way, it’s a vital part of your wellbeing!
“So what’s all this about your pants?”
(said nobody, as they’re relieved I’ve got off the topic).
WELL, I was reminded of the simple Parent Adult Child model the other day when I needed to buy some undies (long overdue because I hate shopping except when it’s for food). My internal conversation when I got into M&S went something like this:
🩲 I need new pants. (Adult)
Which ones do I normally get?
🩲 You won’t be able to bring them back. (Parent)
🩲 Oh dear, I’d better make the right choice. (Adapted
Why do they have to change anything ever? This is too hard!
🩲 Look at these red stripey ones! (Free
🩲 These ones look right. But where are they
made? Have they got plastic in them? (Adapted Child)
🩲 Perhaps I should try and get ones that are
comfortable for rowing in. (Nurturing Parent)
🩲 I’d better get it right or it’s a waste of
money if I can’t return them. (Adapted Child/Critical Parent)
🩲 Why don’t I try them on, there’s a fitting
room just here. (Adult)
🩲 OK, so which are the most ethical and also
comfortable and right for every possible occasion? (Parent)
🩲 Look at the stripey ones! I WANT THE STRIPEY
ONES! (Free Child)
Guess what? I bought the stripey ones. A daft illustration perhaps, but it gives a sense of how we can move between ego states from moment to moment – and it also shows how each state has their role to play.
People often assume when they first learn about this model that they should be in Adult all of the time. We’re adults, right? But actually, the reality is that our Adult is often contaminated by the Parent or Child getting in on the act and having a little battle with each other out of awareness. If you find yourself using the word ‘should’, there’s a good chance that you’re in Parent mode.
In the dialogue above, the Parent was, at least some of the time, concerned that I was going to be comfy in my new pants. That would certainly have been my mum’s driving message when she was buying pants for me when I was little, which I guess equates to ‘be sensible’ in my head.
The Free Child was reminding me that joy in simple things – red stripes
in this case – is OK.
So it’s not so much about it not being OK to be in our Parent or Child ego state, but it can be really helpful to increase our awareness of when we are being influenced by them – whether our response to something is based on the here and now or whether we’re being swayed by messages from our family history, or by beliefs of what keeps us safe from the imperfect logic we used to make sense of things in childhood.
One of my supervisors used to ask me – when I was feeling uncomfortable or unsettled about a choice I had to make “Are you making this decision from your Adult?” And that was really useful, because it would help me see that sometimes my decision-making was being influenced by a Parent-Child battle between ‘shoulds’ and beliefs of what I thought would ‘help people to like me’.
Much of the work of therapy is often about integrating these ego states into our Adult so that they can bring their own wisdom, experience and sense of fun into our day to day experiencing. When I’m working with clients, I’ll sometimes suggest that they pay attention to what’s going on in their body, as often this can tell us something about what their Child is wanting, or is afraid of.
And every day when I get dressed I smile when I pull out a pair of stripey pants. 🩲🩲🩲
Reference: Berne, E. Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy. New York, Grove Press 1961.
Searching online for ‘stress management’ brings up A LOT of advice and tips. Sometimes in itself that can be stress-inducing – “Oh bloody hell all the things I should be doing / need to do before I’ll feel better!” – which can add to the sense of pressure we feel.
My aim is to, first of all, reassure you that stress responses are normal – there isn’t anything wrong with you; and secondly, to remind you that you can do something about how you feel, and it’s OK to start small. You don’t need to get self-care right all the time. If you’re feeling stressed, the last thing you need is to think that there is yet another thing you have to fit into your day, or ‘get on top of’.
What is stress?
Well, it’s a bit hard to define because the word stress is used to describe both a cause and a symptom. People talk about being under stress, or feeling stressed, or having workplace stress. What I mean here by stress is the reactions that we have to what we perceive (consciously or unconsciously) as difficult or challenging situations or environments.
Stress symptoms are the body’s reaction to feeling threatened, when hormones are released that allow it to act so as to prevent getting hurt – the ‘fight/flight’ response. The heart rate increases, muscles tense ready for action, blood pressure rises (to get the blood where it needs to go), breathing speeds up. But there are very few situations in the modern world where we need to fight a bear or escape from a lion, so while a stress response causing you to slam on the brakes to stop hitting a bus is useful, a stress response to being asked to work an extra shift at work isn’t. Those tense muscles and racing heart become a problem when they can’t find an outlet.
