When stress gets out of hand, it can feel as if the stressful times will never end. How do you deal with stress?
“When I’m asked by mini-pupils what life at the Bar is like, I tend to say it’s like doing university finals forever. Remember how stress-free they were?”
These words were tweeted by my friend Seán Jones KC (formerly QC, but recent monarchical goings and comings have forced a change of initial), talking about the state of perma-stress that awaits those who would seek to pursue a legal career. They form part of an excellent May 2020 Twitter thread in which Seán shares his personal insights on mental health at the Bar.
Not all of us will find ourselves in a life in which states of extreme stress are all but constant. But into every life more than a little stress will fall. It is a racing certainty that every one of us will at times feel overwhelmed by extreme stress.
Indeed, there will be points in your life when stress will hit you with such repeated and sustained ferocity that everything seems to narrow down to a perpetual present moment of awfulness. The feeling that you are stuck in something akin to “university finals forever” can seem all too real.
It is vitally important to be able to recognise and put a name to these times of extreme stress, and if necessary to seek help to get through them. There are also things that you can do to help yourself through these times.
The stress snowball
In times of crisis, circumstances conspire to work against clear and calm thought. Yet – with bitter irony – clear and calm thought is what is most needed in these situations. When stress is heightened, everything presses down on your mind all at once, everything becomes an imperative, something on which you must act, and act now. No time to weigh up choices or carefully form strategic alliances. Decisions demand that they be made and implemented immediately, before being promptly replaced by the next challenge, the next urgent decision, the next life-or-death moment (or, if you are fortunate, the next moment that merely feels like life or death).
But just because the pressing challenge of a moment ago has been shunted out of the way by a new one, it does not mean that the stress generated by that last challenge is gone for good. Just as a snowball grows as it rolls downhill, so the weight and mass of stress can build in the mind with each successive challenge.
Lingering in discomfort
It is a difficult lesson to learn – and harder still to put into practice – but if and when stress and anxiety become a constant companion, you must find a way to live with them, to flourish in spite of them. As I wrote in Into the infinity of thoughts,* a place away from the all this stress is always available to you:
“At the same time, below it all and further back in the depths of the mind, a slower, eternally patient consciousness is always there. Away from the frenetic focus on the immediate moment, the currents of thought here are guided by a deeper set of values and of truths. In times of peaks stress, moving away from the mind’s surface state can be challenging in the extreme. It might seem impossible. But it is not.”
For each of us, there exists a way to make this seemingly impossible accommodation with stress possible.
Everyone’s experience of stress will be different. It follows that everyone will have a different way of learning to deal or to live with stress. But a common thread through the wide variety of ways to do this is to find a way to lose yourself in the moment.
My friend Dr Steve Marshall, for example, wrote wonderfully a few months ago about the transcendent release he finds in cycling:
“Many of us do it: cyclists, runners, walkers, climbers, swimmers; we find a place of embodied relaxation that shifts consciousness. A moment when the psychic clock of modernism pauses and time opens up to a more direct experience of self and surroundings. There are no distractions, no work demands, no shopping lists.”
For me, yoga can open this place of embodied relaxation and provide a way to combat stress. My wife encouraged me to give YouTube yoga videos a try six years ago. As I wrote three years into my yoga journey:
“I am not a natural yogi. I will never be a good yogi. I am physically uncoordinated. I did terribly in PE classes at school. I am way too self-conscious to join a gym or to sign up for yoga classes. And that is perfectly OK.”
Without either meaning to or realising, through doing yoga on a daily basis all these years, I have found that I can now do intermediate yoga routines. Earlier this month, I tried a great video on the Yoga with Kassandra channel, which speaks directly to how specific forms of yoga can help process and move past stresses or other things that do not serve you.
This is a tapas yoga practice, tapas in this case meaning “to burn”. I don’t know if I could describe tapas yoga as enjoyable. Rather, it is about moving through difficult, often uncomfortable poses as a way of achieving mental clarity. Kassandra says:
“Tapas is the niyama of austerity. Stoking the inner fire as a form of purification, as a way to clarify what is true, what is important and what is real to us. Dropping the excess. Letting go of the clutter.”
At the end, Kassandra describes how and why this challenging routine can help burn off that which is not of use to you:
“Really feel what this has shifted, the effects of this work, what came up for you throughout this practice. I find there’s so much we can learn about ourselves when we challenge ourselves in this way. Kind of lingering in discomfort. It’s not easy, but we can really grow from it in meaningful ways.”
Lingering in discomfort with deliberate focus and discipline can help you move through and past things that cause you discomfort in other areas of your life.
Always a way through
When life becomes all stress – like university finals forever – all is not lost. There is a way through this moment. Even if the difficulty of this moment makes it feel insurmountable, eternal. Coping with the stresses and challenges of the moment may seem impossible. But there will always be a way through. That way through may require you to dig deep and find something inside yourself that you never knew was there. It may require that you seek assistance from others. It may be a mix of both.
But there is always a way through.
If you find yourself in a moment of crisis and feel as though you cannot cope, please never allow yourself to suffer alone or in silence. Let others know that you need help.
It is very likely that – at the very least – there will be a way for you to learn to accommodate and manage stress and related anxiety. That you will be able to flourish in spite of it.
There is a path through all of this. I believe that you can and will find it.
May you be nothing but kind today, to others and to yourself.
May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.
- Mental health (NHS) Information and support for your mental health from the NHS.
- Information and support (Mind) Resources from Mind, the UK mental health charity.
- NAMI Homefront (NAMI) Online resources from US charity NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
- SANE Australia Visit the site of this “national mental health charity making a real difference in the lives of people affected by complex mental health issues”.
* I have found myself embarked on an ongoing mental health journey since the start of this year. I have tried my best to write with openness and honesty about each stage of this journey. You can follow the winding course of this journey to date in the following posts: Into the infinity of thoughts; Renewal; and No words?; Mental health first response; Glorify; In our darkest hours; and At the heart of things; No feeling is final; Relax harder.; and Anxiety: Your own worst enemy; All these moments; Mental health: Six things I’ve learnt in 2022; and Coping?