Learning to Deal with Stress
How I Beat Sleepless Nights and Anxious Days
Words by Billy George
What I Wore
Jack London leather jacket
Ralph Lauren denim
Country Road shoes
Bailey Nelson specs
I remember living life as a teenager - carefree and wild, especially when I turned eighteen and started going out. Being able to legally drink at that age in Australia just meant that partying was a norm. I made a whole heap of great friends and I pitied those that didn't enjoy every moment in life. I was in a great place. Then I grew up. God did I have a lesson for myself to learn!
Mental health has become a huge focus in recent years as stress and anxiety are at an all time high. We work longer hours and have fewer hours of sleep trying to fit in a healthy social life and all the things on our bucket list. I can tell you honestly that I feel burnt out at least once a fortnight. Just when you think you're on top of the world and plotting your journey through your to-do list, your time to shine is overcast with gloomy weather. It's become normal to think that our modern, fast-paced, life has become stressful. Physically and mentally draining you of your energy from the moment you wake until you're finally able to close your eyes at night. Our well being is getting chipped away with the amount of stress we delve ourselves into. It's unmanageable.
What makes up stress? Do you understand what makes you feel that way? Everyone is different and providing a solid answer is impossible. If you're creative, like me, over-achieving to stay motivated becomes a mental push to block out the negativity that stops you from getting on with it. Then you get saturated with your work until you cannot do any more, cannot deal with it anymore and you lash out.
But then it depends on the stress you're dealing with. It can be good (eustress, such as physical exercise) and it can be bad (distress, such as anxiety). In Melbourne specifically, the nature of physical exercise has boomed drastically as it gains in popularity. The fact that a lot of people have turned to it to relieve themselves. Yet that can also be detrimental as physical exhaustion often doesn't help your mental state when you're feeling low. We're creatures built on survival. Fight of flight. Stress threatens our mode of existence. In generations past, we were just told to man up. Now? The evolutionary switch to save us from the predator that is stress fires us up whenever we hit peak in our email inbox.
I hear and see too many people that are locked up from stress. Come Thursday and Friday, social media is filled with exhausting comments coming from nearly everyone looking forward to a weekend - myself included! The busier I get at work and with my personal life, the more I have needed to hone my survival skills to deal with stress. I've come to a number techniques that have helped me keep my head above water.
back to nature
If you work in an office environment, then you'll tend to average a poor total of around 3000 steps a day. The thought of getting up and building up a sweat can be daunting for a lot of us, but there is nothing more healing than time spent exploring the world we live in. Nature has always been our primary source of medicine as the ancient world thrived and respected the world around it. Our bodies are tuned to surviving the outdoors, not sitting behind a monitor glaring at blue light and listening to traffic pass us by.
Stress, depression and anxiety is heavily linked to the modern world we live in. We all dream and crave an escape, but we can't afford a holiday every time we feel a little under the weather. More than half of the world's population lives in or around a city as rural life is dwindling. It's taking centre stage.
For me, I have a very structured routine around this and having a pooch helps a lot! I get up early and walk for half an hour before work every day. Why? Well it gets my blood pumping through my body and helps me wake up and feel more alert earlier in the day. I'm not starved or feeling low when I finally get to work. Typically, I'm up and at it for over 2.5 hours before I actually get to my desk. Read any article about a successful man's morning routine and you'll see that everyone of them will tell you that have something to do for you, before you get to your desk. Afterwards? Well after work is another long walk! I spend about an hour gallivanting the local parklands with my dog, getting back to our roots and listening to the latest music on my phone. It helps me block out the urbanisation.
Nature is easy, fast and non-restrictive. We're a part of it; live and breathe it - get out and enjoy the sunshine and the beautiful world around us. Science tells us that time spent outdoors shirts our brainwaves from beta mode (filled with our heightened states of stress) to alpha mode, the meditative frequency of our conscious thinking. This is the state I love being in - we're more cognitive and creative and just like meditation, our heart-rate drops, blood pressure decreases and we genuinely become happier.
Getting to the countryside isn't always an option but a walk around your local park is a suitable replacement. The digital detox helps us get away from our lives spent at our desk.
Take a breather
From the moment we're born to our final acts upon our death, breathing is what gives us life. The series of breathes in the years between those two moments can be left with an unnoticed mechanism that we often forget to really take advantage of. It's a passing thought, yet it's what primarily keeps us alive, amongst many other things, such as food, water, shelter and so on. It strengthens us, relieves us and helps keep our bodies performing optimally. A breath can save our lives.
Inhaling a fresh deep breath and exhaling expired air can help calm you and rev you up. I spent many years learning martial arts where every lesson you'd spend at least ten minutes going through breathing exercises. The importance of it is extremely understated so applying this methodology to your work life is important. Get off your desk, go outside and spend a couple of minutes breathing deeply and getting some vitamin D.
Whether it's martial arts like myself, yoga, pilates or any form of exercise that helps focus your breathing, you learn to observe the proper ways to make your breathing efficient and effective. Constricting your lung's capacity, instead of breathing from your abdomen, is a sign of air darting from your mouth to the upper part of your chest - a sympathetic response that often goes unrecognised that deepening your breathing can easily help you focus. A calm nervous system comes from deep breathing.
