Mental health issues will effect 1 in 4 of us each year, with 1 in 6 reporting common mental health issues each week. Almost 7000 people committed suicide in 2018. Men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. For every person who commits suicide there are twenty who have attempted it. This article explains one person’s (me) experiences in order to share knowledge and debunk misconception.
I’ve achieved many things in my life. I’ve had a long, continuous and successful career. I have a wonderful family and own my home. I’ve climbed mountains, instructed martial arts, experienced live music, and travelled. I have fond memories of my childhood, brought up by my parents whom never divorced in a comfortable but not well off home.
I’ve always felt I’m mentally tough with a good equilibrium and positive energy in life.
Despite all of that I have struggled significantly twice with poor mental health. First when I was 17 for a year, and right now, over 20 years later.
What is Stress?
Stress, noun, “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”. Simply put, any situation outside of the norm.
For me it feels like an energy inside me that I can’t release.
Stress is Relative and Cumulative
We are all built, have learned, or been trained to cope with certain stressful events and situations. What stress tests one person, is like water off a ducks back to someone else. This is because we all live unique lives where different things matter to us depending on who we are.
This means one persons over-powering stress is no better or worse than the next person’s.
For example, I’m a fairly solitary person. I enjoy being with friends having a good time, and my family, but I won’t completely relax unless I’m on my own. So, not being able to get that alone time for me is a sure fire way of not properly lowering my stress levels. The flip side is if I spend too much time on my own I begin to get a little depressed.
One of my biggest triggers is not being able to do something properly. For anyone who’s watched “The Accountant” it’s a similar though less extreme manifestation, where the protagonist has a burning need to finish the job he starts. When I take on a task I have a burning need to carry it out to a very high standard of excellence with extreme attention to detail. It’s one of the reasons I’ve had a successful career. When that is denied me or taken beyond my control, I find that particularly stressful.
Capability, Parenthood and the Single Income Household
Trapped in my Body
I grew up with walking in the great outdoors as a family hobby. When I was at school I was forever running round like a lunatic at break or playing cricket. After school or at weekends I roamed the area with my mates making up adventures or inventing stunts on our bikes. I walked, ran or cycled everywhere.
As I grew older I took up martial arts, then instructed martial arts, unfortunately an injury caused by an unusual weakness put an end to the combat. However, I replaced the exercise with climbing and going to the gym for fun, fitness, and stress busting.
The unusual weakness turned out to be an extremely rare (less than 200 diagnosed in the UK) severe, incurable and progressive degenerative condition that effects specific muscles in my arms and legs.
It started out as me tripping over my feet/toes randomly. Fast forward 20 years and I can’t walk without walking aids, I can’t walk very fast or far. Running and jumping haven’t been possible for years. I can’t carry or manipulate much with my left hand and I’m losing strength in my right hand.
While this in no way excuses poor behaviour or a “woe is me attitude”, stress is relative and cumulative.
A Child is Born
I became a parent for the first time a few years ago. There is absolutely nothing that will prepare you for this experience by a country mile and I can say with absolute certainty that my children will get all the support they can lay their hands on when they become parents. It’s been the most stressful thing I’ve ever had to manage. I’ve loved it and hated it in equal measures and, thankfully, it has got easier over time. Because I’m a glutton for punishment we decided to have a second child, thinking “this can’t be harder than the first, different sure, but not harder”. Turns out we couldn’t have been more wrong.
One of the most difficult things I’ve found about being a parent is the outside expectancy that it will be joyful. That despite all the sleepless nights, screaming and unpredictability, it will be wrapped in a warm fuzzy loveliness. The reality has been painfully different. My wife and I often find ourselves counting down the minutes until they’ve gone to bed, (all day) as that’s the only respite we get. We cram our lives into a few hours in an evening, by which time we’re usually so knackered we just crash.
Everyone wants you to think their experience is great. It’s only when you explain the problems or difficulties you’re having that the story changes and you find others experienced the same issues.
