“I was a little excited but mostly blorft. “Blorft” is an adjective I just made up that means ‘Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.’ I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.”
― Tina Fey,
The other week was Mental Health Awareness Week and it gave me pause for thought. Depression and anxiety run in my family and while I’ve been fortunate to avoid a serious medical diagnosis, I’ve had my share of challenges over the years. I benefited from therapy in my teenage years and have been feeling the pull towards it again in my early 30s for a bit of a “tune up.” In the last decade I’ve graduated university in a recession, gotten married, supported myself as a freelancer, had a public and painful breakup with the faith community of my youth, moved countries, switched careers, and moved house three times.
While I look back on a decade that has been overwhelmingly positive in hindsight, going through all of this has been stressful and do you know what I’ve learned? I am shit at stress management, and stress has been at the root of a lot of my personal health issues over the years.
I mean, we’ve touched on this before, but let’s be honest. I am type A, the stereotypical smart kid in school who did not entirely enjoy the transition to adulthood where her past achievements meant little in the real world. I am a walking cliche. So, in the spirit of a bank holiday weekend, I decided to ruminate on this a bit.
While I’m healthier now than I was this time a couple of years ago, and god knows I’m much better than I was at the start of the last decade, I still have longstanding habits that have been with me for most of my life. For example, I bite and pick at my nails compulsively. My best remedy against this is to paint them frequently; I don’t know if it’s the visual cue to keep all ten matching or what but I seem more able to grow and maintain them when I’ve made them pretty. On the flip side, the moment one of them chips or flakes, I feel a powerful urge to peel the rest of the polish off. Sometimes this is unconscious but I’ve been known to end a stressful day, look down at my fingers, and find all my carefully applied polish picked off and scattered. It’s not a nice habit and I’m not proud of it. I also, in no particular order, enjoy bouts of stress-induced insomnia, stress eating, minor compulsive behaviors, and stress-induced migraines, most of which is due to poor work/life balance.
In addition to habits, I’ve also acquired less than ideal physical symptoms in periods of high stress. My hair has fallen out, my eczema has flared up into a rash across my neck and chest, and (most memorably) I had to be referred to a breast cancer clinic when I developed a lump in my breast tissue. It was only a swollen lymph node or cyst that resolved itself, but it was scary, and given some other health symptoms and challenges at the time, my doctor suggested stress was probably a contributing factor. Yikes.
A lot of the life changes I listed have happened in the last five years since moving to London and it is another cliche universally acknowledged that city life can be grinding. London, like most major cities, will chew you up and spit you out if you let it. It’s nothing personal, but as the lyrics of the song go, “London town, you can toughen up or get kicked around.”
I wish understood sooner how important an emotional and life skill the art of resilience was. I also wish I understood that sometimes life just throws you lemons for no good reason and no amount of smarts, hard work, or effort will spare you the stress that comes from a shitty situation. I could have saved myself a lot of angst (and steroid ointment for my throat…yikes again) if I had learned to rank stressors and how to prioritize my reactions and efforts to tackle them. It took me a couple of years to adjust to the style of a big city with a competitive work culture and learn to not treat every challenge or set back (personal or professional) as a five alarm fire.
What’s helped? Nothing groundbreaking, I’m afraid. Losing a fear of failure helped but that took experiencing some failures, which were not enjoyable. Forcing myself to adhere to smarter work practices made a difference, but I had to get the balance wrong for a long time to figure out what worked for me. Exercise, mindfulness practices, better food habits, and boundary setting have all helped me learn to manage stress better. But there are still gaps, I’m working on ’em.
Basically, adulting is hard and while I wouldn’t trade the past five years for anything, I wish I had gotten a hold of my stress management a lot sooner because I think I would have managed several situations and decisions much better. I wish I had connected dots better and learned to recognize unhealthy habits, people, and behaviors before they turned into problems.
How do you handle stress? Is it something you struggle with, or do you feel you mostly have a handle on managing and dealing with yours? Throw a girl some tips!