What causes a stress reaction in one person may not affect another. Look at two people in one workplace doing the same job; one of them might not be able to sleep at night because of work stress; the other might be quite happy to go home at the end of the day and forget completely about work until 9am the next morning.
I’m not saying that if you feel stressed by work you’re
somehow to blame – after all, maybe you work for a shitty employer. Maybe you
work in a very pressured environment and there are lots of stressors around
you. Maybe there’s just a hell of a lot going on in your life. But – you can
cultivate a different attitude to most stressors. It doesn’t remove the pressures around you, but
crucially, it helps you feel better –
you’re alleviating stress.
Me and stress – old friends
What do I know about it? Well, I’ve a history of stress –
essentially workplace stress, I guess, though I never defined it. My feelings
of stress, as they built up, became intertwined with anxiety and depression,
and my typical pattern would be to withdraw when I felt under pressure. I felt
that contact with other people would prevent me from being able to hide that I
wasn’t coping and I needed to maintain control at all costs. ‘Coping’ is a key
word here; clearly I was coping – in
that I was still functioning day-to-day – but ‘coping’ wasn’t a happy place.
I would overthink things – trying to think myself out of a situation; I would distract myself thinking I might ‘forget’ how rubbish I felt; and I sort of lived in fear of the future, feeling that things could only get worse. Every now and then I would have a meltdown when the rigid keep-clinging-on-at-all-costs shell just couldn’t hold it in any longer, and that would give a brief relief until things started building up again.
The knowledge that other people, working in the same,
demanding, environment as me WEREN’T stressed didn’t help; understanding it was
my problem that I needed to do something about – no matter how supportively
expressed – added to my sense that I really wasn’t able to function properly as
How I de-stressed myself
So how did I change it? Various things – too many to remember. Some were small, but there was something about getting a little movement that started the ‘change’ ball rolling, until over time it gathered momentum.
I asked for help. I went to the doctor and got a
prescription for anti-depressants. To this day I don’t know how much of the
effect was the drug and how much the realisation that I could ask for help, but
my mood lifted enough that I was able to make use of a great CBT workshop with
a local community organisation, which helped me look at how my thought patterns
would get into a downward spiral – and how reflecting on these could help shift
me out of disaster mode. This worked for a while, and when I slipped back again
it didn’t take me as long to reach out – I’d done it before. I started to talk
to people about how I was feeling – even my family!
There were a couple of major events that happened in my life which jolted me enough to shift my priorities slightly – stressors in themselves, but they pushed me to check the reality of how much what I was stressing about really mattered. I was also lucky to have really solid support from my partner.
And then, longer-term, I was offered the opportunity of a counselling skills course and that pushed the ‘change ball’ onto a different path. Surprisingly, I found it OK that I had an extra thing in my week – because it shifted my focus slightly, and some of the other stuff began to look a bit smaller.
The greater understanding that I had of how I dealt with problems enabled me not only to make slight changes, but crucially my own therapy also helped me notice when I was giving it that double-whammy of beating myself up for beating myself up! Psychotherapy training is great for helping you understand the ‘why’, but in personal counselling I started to heal the anxious child within me, who made those decisions to protect me, and I supported them to make different ones.
It’s that which has enabled me to look after myself for no other reason than because I AM IMPORTANT. And even being able to write that in a blog is a sign of what a change there has been. I’m not going to pretend I never feel stressed now. But I recognise it and I take steps and I feel better sooner. I take some of the small steps that I’ve outlined below and in doing so it reinforces the commitment I’ve made to look after myself.
STOP right there!
It can be the hardest thing to STOP! To stop and take stock. Stress can produce a sense of an unstoppable hamster-wheel that speeds up and escalates and encourages you to believe that if you can only do MORE, run FASTER, work HARDER then you’ll feel more in control. But stopping really can help. If you’ve stopped long enough to read this blog: Well done! That’s a start!
The 10 stress management tips I’m sharing here are things which help me. I hope some of them may be useful for you.