In yoga, there is a ten minute exercise to help you control your breath: "Lie on your back, knees bent with your feet flat on the floor. Gently place one hand on your belly just above the pubic bone, the other on your chest. Observe your breathing and see if you can direct the inhale all the way down to the depths of your belly. So much so that it forces your navel to rise and push your hand away. Notice how many counts it takes for you to inhale and fill both lungs evenly. Then count the full exhale until the lungs are completely empty (the point at which the abdominal organs relax)."
Once you learn how to focus your breathing to your belly, you'll then realise that this is exactly how a 'deep breath' should be and any attempt from then on should be just that, an inhale and exhale of even length, keeping the rhythm smooth and relaxed.
Reduce YOUR CAFFEINE INTAKE
If you're anything like me, then you're a lover of anything caffeine related along with any activity that relates to the intake of delicious black gold. It's a favourite past time, and ingrown heavily in my daily life. It's the first thing I go to in the morning and the thing I'm searching for as soon as a yawn hits my mouth (*yawns heavily*).
Caffeine is a stimulant. That is to say a 'drug' that increases the activity of your body body and that can be bad news for many. The jittery effects of caffeine on your body are similar to those of something frightening happening to you. This fight or flight can trigger anxiety or make it worse than it is - often leading to attacks to those that suffer from it more than others. One too many cups may leave you nervous, moody and far off worse than before.
If you're worried that caffeine is affecting you in such ways then you're probably correct in thinking so. While it has many positive values, it also affects you in many other ways, from causing insomnia to reactive hypoglycemia. How often do you go for an evening coffee with friends only come home and not be able to sleep?
I'm not telling you to cut coffee out entirely, but if you see that it is horribly affecting you then going on a caffeine cleanse may be exactly what your body is asking you for. I've strictly cut down - after drinking more than three cups a day, I was constantly feeling on edge of my nerves with my anxiety peaking way too often. Everyday life deteriorated and I enveloped symptoms of reclusiveness. What I soon realised was that one morning latte instead of a strong black coffee was enough. After that, I substituted my interval coffees through out the day with decaffeinated black tea and a range of other teas (that I would have every now and then instead of often) helped me kick the habit and my anxiety became much more manageable. While I still get stressed, reducing the impact of the stress on my anxiety actually made me feel better and led me to become much more pleasant and sociable.
Have you ever tried to ask for help and found it difficult? Generations of culture around a man's world will tell you to 'man up' and 'boys don't cry' - asking for help is considered emasculating. A sign of weakness. Why is that so? Society demands a brand of masculinity that doesn't fit with self-improvement. There was no such thing as mental health. It's a crisis that most men fight alone - to think that suicide between the male youth population is at an all time high is staggering. A recent study found that men don't see their GP as often as a woman would, thus hospitalisation and mortality rates amongst men is much higher.
It starts from a young age where we watch cartoons filled with action heroes - image Superman on a couch talking through his feelings to a therapist. Even worse, Batman. That doesn't happen. We're often so painted a picture of what being a man should be that we're left behind. Powering though the world on your own becomes daunting and fraught with stress, beyond that of just work. It often makes for isolation.
Suffering in silence only adds to the overall situation. It's important to know that stress affects us in different ways and while I was mentioning suicide before, without a way to speak about it, it can spread like cancer. Burying your pride and relying upon yourself is essential when reaching out and you'll often find that ones you initiate the conversation with a friend, your brother, or a professional, that you'll never be made to feel inferior. We all go through tough times and being able to recognise the signs and speaking to the right person for guidance or just to share your thoughts can often relieve stress and release the anvil of weight that's compressing your chest. Being heard is enough. Verbalising it and putting a 'name' to it is cathartic.
My relationship with my brain is intriguing yet overwhelming at times. I'm constantly searching for that creative answer to problems that it leads to those 'what if?'. Your lefts with the inability to form words to explain how you feel or why you're feeling like that. Working through a problem that occurs mentally involves a lot more brain and will power than you'd expect, and you're often left exhausted. "Why are you always so tired, Billy?!" Gimme a penny every time someone said that I'd be rich.
Your story should be left for analysis - there are no labels. It all overcomplicates your thought pattern. Stress isn't just a mental feeling. It is often seen in your sullen face and the muscles that tighten and constrict from the pressure. My first step that took a hell of a long time to learn was checking myself before thoughts consumed me. When I saw myself fidget too much or sitting on the edge of my seat from nerves, I know question myself - "What is making me feel like this? Why?" From there, you're able to then put a little mental action plan into the problem or the cause to fix it, or dismiss it as "I'm over thinking it again!"
Going for a long run or punching a boxing bag can be a good stress relief but the sudden burst in energy can leave us lacking later and the mental fatigue just kicks back in. Reprogramming your brain and habits around you go a longer way. Explore yourself for the signs of stress. "There’s the anxiety that spirals through the gut, the anger that locks the hip flexors and the frustration of responsibility that burdens the shoulder girdle. Working through these distortions in a therapeutic context can provide instant, experiential relief."