I started to become aware of the effects of stress and my level of energy – or better said – fatigue, back in 2013.
My energy levels were like a rollercoaster.
By the time I was fully awake in the morning it was 10 or 11am and many cups of coffee later. Then I was so ravenous that I couldn’t wait until lunch. But as soon as I ate, I immediately fell into an energy slump that felt like a coma and my productivity was almost zero until about 3 or 4pm. I drank more coffee and ate sweets to give myself a boost to get me through the day. I would then be alert and productive between 10pm-2am. I couldn’t sleep earlier. I couldn’t even muster up enough energy for a short walk. My skin and weight were a mess.
It was a vicious cycle and I felt like a zombie, emotionally flat and lifeless.
As my GP wouldn’t take my complaints seriously, I booked to see a naturopath who suggested I get some basic tests done. As the NHS wouldn’t cover those, I paid for them myself.
My naturopath suggested some really common sense changes to my diet and that I read a book about Adrenal Fatigue, a term I’d never heard of before.
This was the first time my eyes were opened to what our hormones do, how stress affects our bodies and how important diet and lifestyle are for our wellbeing.
The tests I paid for had some alarming results. For example, my insulin levels were so close to being diabetic. I was lucky to find out in time to do something about it.
Through a change in diet, by removing coffee, sugar, processed foods and preparing all my own food fresh every day, my health improved dramatically within weeks.
I won’t lie. The first few weeks were hard, coming off coffee was not easy, however, once I got to the other side, I felt like a completely new person. My energy was back, it was stable, I felt really alive, I could sleep normally again, I stopped craving unhealthy foods and everyone kept saying that I looked so healthy and glowing.
But our wellbeing is not just about eating healthy.
We often blame ourselves for our bad health — we might tell ourselves to stop being so lazy, weak-willed, undisciplined, or not strong enough — when really our bodies are telling us we are stressed and need to do something about it.
When things are out of balance there is a reason.
Many of our destructive habits are misguided attempts to self soothe when we feel stressed.
Because I didn’t fully understand the stress in my own life and how it impacts me, I didn’t make some fundamental changes to my lifestyle. So all the improvements to my wellbeing were lost again once I faced the next big stress in my life.
It was actually a business trip that required lots of wining and dining with clients — exactly the kind of thing I hated. Business trips are exhausting, period. So I drank and smoked like everyone else to calm my nerves. Because we ate at restaurants with really rich food, my nutritious diet went right out the window. One week away put me back into the downward spiral.
Without having a means to release and deal with stress, a good diet alone did not get me very far.
I’ve ended up in old habits and fatigue like that a few times since then, except that each time it snowballed into something worse. I’ve also had various autoimmune diseases, sciatica and acute lower back pain. I always seemed to have some kind of health issue.
Finally it all came to a big life and health crisis when I started burning out in 2017. I didn’t even know what was happening to me but it made me question everything in my life. It’s been a long and gradual road to healing.
It’s important to recognise the sources of stress in your life and not to dismiss them as unimportant.
Most people dismiss their stress. People don’t want to complain, to be seen as weak or incapable, we often point to others and say “they have it so much worse, I have nothing to complain about.”
It’s true that you could have a wonderful life, the perfect job, house and family, but stress is still a part of life. There is no such thing as a stress-free life. Right now, if you’re struggling for anything else to point to, the pandemic is a global trauma. That’s a whole lot of stress.
My stress has always been mainly due to overworking.
Not because my bosses told me to, but because I have a tendency to drive myself to be super productive and overachieve in every way.
Being a perfectionist and over-achiever is another one of those destructive habits. It’s a nervous energy and you feel like you can never just sit back, rest and enjoy.
I was working a full-time day job and trying to start my own business at the same time. I used to tell myself that starting my own business was “my fun” or “my hobby” but I know now it really wasn’t. It was a hobby until I got so good at it that I turned it into a business.
I’ve since pivoted my business 3 times over 10 years and being your own boss is always stressful. I’ve applied my own lessons each time and there’s no avoiding the fact it’s hard work. It’s best to understand that, rather than try and pretend you can manage on your own. Instead, look at how to design your life and work structure to best support your wellbeing.
