Too much anxiety can ruin your workouts, your looks — and your life. One MF writer faces his stress head-on and learns to stop worrying.
By Mark Bailey Photography by Danny Bird
I have a confession to make: at 5.48pm on Monday 6th August 2012, I called a grape the worst word in the English language.
I was sitting on a delayed train, exhausted after working through the third weekend in a row and my phone was buzzing with emails. After repeatedly trying
to stab the purple orb with a plastic fork, it squirmed out of my fruit bowl and onto the floor. At which point
I assaulted that grape with the vilest Anglo-Saxon insult possible. Then stamped on it.
This, sadly, was not an isolated incident. During an eight-hour bike ride — one of the worryingly compulsive training sessions I’ve found myself doing recently — a car driver yelled at me. My iPod drowned out his exact words, but I responded with a four-letter tirade that would have made a sailor blush. Only later did I realise I had dropped my water bottle. He had been trying to help me. And the absolute nadir came when, sitting on my bed at 2am and drained to the bone, I burst into tears. It was
a man-cry: no violins or drama, just
a sharp, 10-second, fingernails-raking-the-scalp release — grim, ugly and private, like bursting a pimple.
I didn’t reflect on this disturbing mental fissure but simply climbed under my doona and set my alarm
for 7am. I had work to do.
Irritability. Paranoia. Compulsive behaviour. Emotional outbursts. Perhaps I’m a secret psychopath about to snap. But I doubt it. I’m mild-mannered and happy by nature and have only felt this loony during a hellish past few months of work. I am slaving, by choice, for more than 60 hours a week. I’m suffering from chaotic, disjointed thoughts, poor concentration, fitful sleep and an obsessive addiction to exercise. I don’t socialise, date or relax because none of those things are work. To the outside world, I am
just busy. Inside, I’m screaming … I’m screaming at grapes.
I’m not alone. According to government figures, one in five people suffers from workplace stress, with a significant number becoming ill as a result. Statistics show that Australian employees work the longest hours in the world and psychological problems are behind an increasing number of visits to the GP. The furious pace of modern life doesn’t help: research by the University of Hertfordshire reveals we even walk 10 percent faster than we did 13 years ago, while Blackberry addiction has been labelled “similar to drugs” by Rutgers University in the US. According to a survey, a fifth of us check emails before we’re out of bed.
Stress is a physical or psychological reaction caused by a feeling of not being able to cope with the demands placed on you. Symptoms include tearfulness, anxiety, headaches, digestive problems, poor sleep, low libido, persistent illness and alcohol dependency. Research by University College London also showed stressed subjects had a 68 percent higher risk of developing heart disease. And stress can even make you stupid: a Yale University study showed it blocks formation of new nerve connections in the brain.
The irony is stress is a normal evolutionary response that simply doesn’t belong in today’s world.
“Our stress response today is exactly the same fight or flight reaction as our ancestors had when they encountered a sabre-toothed tiger in the jungle,” says Neil Shah, founder of the Stress Management Society (stress.org.uk). “Your brain registers danger and releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which change how your body functions: your heart rate rises, your breathing quickens, your muscles tighten and blood shifts from non-vital functions, such as your digestive or immune system. Your brain focuses on instinctive, simple, paranoid thoughts instead of rational thinking. This is nature preparing your body to escape danger, but we now use it when we encounter an annoying email, a bad driver or a late train. You only have to look at how
a raised pulse affects your heart health to see that this isn’t good.”
Men have particular issues with stress. “For many men, self-worth is dependent on performance and coping, so they’re less likely to do anything about stress,” says psychotherapist Juliet Carter (julietcarter.com). “It is in the essence of masculinity to be invulnerable and independent. But when you suffer from chronic stress, you get used to a state of hyperarousal.
“Basically, your ‘stress thermostat’ gets broken. Many people look for coping strategies such as overeating, overworking and drinking, or emotional strategies such as rage and weepiness.”
Like most men, I have soldiered on. But the cracks are starting to show. So I ask Shah to conduct a personal consultation. I fill in a questionnaire and it’s soon clear long work hours and poor relaxation are killing me.
“You are like a bridge that has too much load on it,” Shah says. “On this bridge, you’ve got cars, lorries and trucks. On top of that you’ve put a cruise ship and a couple of Boeing 747s. Soon you’re going to throw some tanks on. It’s about to collapse. But before it collapses, it will give us a clue — it will creak and groan.
“Your symptoms — irritability, racing thoughts, a compulsion to work and exercise — are those clues. You must remove the loads and strengthen the bridge.”
And if I don’t? “You will collapse. By that I mean you’ll have a heart attack or a nervous breakdown,” he says.
In the silence that follows this statement, it hits me hard. “You need to slow down or you’ll pay the price.”
To beat stress, you need to identify its causes. For some, it’s an unhappy relationship. For me, it’s work. As a freelance writer, I often work from 8am until the early hours and I find it hard to say no, for fear I will be perceived as unprofessional or clients won’t come back. That needs to change. Next time a request arrives, I explain I would need another week to complete the task. Eventually, I receive a response: “No problem, next week is fine.”
I wonder how much sleep I could have saved over recent few months with some honest communication.
I also need to tame my email addiction. Research by the Universities of Glasgow and Paisley showed 34 percent of workers were stressed out by email, which they checked, on average, 30-40 times per hour. A study by King’s College London showed that a person’s IQ dropped 10 points when they were distracted by email — that’s double the impact of smoking cannabis. So I decide to check emails just three times a day. Day one is a disaster. I pace around my office with worry. By day three, I realise the world
hasn’t ended and I relax.
