Michael Maitland is the author of Out Of The Madhouse and is an ambassador for the teen mental health charity, Stem 4. He has struggled with mental ill-health over the years. Here he writes about stress and how it can have a lot of negative side effects if you don’t talk about it.
As a young man I suffered from stress, anxiety and depression and ended up in hospital and the Priory for the best part of six months. I’m feeling better now but, looking back, I can see that much of my mental ill-health came from feeling stressed and trying to be ‘a man’ about it; i.e. bottling it all up.
The NHS defines stress as, ‘The feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure. Pressure turns into stress when you feel unable to cope.’ That sums it up well as does, ‘Stress can affect how you feel, think, behave and how your body works. You may feel anxious, irritable or low in self-esteem.’
I certainly did, and being ‘masculine’ – the idea that you are tough, strong, don’t need help and can work everything out for yourself alone – did not help. It’s more sensible to talk about what makes you feel stressed, and what you can do about it to manage these feelings.
I still feel stressed from time to time about things that any normal person would feel tense about, such as going into schools and colleges to talk about my experiences of mental health. I try to control my feelings of stress in different ways. As a quick fix, I always take a moment to breathe in and out for a minute or two whenever I feel particularly stressed. I use a breathing technique known as 7/11. The 7/11 technique is a breathing exercise where you breathe in for a count of seven and out for a count of 11. It’s very simple and it works for me. It may do for you too.
When I was in The Priory, I learned about something called de-catastrophising or de-catastrophisation which is about how we can retrain our thought patterns. I imagine what could go wrong and work out the very worst that could happen (i.e. something catastrophic). To deal with that, I try to think about things I have been stressed about in the past and then think about how it was after the event happened. Often, there’s a big difference between the ‘bad’ expectation and the ‘good’ reality.
A simple version of this is to think, ‘what if? And what then?’ So, ‘what if the worst thing happens, what then?’ The worst thing that might happen when I stand up to talk to a group of teenage students or their parents is that I could say the wrong thing or dry up. What happens then? Not a lot really. They’d probably think I was maybe shy or nervous. So that’s not so bad.
I also keep a notebook and write down things I’m stressed about and then afterwards I make a note of how it actually was. That way, I can see my worrying is often not valid. Notes, lists, checklists and diaries are all ways that I try to separate myself from my thoughts and feelings to make sense of them from a distance. I’m not sure that’s logical and if anyone else does it, but it helps me.
Other quick fixes that work for me involve visualisation exercises. Since I left The Priory, I have kept a little red food token from there in my pocket. It reminds me of how far I have come. I also use it as a ‘worry stone’ when I am feeling stressed out. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and try to create a sense of calm in and around you. Imagine you have a stone, a pebble or maybe a crystal in the palm of your hand. This can be a real one or you can imagine one in your favourite colour and texture; warm blue, shiny feel, perhaps. It’s up to you.
Focus on what is troubling you and have that thought held in the middle of your forehead. Now, when you are ready and feel able to do it, you have to mentally push that worry down and along your arm, into your hand and fingers until it is pushed into the stone and is all soaked up.
You could even imagine washing the stone – it works for some and maybe for you. You literally rub at whatever it is, a stone, a little red food token, with your thumb over and over again, washing that worry away. Try it – this is something that many people do and it works well for them, and me.
Whatever approach you take, I think it is important that you can acknowledge what it is that makes you feel stressed and accept that it is a natural part of life. Too many people, especially men who want to be tough and strong, try to ignore stress. All that happens then is that it will come out in another way; either physically through a headache or mentally through a short-temper or anger.
I found that by talking about stress, what caused it and how I felt made it more manageable for me. Sometimes, I would find that, as I explained things out loud, I could see the solution straightaway. Sometimes, I could see that I was stressing over something and nothing really.
My partner at the time, when I first opened up, helped me to put things into perspective. She also encouraged me to write everything down – almost like a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) so I could see things more clearly as if the problem was someone else’s and I was trying to help. I still do that today and probably always will – and it’s why my stress levels can be managed more easily these days.
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