I tried to prove to myself that I was some kind of super woman, making my dreams come true by being my own boss. I didn’t even have kids to add to it, and I know it’s hard work being a parent.
Fatigue is more than just being tired, it’s like all the energy and life has been sucked out of you.
When I get fatigue it often comes suddenly and crashes like a wave and I go under with it. I can barely keep myself upright. When I’m sitting, I’m slumped in the chair and floppy and I try to lie down as soon as I can. I have been known to curl up for a snooze on the back corner sofa of a pub, or in the middle of BBC Proms In The Park, to get my second wind for the evening.
I also feel emotionless and flat – unless someone pushes me and then I feel forced to snap like a guard dog, hoping people will just leave me alone in peace because I have nothing left to give. I get “resting bitch face” because all my facial muscles just flop – it makes me look angry and miserable but really I’m just super exhausted. I’ve had people stop me in the street to tell me to “cheer up, it can’t be that bad” and that annoys me because they have no idea how drained I feel.
My mind/brain gets foggy, I can’t concentrate, I can stare at the same page of a book for 30 minutes before I realise I’ve zoned out. Productivity is basically non-existent, I remember nothing that I’ve read, learnt or spoken about with someone in that state. It’s almost like being in a dream because I feel distant and fuzzy, like I’m not fully present in my body or watching someone else’s life on TV.
If I try to be productive during this time, I find I can push myself for a bit, but only for short bursts and then I feel like collapsing again, even more exhausted than before.
Fatigue is a really important signal from your body, to tell you it is overwhelmed.
If you feel like the above, you need to look at your health and your lifestyle quite seriously. I don’t want to scare you, but it can lead to serious health problems and burnout.
As fatigue can be a symptom of many different things it’s best to see your doctor. But sadly, it’s possible they may not take you seriously, as my own GP didn’t, and if that’s the case, you will have to find your own healing journey with whatever works for you.
Whenever I feel fatigued again now — I know it’s a sign that my life is more stressful than my body can handle at this time. Notice how I said “my body” because that’s an important point to make here.
This is not about me, or you, being a failure, incompetent or unable to cope with life.
It’s acknowledging that we are mammals — human organisms —and that our bodies have certain needs, instincts and signals that we need to honour. When our bodies are drained it’s impossible to perform at our best.
You wouldn’t beat your car up for breaking down, you’d try to get it serviced and carry out whatever maintenance is necessary.
Stress is of itself not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a natural part of being a living organism.
But it’s important to understand the signs of it in our lives, the cause of it, whether we are equipped to deal with it and how to actually release it.
Stress is a problem when we stay stuck in it for long periods of time.
Most of us experience chronic stress simply because of the relentless demands of modern life: long working hours, family life and a pandemic to boot. Add your own unique circumstances and personal history for the complete cocktail.
Research shows that our health deteriorates when under chronic (long-term) stress. Chronic stress eventually becomes trauma.
When we feel stressed, what we are looking for is that vent to let off the steam of our stress.
Like when I snack mindlessly on rubbish food, drink alcohol to calm down or lubricate the social skills, endlessly scroll on the internet, in the past I also smoked during stressful periods of my life…
But here’s the bad news.
Things like smoking, drinking, drugs, junk food, mindless TV etc, all of that is not stress release — that’s just avoidance of uncomfortable feelings and numbing or zoning out. It’s all a temporary measure. The stress still sits in our bodies and nervous system where it can build up and cause health problems eventually.
We were born into magnificent bodies that can release stress, but never shown how to really live in them. It’s like being given a supercar without first getting a drivers licence.
The only way to effectively release stress is to work with our bodies.
Believe me, I’ve been meditating for years on and off, I’ve done a lot of travelling, I’ve quit several stressful jobs and gone to live in other countries. If meditation, holidays, quitting work or moving to another country alone worked, I would be the most stress-free person you’d ever met.
After trying so many different therapies and techniques, I realised the only way to improve my wellbeing was to learn to be better at being human.