Stress Tip No. 1: Manage your time gently
When you feel stressed you might have a sense that there’s just not enough time to get things done. But often we contribute to this by setting ourselves to-do lists that are simply unachievable in the misguided idea that we’ll get more done that way, and this adds to the sense of pressure.
The sense of achievement at having successfully met a goal can be energising, and the positive attitude gained from this leads to us being more ready for the next task. So, if you are a list person, write your normal to-do list. Then put aside HALF the items on it; given that you won’t have time to do them anyway, they can be moved to another day.
Then take ONE most important item from the list and focus on
that at your most productive time of day. For me, this is first thing in the
morning before coffee-time. For others it might be in the evening. But the most
important thing deserves your most attentive time.
If you still didn’t manage everything on your halved to-do
list – golly, you’re really putting
pressure on yourself. Try cutting it down further. Be a bit gentler with
yourself, huh? You’re only human.
Stress Tip No. 2: Practice saying No
This is a tough one for a lot of people. I get that, it’s
hard for me too. And it’s hard because most of us know that this is an
essential skill; when we say No we might feel guilty, when we don’t say No we
feel ‘bad at self-care’.
So I don’t want to dwell on the validity of saying No – that actually, only saying Yes to the things that we have time and inclination to do well is better both for us and the person asking us. Instead I’m suggesting that you notice what you could have said No to, and reflect on how you might say No next time, and that you start with the small stuff, those you feel ‘least guilty’ about. Saying No to small requests might feel it won’t make that much difference to your stress levels, but the important thing is getting yourself in the habit.
And when you say No, don’t make excuses why. At the very most just say “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t.” You don’t need excuses to look after yourself.
Stress Tip No. 3: Slow your breathing
Breathing deeply is beneficial for releasing stress, partly because the ‘fight or flight’ mode that we find we’re in if we’re stressed tenses everything up and we end up breathing high in the chest. However, taking deep belly breaths can be almost impossible for some people if they’ve got out of practice doing this, and it can actually be triggering for some people who have a history of trauma.
Instead, start by focusing on slowing your breath. Deep breathing can come later. Next time you’re feeling under pressure, stop for a moment. If necessary set an alarm on your phone for 5 minutes. You can afford 5 minutes.
Sit back in your chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in your lap.
Close your eyes, or look down at your hands.
Imagine yourself somewhere that you find peaceful or relaxing.
Breathe in for a count of four, then out for a count of four.
Notice the feeling of the breath moving in through the nose and out through the mouth.
If you find your mind drifting to your to-do list, just notice that, and say “Yep, I know you’re there” and then bring it back to that peaceful place.
Stress Tip No. 4: Drink water
Dehydration can increase levels of cortisol (the stress
hormone). Essentially dehydration is stressful for the body because it’s
deprived of what it needs to function well. Dehydration affects the flow of
blood to the brain which can lead to feeling fatigued. Sometimes we can also
mistake hunger for thirst – so if you feel like you need a snack to keep going,
take a drink of water first.
Perhaps you forget to stop long enough in your busy day to even notice that you’re thirsty. So before you settle down to work, get yourself a big glass of water and put it somewhere within your line of vision. That way you’re more likely to notice it’s there. If you work on the run, take a bottle and set an alarm on your phone to remind you to take a drink. Even stopping for the few seconds it takes to reach out and take a sip will shift your body position slightly, which is good too.
Stress Tip No. 5: Reflect on what you ‘need’ rather than what you ‘should’
What do I mean by this? Well, one of the things that we can put ourselves under pressure with, is all the things we think we should be doing. I look out for that word ‘should’, because it’s a real signal that someone is self-critical and has high expectations of themselves. Next time you think to yourself “I should be doing X”, reword it to “I COULD be doing X” – this way there’s less of a burden on you.
Then ask yourself if you WANT to do it. Ditch one ‘should’ from your week and add one thing that you enjoy – whether that be spending time alone, or spending time with people – whatever you need. Trust your instinct and if you hear a little voice saying you’re being selfish, say “I hear that you think I’m being selfish and that makes you feel anxious. Right now I’m looking after myself.” Because you are.