Writing daily task lists also gives me a sense of mental control and I cut out noise pollution by wearing earplugs. A study in the British Journal Of Psychology showed productivity in open-plan offices was reduced by
66 percent due to distracting noises.
I try to relax. “Allow time for active non-doing,” Carter says. “Simply taking 10 minutes to press pause can help you control your thoughts and work more efficiently.” At first, I struggle. I book two t’ai chi classes but don’t go. Sitting at home listening to dodgy Tibetan meditation music on iTunes makes me angry.
I improve by day seven and I do feel more clarity of thought after my brief breaks but it’s not easy. “It is an active process and it gets easier,” Carter says.
So I call a friend and go to the pub. I start taking walks in the park. I sit in the sauna. These things have been slowly eroded from my life as unnecessary time-wasters but, as Shah says, they provide the daily “pockets of peace” that help us to relax and reflect. Carter also shows me the Alexander Technique, which is a way of sitting and standing that eliminates tension.
“We get into bad postural habits and that tension becomes ingrained,” she explains. “Learning to move without tension teaches you self-awareness and a capacity for stillness.”
As I practise this method, I’m shocked at how tense my muscles are and how my awareness and mental focus expand as I relax.
“Without relaxation time, you just aren’t functioning well, which is why you look so tired,” says Shah when I visit him.
Ah, yes. Because stress is intangible, you think nobody notices it. But in reality stress is making me look like death. So I book in for some pampering at my local day spa.
“Stress can lead to excess oil production and spots and a lack of sleep gives you dark eyes,” says spa therapist Liliana. I opt for a “Face and Body Sensation” treatment, which involves a revitalising facial and a relaxing massage with hot volcanic stones. At first, I feel self-indulgent but in the end it’s the most relaxed I’ve felt in months.
“Our clientele is about 45 percent male, so clearly more busy men are taking time out to unwind and look after themselves,” Liliana says.
To improve my sleep, I start a pre-bed routine. I read a book, have a hot shower and avoid stimulation from late-night work, TV or exercise. I thought my room was dark but on closer analysis I have five Terminator eyes glaring at me from various electronic devices, which I turn off. Researchers at Ohio State University showed hamsters that were subjected to light during sleep were more anxious and fatigued. With these changes, I start waking up feeling more refreshed.
To see if my diet is contributing to my stress, I visit expert nutritionist Petronella Ravenshear. “Our diets play a big part in triggering and relieving stress,” she says. “Lacking certain vitamins and minerals can make us less able to deal with stress.”
Analysis shows I am missing stress-busting magnesium, mood-balancing folic acid, energising vitamin D and irritation-calming vitamin B3. She also suggests I try DHA omega-3 supplements and Neuralactin Plus capsules to help maintain my nervous system.
It’s difficult to single out which of my stress-beating tactics are having the greatest effect, but I’m sure diet is crucial.
Have I beaten my stress? No. But I’m working at it and have committed to making enormous changes to my life.
On reflection, I’ve learned three valuable lessons. First, I have to make changes for the sake of my health, happiness and career. Second, there are lots of people who can help. And third, beating stress is a skill that needs to be practised, explored and developed.
“Work at relaxing like you’d work a muscle in the gym — with practice and new stimuli,” Shah says. “Beat it and you’ll be stronger, healthier, better equipped to support friends and family and sharper at your job. Ignore it and, whatever you pretend, you are likely to fail in your responsibilities as a man.”
ONE DAY TO LESS STRESS
YOUR 24-HOUR ACTION PLAN FOR REBUILDING SERENITY.
07:00 DRINK ORANGE
People who were given a public-speaking task were less stressed if they’d had vitamin C,
a German study found. Their blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol returned to normal more quickly too.
08:00 HIT THE GYM
According to the University of Bristol,
72 percent of employees who exercised on
a work day reported
more successful time management. A study at University of Missouri at Columbia suggested higher-intensity exercise was best.
11:00 PLUG IN YOUR IPOD
Listening to music lowers your stress levels at work and reduces your risk of the common cold, according to Wilkes University in
the US. One caveat: the study used music with 80-90bpm, so no power metal.
13:00 WALK IN THE PARK
Mental performance improved 20 percent after a walk in a tree-filled environment, University of Michigan research showed, while a Japanese study indicated it lowered cortisol, pulse rate and blood pressure.
15:00 HAVE A CHAT
Chewing the fat with colleagues helps to reduce stress, according to the University of California, so don’t feel guilty about debating your Fantasy Football transfers by the water cooler
18:00 HAVE A COLD BLAST
Wash away stress with chilly water. Research at Virginia Commonwealth University showed it stimulates the brain’s locus coeruleus, its main source of noradrenaline — thought to help overcome depression.
20:00 EAT SALMON
People who consumed omega-3 fats — which are found in oily fish such as salmon — showed a marked reduction in anxiety
in a study conducted by Ohio State University. It’s also good for your heart.
21:00 READ A BOOK
Just six minutes of reading is enough to reduce stress by two-thirds, according to the University of Sussex. People who read had
a slower heart rate and reduced muscle tension. If you stick to fiction, you’ll sleep easier.
22:00 TURN OFF TECH
Research by the University of Gothenburg showed that using phones, computers and TVs, particularly late at night, increased stress and reduced the sleep quality of young adults, so unplug for stress-busting sleep.