I wanted to really understand my body, how to live in it comfortably, to listen to it and work with it. I still love to meditate, I mean I really love it, but it’s so much more effective now that I live in a more embodied way and feel at home in my body — not trying to escape it all the time through my vices.
Our bodies are designed to deal with and release stress, but we’ve always been told to ignore our feelings and sensations. That is the worst advice we’ve ever been given. The sensory input from our bodies is the most valuable data we have access to and we ought to listen to it and be guided by it. We don’t need fitness monitors to tell us – just listen to your body.
Emotions and physical sensations arise for a reason, they need to be released not suppressed.
Crying, laughing, shaking, yawning — all of these are normal responses to help release stress yet we often feel ashamed or embarrassed to.
Navigating our way back to wellbeing
Conventional medicine isn’t set up to help us to release stress. GPs might prescribe us pills to relieve pain or help with illnesses, but that doesn’t address the root of the issue. If doctors don’t have medicine to prescribe to us, we might get told to “go home and relax”, but that’s the most useless advice. If we knew how to relax we wouldn’t be seeking help.
It’s not really the place of modern medicine to tell us how to relax or be human. So we are left figure it out on our own. My advice is to learn as much about your body as possible.
Our bodies are so intelligent and know how to breathe and heal cuts without us even having to think. Your body’s whole goal in life is to keep you in optimal health, so let it guide you. Stop ignoring it.
At first I started seeing my body as a vehicle that I need to look after well as the owner and driver, but now I see it as a friend. I talk to my body like a friend. Not out loud, but quietly in my mind. When I feel something unsual, I will quietly ask myself “what is this feeling trying to tell me?” “What do you (ie. my body) need right now?” and so on.
Notice the sensory input you get from your body, notice how it responds to foods, situations and environments. Notice what makes you feel good and what drains you.
Journalling about your body and health is very useful.
Because I spent so much of my life ignoring my body, the sensory input, the pain, the emotions, the illnesses, injuries and stressful events etc, I had no real clear picture of my health and wellbeing.
My colleagues once mentioned that I get quite sick every year and at first I vehemently denied it, but I had to quickly concede they were right. How had I not noticed that?
I started journaling my health, even simply recording dates of illness and any other significant stressful events that may be related to it on a spreadsheet.
I also journal data around my health and moods to see patterns between what enhances and depleted my energy. I track things like when I do TRE, meditation, exercise, my period, all kinds of things.
Taking a holistic approach to wellbeing
My personal opinion is that we need to take a holistic approach to healing (words I used to hate to hear).
The truth is so much the best advice I’ve come across is annoyingly simple. It’s stuff you’ve probably heard people say before. You will see these same things reflected in some form amongst many ancient traditions. It’s nothing to do with spirituality, it’s just tried and tested wisdom over centuries by millions of other human beings who lived on this earth before us — our ancestors.
This list is by no means exhaustive or a prescription for anyone, just some suggestions that have proven to work for me and that I see published in books and reports all the time:
- Get enough sleep
- Eat well
- Detox your life (from draining people, things and activities)
- Simplify your life & stop multitasking
- Bodywork & rhythmic exercises (such as Yoga, Tai Chi, Tension Releasing Exercises, tapping etc)
- Creativity & Play
- Group activities that promote being attune with each other (dancing, drumming, choir, play in a band/orchestra etc)
- Community & Social Engagement (and I mean in real time or in real conversations, not on messages and chats and can include the group activities mentioned)
Whatever techniques and lifestyle you find that work for you, it’s time to LISTEN to your body.
Fatigue is a real symptom to a real problem that is called modern life.
- Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome by James L. Wilson PhD.
- Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
- The Body Keeps Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk
- Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
- When The Body Says No – The Cost Of Hidden Stress by Dr Gabor Maté
- Frazzled by Ruby Wax
- Burnout: Solve Your Stress Cycle By Emily and Amelia Nagoski
- TED Talk: The Cure for Burnout : Hint – It Isn’t Self Care
- TRE® – Tension Releasing Exercises
Please let me know if you’d had similar experience and what has worked for you.