I’m sitting in a packed railway carriage en route to London on a Sunday evening after a full weekend of must-do chores: laundry, housework, mowing the lawn, digging the veg beds, collecting my son’s girlfriend from the station, cooking Sunday lunch for family and friends, paying bills and general household admin, editing an article and researching information for this column. Which I am now writing on my laptop on the train, in spite of the fact I have a banger of a headache.
What have I done for myself since I got home from work late on Friday night? I think you can guess the answer to that one.
Instead of slowing down in our fifties, our lives are as busy now as they were 20 years ago. Often even more so, as we accommodate extended families, high-powered jobs and portfolio careers, second homes and thriving social lives.
If you’re like me, you wouldn’t have it any other way. But can you see what’s wrong with the scenario above? It’s not a trick question, and it will explain the headache.
For a start, none of the chores are ‘must-do’. If I’ve had a busy week, I should be grown-up enough to cut myself some slack. Will the house fall down because I haven’t vacuumed it? Did I need to iron every item in the clean laundry pile?
The one ‘must-do’ thing in that list was the thing I am doing now: this article. If I’d given myself the ‘me’ time I needed, rather than ticking chores off the list, I would have had time to relax and enjoy some of the weekend. I could have had time to write this before I left home. Then I could have spent this journey reading the Sunday papers, or having a snooze.
The trouble with high achievers is that we extend our high standards to every area of our life, creating deadlines and stress that we might not recognise. That banger of a headache is my body crying out for some R&R time, even if my mind won’t permit it. It would be sensible if I learned to pay attention to such signs instead of pushing through regardless. And I am not alone in this masochistic behaviour.
Everyone experiences stress from time to time, young and old. It is normal to feel this way when the demands that are made on us are greater than our ability to cope. We’ve all felt overloaded, whether in our professional or personal lives. But if it’s your default position, that’s not healthy.
There are two types of stress. There’s the external type that comes from everyday life, including work, or unusual events. Then there are internal stressors, which can come from feelings of low self-esteem and unrealistic expectations or standards.
More than half of people in employment suffer from stress over the period of a year, a study for the International Stress Management Association revealed. And if you are one of those people with particularly high standards, there’s a name for it: clinical perfectionism.
Stress manifests itself in many ways. Disturbed sleep, muscle pain and tension, nervous ticks, headaches, dizziness, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, fatigue, a racing heartbeat, a dry mouth. Psychological symptoms include feelings of negativity, irritability and anxiety, loss of libido, concentration and of the ability to cope, a feeling of being alone.
If you think you need help, speak to your doctor about solutions. He might suggest a course of Cognitive Behavourial Therapy if your stress build-up is habit-formed, or another form of talking therapy if he feels the cause is more psychological.
Recognising that you are under stress – even if you are exerting it on yourself – is a crucial first step. Agreeing to cut yourself slack when you need it is a good second. And learning how to factor in ‘me’ time, using relaxation techniques, is a close third. It’s not rocket science, but it will make a hell of a difference, I guarantee. Now I just have to make sure that I, too, follow this advice!
My tips for alleviating stress:
Learn to relax. Take up yoga, running or gardening: endorphin-promoting activities that take your focus away from your stressed, overactive mind.
Take up meditation. Ten minutes a day can dramatically decrease your stress levels.
Learn deep breathing techniques. This will relax your muscles, lower your heart rate and clear your mind.
Look for the good things in life and the positive aspect of situations, instead of dwelling on the negative.
Take control. If you do nothing, your stress will get worse.
Manage your time. Work out your goals, and work towards them.
Learn a new skill. Setting yourself a new challenge builds confidence and makes you more resilient.
Learn to say no.
Phone a friend. Or see them face-to-face. But share your problems and don’t bottle up your emotions.