Why am I mentioning this? Because stress is relative, and it’s another significant portion of my life that is out of kilter – I.E. the stress levels are being forced up without release.
Earning a Crust
I have a particularly demanding job that has a lot of responsibility and accountability, no more so than the human beings I manage and am responsible for. This is made particularly challenging by the changes unfolding in the cloud technology industry I work in, and the industry has a pace of change that is eye watering.
It’s a role that requires me to have my finger on the pulse of everything that is happening within my department and the industry, and to be successful it’s a role that relies on the successful foundational work of others.
I have the sole income for my household and have had for some time. This provides even more focus for me to do well.
Again, this is the same as countless others, however, stress is both relative and cumulative.
I thankfully don’t have a physical role, however my physical incapacity, does mean I have difficulties with public transport, crowded places, the need for fast walking (or just walking faster than I’m able), opening doors, using vending machines, etc which can make travel difficult and stressful.
These are a few of the life stresses I have going on that are accumulating tension with little release. They reflect the three major portions of life, work, family and personal.
When Does Stress Go From Healthy to Harmful?
Everyone deals with stress in their lives and stress isn’t a bad thing. Typically we learn a lot during stressful situation or period of heightened stress.
The problems start as they mount. Remember that.
The pressure of stress builds as the problems mount up
Imagine your ability to manage stress is a damn holding a reservoir. Every now and again there is a torrential downpour of rain (period of stress), the damn begins to fill rapidly, then the rain stops and the level drops gradually over time. The cycles go round by the seasons. Now imagine that run off from the mountains is still filling your reservoir and downpours keep happening, maybe they increase in frequency. Eventually the water reaches the brim and has nowhere else to go but overflow, potentially causing damage to the damn.
At this point it doesn’t matter whether it’s a few drops of rain, or a storm, the result is still the same, overload!
In my experience this is the perfect analogy. It’s normal for stress levels go up and down. However, when the stress doesn’t come down, or come all the way back down before the next spike, then your mind and body don’t get the recuperation they need. Keep repeating this and before you know it you’re blowing your top over something fairly minor.
How Does it Effect Me?
As mentioned above stress is relative, so the triggers and symptoms will differ from person to person. For me the following occurs when the levels are rising exponentially:
- I’m less tolerant
- I’m more easily tired
- I don’t sleep well
- Concentration is poor
- I muddle words in sentences
- Recall is negatively effected
- Decisions become harder
- I forget to eat
- I’m less motivated
- I experience headaches more frequently
- I experience migraines
- Sometimes I experience psoriasis
- I become depressed (continuous negative cycle of emotions and thoughts)
What is Depression?
Depression, noun, “feelings of severe despondency and dejection”.
Imagine a cloud of chaos. You know you will enjoy the warmth of sunshine on your face when you out from under it, but you don’t seem to be able to get there. It’s like gravity drawing you into the centre and keeping you there. You occasionally glimpse the sunlit path to freedom so you can see how to get out from under the cloud, but it disappears in a flash.
How do I Cope?
- I recognise that sometimes I won’t and…
- I must accept help, whether it be physical or mental
- I recognise that it is something I have and need to live with. It isn’t a phase, or something that can safely be ignored. As difficult as it may be to come to terms with, I have to do exactly that.
- I’m honest with myself and my limitations. I recognise that I live with several significant physical disabilities that do have a negative effect on my mental well being.
- I talk to my wife
- I play with my kids
- Doing things I enjoy, even when I don’t want to
- Physical exercise
- Caring less about the opinions of others
- Recognising I can’t fix everything
- I don’t watch or read the news
- I have to find new ways of stress busting
What Should You Do?
If you are’t coping with your levels of stress, talk to someone about it. Whether it be medical issues, work or family life it doesn’t matter. It’s not a failure to ask, or admit you need help.
As Morpheus once said to Neo, “I can show you the door but you have to walk through it”.
Only by talking about my issues with the right people have I been able to stop the exponential spiral down.