John came to see me for an appointment just after Christmas. It had been a tough holiday for him this year. 3 months earlier he had been diagnosed with a condition called chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) which causes extreme tiredness, muscle pain, poor sleep and headaches. Trying to manage Christmas with his partner and his family, while also trying to cope with his illness became too much for John and by New Year he was locked away in his bedroom, stressed and exhausted.
John had found out about my service through a friend and he called me to say that he was struggling and needed help. I asked him how he knew that he was stressed and he explained that he felt overwhelmed by his emotions. He found that he was easily irritated, the little things (and the big things) stressed him out and he worried constantly, like his brain was on overdrive. He told me that he felt the stress in his body, his muscles felt tense and he kept getting butterflies in his stomach. When he was stressed he found that he either took it out on those that he loved or he wanted to run and hide and not face his problems anymore.
There are an estimated 10 million disabled people in the UK like John, many who face extra challenges as a result of their disability. An American survey showed that 45% of people with a disability (and 36% of those with a chronic illness) reported a lot of current stress. Statistics from the UK government show that people with a disability rate their life satisfaction and happiness lower (and their anxiety levels higher) than those who do not report a disability.
It’s almost Easter now and John is doing a lot better. He is calmer and more relaxed and he is feeling more hopeful and optimistic. Dealing with his CFS is still hard work, but he knows that his symptoms improve when his mood improves.
So I asked John, “What did you find most useful about the treatment?”.
And so, these are the 5 strategies that helped John combat his stress. These strategies can also help you to manage your stress, both now and in the future.
Reach Out To Family & Friends
If you are stressed it is common to just want to go back to bed and throw the duvet over your head. Unfortunately, spending time by yourself (sometimes called social isolation) can make you to feel worse about your situation and can lead to depression.
Staying connected with family and friends will help you feel stronger and more resilient.
John found that calling an old friend from high school really helped to cheer him up and put things into perspective. He also made sure that he built time into his week to spend quality time with his partner, such as going out for a meal or going to the pictures.
There are lots of things that you can do to stay socially active, for example:
- Take up a hobby or pastime that gets you out the house and meeting other people
- Take up a sport or go and watch your favourite club play
- Write a letter to an old friend
- Invite your family round for a meal
Learn to relax
When we are stressed our brain triggers something called the fight or flight response (sometimes called the stress response). This change is designed to help us to cope with life or death situations (like being chased by a lion). This is what creates a lot of the unpleasant symptoms of stress such as tense muscles, heart beating faster and stronger, shortness of breath and sweaty palms.
When we are dealing with long term stress, or chronic stress, we are constantly being triggered and our body doesn’t have the chance to go back to a state of balance (what scientists call homeostasis). Therefore, we need to learn deep relaxation so that we can trigger the relaxation response (the opposite of the stress response).
When I talk about deep relaxation, I’m not talking about watching Eastenders with a bottle of beer after a day at work. Deep relaxation is created by switching off the outside world and “letting go” completely.
I taught John how to use hypnosis to relax but there are lots of other useful techniques you can look into:
- Autogenic training
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Deep breathing
John had his life already mapped out. He was ambitious in work and had career goals that he wanted to achieve. He was going to travel and see the world. He also wanted kids of his own in the future.
John felt like his CFS had robbed him of all his dreams.
We talked through the benefits of learning to accept his situation. Just as we grieve when we lose a loved one, we can also grieve when we lose the life we thought we were going to have. However, whilst it is healthy to grieve, it’s not healthy to brood about the past or a future that you were never promised.
I gave John this quote written almost 2000 years ago by a philosopher called Epictetus:
“When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it.”
John began to focus on the life he had, limitations and all. He used mindfulness techniques to be more present and found that he didn’t get so easily hooked into negative thoughts or feelings. He learnt to use his energies planning for the things he could do, rather than worrying about the things he couldn’t do.
Acceptance can be a practice that takes time, but John found that “letting go” and accepting that things were the way that they were helped him to deal with life so much better.
Commit to your values
When we are stressed we lose focus of the things that are important to us. The impact of John’s stress meant that he had lost his direction in life. Spending some time thinking about his values, helped John to get back on track. He started to do more of the things that he enjoyed and were meaningful to him and less of the things that were unhelpful.
Our values are what give our life meaning and purpose. They are expressed through our behaviours and our actions. They are different to goals as they don’t have an end-point. Examples of values are:
Spend some time thinking about the different aspects of your life; work, family, relationships, education, parenting etc. Then think about how you want that aspect of your life to look if you were fully committed to your values.
For example, “In my personal relationship with my partner my intention is to be caring and affectionate when I am with them”.
Thinking about you values might help you get involved in new and interesting activities, such as:
- Joining a disability support group
- Volunteering in your local community
- Getting involved in a local church or faith group
- Starting an educational course
In his working life, John was a manager who loved being in control. He always had his things-to-do list handy and put all his appointments in his online calendar. He always knew what his priorities were and always met his deadlines.
His personal life, on the other hand, was completely chaotic. Bills were always paid late, birthdays missed and bins never went out on the right day.
This just added extra pressure on John and made him feel more stressed.
By applying some simple planning techniques John was able to get his home life back under control and reduce his stress.
The easiest strategy to start with is called the 4 D’s of productivity. When a task comes your way, use the 4D’s to decide how best to deal with it:
- Do it – If the task can be dealt with straight away, don’t wait – get it done straight away
- Delegate it – Is there someone else better placed to deal with it? If so pass it on. You might agree to do something in return to help them out
- Ditch it – If it’s really not important, bin it. Then you can focus your energies on more important stuff
- Defer it – If the task is non-urgent, or you don’t have time to complete it, put a reminder in your calendar or diary and allocate enough time to deal with it.