How I Handle Stress (Spoilers: Poorly)

“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, Bossypants

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’m not great at relaxing.

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!

6 thoughts on “How I Handle Stress (Spoilers: Poorly)”

  1. oooohhhh. I hear you.

    I just got a lousy bit of medical news — and have instantly adopted my mother’s MO (who has survived multiple cancers) DENIAL! (albeit seeing MDs of course.) I’ve been watching a lot of TV and movies, playing cards, reading catalogs and shopping online. In short, a lot of distraction. I have also deliberately reached out to a network of friends, local and distant, for support.

    But it’s tough. I’m pretty private normally.

    Like you, I’ve survived periods of almost insane stress — lots of moving, starting over in a new country where no one knew me or my skills, divorce, etc. Friendship has always been a huge source of comfort and support. So has vigorous consistent exercise to burn off a lot of anxiety and fear (also healthy!)

    The year I turned 20 brought a perfect storm of stress right around my birthday: 1) anti-anxiety meds; 2) daily vigorous exercise; 3) friendship got me through it.

    I do know that setting very high standards for oneself (in itself admirable) is key to stress — a pal here, listening to me lament a stalled book proposal, said (lovingly but exasperated) “Your problem is you’re used to being successful.” Well, yeah.

    Others’ social media bragging 24/7 + new country + new culture + not having deep social/professional networks + competitive city = SHRIEK. In NYC, every writer’s dog’s fleas has 17 books and an MFA and a slew of prestigious prizes and fellowships AND they all went to the same prep and Ivy League schools. If I focused on what I lack while competing with all of them, I’d perish.

    You have tremendous resilience and strength. Staying focused on that is half the battle, I think. HUGS to you!

    1. Hugs right back. Like you if I compared myself to either the hereditary privileged or the self made success stories London surrounds me with, I’d never pick myself up off the floor. Learning to focus on enjoying the ride while I hustle has helped orient me in a much more sustainable way. Best wishes for the health situation and I won’t comment more than to say Brooklyn Nine-Nine is worth a TV spiral if you need some feel good entertainment right now. Hugs again.

      1. Thanks!!

        Yes, always keep the aviation metaphor handy — you and I have faced/braved/surmounted some serious personal and professional headwinds. Others (privilege, nationality, gender, etc) have tremendous tailwinds speeding their progress.

        Sadly, both are often invisible — so we can end up blaming ourselves or people with whom we don’t share this can make negative assumptions about us.

  2. That’s a lot of changes! A therapist once told me that even positive changes can be very stressful if they happen all at once. Glad you’ve now felt like things are “coming around” the way they should. 🙂

    I think our stories have a lot of similarities, but some differences too – for me it’s been a divorce, a move from Utah to NYC and working, leaving Mormonism (which is a huge thing just in and of itself honestly), a painful breakup, another move to Scotland, getting a masters during the recession, move back to Utah into my parents house and working, and finally moving to London, and working the most stressful and demanding job of my life (trainee accountant at a Big 4, both a huge opportunity and a huge challenge!).

    Even though I’m extremely grateful for all of that and wouldn’t change it even if I could, physical effects of the stress have similarly included depression, bad habitual eating patterns and a nice dose of psoriasis and some hair loss (TMI?)… but as for right now I’m in the best place mentally that I have been in ten years, or maybe ever; it feels like things are finally starting to settle down.

    Therapy has helped a TON, as have a few key friendships, and the right ointments/shampoos (ugh). Now I really can’t wait to graduate this job and have a better work/life balance – more conducive to taking care of my physical and mental health. (And looking forward to enjoying London more once I have time and some money, haha.)

    1. Barring some specifics, I think you and I have some similar journey points, right down to hair loss. And Jeff would commiserate with you about the Big Four positives and negatives! I WISH I could do a better job of explaining the impact of leaving mormonism, on others generally and me personally. That journey took a decade of my life, three years of which were so intensely personal and painful that I don’t hesitate to classify it as emotional trauma. It impacted everything: family and friendships, my marriage in certain ways, my mental health–which in turn meant my physical health and work life…everything. I significantly mis-estimated the time it would take me and others to process that decision. Nearly three years on from it I’m in such a good place and I credit a significant portion of that to leaving the church…but it was a hard choice with real consequences that I had to get through to arrive on the other side. UGH.

      Here is to making it enough to enjoy London just a little bit more! That feels like a goddamn victory to me!

      1. Cheers to that! (I repressed the urge to say “amen” initially, haha)

        Yeah I’ve heard others also say the aftermath of leaving the church (in a few cases also other religions/ beliefs that could be described as fanatical) was traumatic, and I totally believe it. I don’t think there really is a good way to describe what it’s like to extricate oneself from something that was so intricately woven into literally every aspect of a person’s life. Unless they’ve gone through it themselves it’s hard to understand.

        It’s been about 7 years for me, and think my biggest lingering challenge has just been undoing all of the twisted thought patterns about where our worth as people – as a woman – really comes from and what I can/should expect from relationships, and from myself. It still takes me by surprise sometimes.

        But hey we did make it, I’m glad we’re still young and have the rest of our lives to live and enjoy the way we should 🙂 Cheers to a better now and a better future 🙂

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