Stress Tip No. 6: Take a walk
The symptoms of stress are a flight or fight response which
is geared towards activity – preparing you to run away or to defend yourself.
Often people find that a really good workout after a stressful day can release
a lot of the tension they were feeling.
The thing is, we can get caught up in what we’re constantly being told about optimum levels of exercise. All I want to say here is “A little is better than none”. If you keep telling yourself you ‘should’ join a gym or go to Zumba classes but you just don’t know where to fit it in, you’re piling more pressure on yourself. Instead, start by fitting a 5 minute walk into your day. 5 minutes after your lunch or after a particularly difficult phone call. You’ve got time to do that. You can build it up from there, but with that 5 minutes you’ve made an active decision to look after yourself. Well done!
Stress Tip No. 7: Cushion your day
Create a buffer around your day by detaching from your phone
for 30 minutes at the start and end of your day. Is the first thing you do on
waking up check your phone? When your mind and body are still coming to, you
are more open and vulnerable, and seeing upsetting news stories, or being
reminded of family politics, can affect you more deeply.
Being constantly connected can add to that a feeling of time
pressure, that you need to ‘keep up with things’ – but ask yourself, what you
are checking your phone FOR? Think about ways that you can take care of
yourself without resource to the outside world. Perhaps you could start your
day with a 5-minute meditation. Or read a book with your breakfast. It’s OK to
protect yourself at your most vulnerable times.
Stress Tip No. 8: Do things that make you laugh
Laughter can help you relax; a big belly laugh gets the whole body moving, can dissipate some of those accumulated stress hormones and relieve tension. Laughter has many physical and mental benefits and is a way of strengthening connections with other people
Watch a silly film or TV programme. Reconnect with someone who makes you laugh. Even just pretending to smile and laugh has been proven to have health benefits – why not try that right now?
Stress Tip No. 9: Focus
Inner Relationship Focusing is a practice that can help you manage your stress levels. It encourages you to pay attention to uncomfortable feelings rather than trying to change them and it’s surprising how that alternative to trying to push a feeling away can really bring a change in itself.
As an example, imagine you’re feeling a tightness across
your chest as you worry about getting a piece of work finished. You try and
ignore it because you need to get on with that bit of work! Instead, you can
sit and pay attention to that tight feeling and develop a relationship with it.
You get a sense of what it’s trying to tell you (this feeling might be
associated with something you internalised as a child on having to get things
done or working hard). And because you’ve ‘listened’ to it, it relaxes a little
and lets you carry on with what you’re doing in a less stressed way. There are
similar practices and methods; Focusing is one that works for me and you can
teach yourself to do it with free resources (see the end of this article).
Stress Tip No. 10: Find a therapist
OK, you got me – therapy isn’t a quick 5-minute stress tip. But you can spare 5 minutes to look for one! Speaking to someone unconnected with the rest of your world can be really beneficial to get an understanding of why you are feeling so stressed – and what you discover might surprise you.
There may be good reasons that you are feeling stressed, especially
if you’ve had a number of changes in your life in a short space of time, and a
counsellor can support you to recognise that what you’re feeling is normal and
On the other hand, often we look for reasons outside us to blame our feelings of stress on, and while there can be all sorts of very real external factors that contribute to why we feel under pressure, actually working on how we manage our response to these is more helpful in the long run. And we can take control of our own behaviour and responses – whereas we can’t always control what goes on around us.
When counselling, I often encourage people to focus on what
they are doing well rather than what they’re not doing, and to consider how they can be kind to themselves,
which can then resource them better to deal with the strains of everyday
living. Get in touch with me if you want to find out more.
These are just some suggestions for managing feelings of stress. There are plenty of others and there are additional references and sources of information below. But start small; if you give yourself the target of a major life change to ‘escape’ stress, you may be setting yourself up for failure.
Remember – stress reactions don’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. But if you don’t pay attention to them they can take over your life and drain it of its colour. While external factors contribute, stress responses are an internal process, and you can make choices to do things differently and take more control. You will sometimes slip back – and that’s OK, because if you’ve made changes once, you can do it again, and practice helps you get better at it.
