*One in four of us admits to feeling stressed every single day, but too often we do nothing about it. Writer Lizzie Pook, 30, found her way back from burnout... *
It was in a stark A&E cubicle, while a consultant slowly inched a camera up my nose and down my throat until my eyes streamed with tears, that I realised things had to change. Up until that point, my health had been slowly spiralling downwards. I had been blighted for two years by an endless cycle of infections and flu. I’d recently been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, and was suffering other bizarre physical symptoms, too: strange and erratic spasms in my nose, a numb tongue, angry rashes all over my body and a constant ringing in my ears. Eventually, things came to a head, and my GP packed me off to see if emergency-room doctors could explain the terrifying choking feeling that was rising in my throat.
The diagnosis that day was not hugely surprising. My body was being ravaged by stress, and it was reacting the only way it knew how. If I didn’t make some significant changes in my life, the doctor said, I was heading straight towards burnout and was at risk of making myself seriously ill. We may brush off stress as weakness or even inconvenience but, the truth is, it is having a debilitating effect on increasing numbers of women in the UK. Recent studies have shown that over half of all women would describe themselves as ‘moderately or extremely’ stressed.
Four out of five of us believe we push ourselves too hard, and a recent survey by Sanctuary Spa found that an estimated 12 million women feel that they are on the verge of burnout. It’s no surprise we’re feeling more stressed, either. Studies suggest our ‘have it all’ generation is struggling to juggle high-pressured jobs, financial worries and the never-ending quest for a decent work/life balance. For me, the causes of my stress were not unusual: a little self-doubt, a lot of anxiety, and the constant fear of disappointing others (particularly at work, in my high-pressure job as a journalist, where I would constantly put in overtime to prove how committed I was). That’s not to mention the tendency to over-worry about my family. In fact, since the death of my father 10 years ago, I’d felt sort of responsible for the happiness of everyone in my family; surely that’s enough pressure to shake the foundations of even the strongest woman.
But this constant anxiety began to gnaw away at my brain like a burrowing parasite. It soon affected my behaviour. Every morning on the journey to work, I could actually feel my blood pressure rising. I was so on edge that if a harried fellow commuter bumped into me, I’d huff and sigh theatrically. If someone started reading my newspaper over my shoulder, I’d eyeball them with embarrassing pantomime incredulity. There was no relief at night, either. After a frantic day at the office, I’d lie awake into the clammy early hours, convincing myself that my mother was having a heart attack, or that my brother simply wouldn’t wake up the next morning. The anxiety was so all-consuming, it felt as if I was losing my grip on reality.
‘Stress changes the way your body functions,’ says Neil Shah, director of the Stress Management Society. Our bodies are only designed to be in a state of stress, known as the fight-or-flight response, for a short period of time – just long enough for our ancestors to fight off the sabre-tooth tiger, for example. But according to Shah, if we stay in this state for extended periods, high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are released, damaging our immune, gastrointestinal, neurological and musculoskeletal systems. ‘Things like digestion, the reproductive system and our pain responses are also diminished,’ he says. ‘Because the body is focusing on keeping only our vital organs working and pumping blood and oxygen to our limbs.’
This means those under extreme stress can suffer a bizarre range of symptoms, including palpitations, hair loss, changes to their menstrual cycle and even miscarriage. That’s not to mention adrenal fatigue (where the adrenal glands function below necessary levels, causing profound tiredness and burnout). One woman I know was under so much pressure in the run-up to her wedding that she broke out in angry hives all over her body five days before the ceremony.
Back in that A&E room, I knew I had to make some changes – to turn my life on its head. The decision involved risk: leaving a job I absolutely loved to travel the world as an unemployed woman approaching her thirties (gulp). But I felt compelled to see what effect taking a hiatus from my normal routine would have on my wellbeing. So I handed in my notice, packed my bags and spent three months travelling the world (sleeping in tents, reading countless books and eating what the hell I wanted; not worrying about my expanding waistline or the state of my hair). Amazingly, my physical symptoms quickly diminished, and I felt happier and more relaxed than I had done for years, despite having left my dream job behind.
Now I’m home, forging a career as a freelance writer, and I have a new approach to life’s worries. For some of us, stress and anxiety will be an ever-present part of our daily lives. It is always going to manifest itself in some way because it is as much a part of us as our fingerprints. We cannot simply banish stress forever. But if we can learn to recognise when it’s getting too much, when the scales are tipping just a bit too far in the wrong direction, and take action, then perhaps we can assimilate it into our lives in the least harmful way possible. That’s what I’m hoping...
Don’t throw that monitor! Listen to stress management expert Eileen Burns...