This week I’ve been fighting a bug. (You don’t need to feel
sorry for me, I’m doing a great job at that.) As I decided each day whether to
go ahead with client appointments I’ve been reflecting on what was The Best
Thing To Do – for me and for my clients. Never an easy one to figure out, this
is even less clearcut with online work when the factor of “Is it in the best
interest of my clients to be infected with my snotty bug?” is removed. And I
don’t have the additional effort of hauling myself through the cold to a rented
room in the city.
I’ve been remembering an article I read when I first started working with clients (alas, I can’t remember the reference) which spoke of the ethical requirements of self-care. That as therapists we have a professional obligation to look after ourselves so that we are in the best possible position to look after others. At the time I read it this was gold for me; if I had a duty to look after myself it meant that I would do it, as I could circumnavigate the internal messages that told me I was being self-indulgent by doing so. possible.
The downside of my interpretation of this requirement is that my tendency to ‘do things right’ then kicks in, in the area of self-care, too; I find myself asking myself if I’m short-changing clients by working when I’m not 100% in peak physical and mental condition (i.e. coming down with a cold). That battles against the belief that my clients need me, that I’m letting them down by cancelling. (As counsellors we sometimes forget that our clients continue to live and function pretty well the other 167 hours of the week that we’re not with them.)
I’m sure my perspective is skewed by being inside the therapy world, but sometimes it feels to me that counsellors are particularly demanding of themselves and each other in the need to do things right. Counselling attracts people who care, who want to do well for others, who want to ‘make people happy’. But sometimes we can be blinded to the value of making mistakes, of having to make a judgment call in a fuzzy situation. Black and white decision making is so much easier!
Self-care isn’t all chocolate cake and scented candles (as
pointed out in an article I shared a month or two ago). In this context – of
whether or not to cancel appointments – it’s not all about feeling sorry for
myself and curling up under a blanket. Even where I may have felt anxious in
anticipation, often I feel energised after a client appointment – something
about being so focused on the client, about the privilege of sharing their
world, about the magic that happens in therapy. Is depriving myself of that
feeling self-care? The total focus that I bring to a counselling session means
that sometimes I feel as I’m ‘coming back into the world’ afterwards. It’s
therefore an opportunity for me to be centred on something other than feeling
under-the-weather – surely a form of self-care?
And as therapists we often feel uncomfortable talking about
the reality that our work is also our livelihood – we don’t like the idea that
we’re charging people a fee for ‘being nice to them’. (NB: GuthrieTherapy
recently helpfully reframed this as “therapists are people you pay to teach you
how to care for yourself”.) We need to make a living, and I would be dishonest
pretending that potential loss of earnings isn’t a factor – financial survival
is self-care too. There’s a practical business aspect to this though: we need
to be good enough therapists otherwise our clients won’t come back. If we’re
putting ourselves under pressure or making a habit of working when we’re not up
to it, that won’t help the bottom line.
All of the above comes with the caveat that we need to not push ourselves to extremes – either of overwork or of self-care! As an example; today I felt I was functioning at 85%; I went ahead with the appointment; I did feel I had more energy afterwards but I knew also that I had recovery time, a buffer of a few hours before the next client.
I have worked in jobs where I would go in when I was feeling rubbish – ‘presenteeism’ we called it in the HR world – because there was stuff that I could do that took less of my energy, and because I felt I had to look like I was keen. I’ve also worked in jobs where I really needed to be 100% fit to cope with the demand of the role. Being self-employed the only person I’m fooling is myself and I just need to make a judgment and make the best of the situation.
As a therapist part of my work is modelling behaviour to the
clients I work with. What am I modelling if I feel like shit and go to work
anyway for the sake of my client? That the other person is always more
important than the self, that I have to rescue them? Instead I need to check
each day as it comes with the information that I have; am I fit enough to work?
And check at the end of the day; was I a good-enough counsellor? If some days I
decide I would have been better taking the day off, that’s information for the
future. And that way I’m modelling what it is to be human, that there are very
few black and white decisions and that being human is good enough.
***As a footnote: the week after I wrote this, the bug really kicked in, totally flooring me. At one point I started to wonder if I would ever be well again. This was a good reality-check to my musings; there was no way I could have worked in that state – I could barely even think, let alone ‘focus on my client’. It was a reminder that sometimes there are black and white decisions!