Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England
The mother of one of my oldest friends has always worried. In 25 years of knowing her, I have only ever seen her worried. Her resting face is worried. Roger Hargreaves could have written a book about her.
Two things, then, should not surprise you. One is that my friend, her daughter, has been brought up to worry just as much. The other is that she is not the healthiest of people. If there is a bug going around, she will catch it. She has heart problems and stomach problems, hair that looks parched and a face full of lines.
I’m not a worrier, as such. I don’t hear an ambulance and worry it is someone I know. I don’t worry about paying the mortgage. I don’t phone 999 when the kids get a rash. But I am stressed. I am really stressed.
I have done lots of things to limit the stress of everyday life - in fact I’m planning a blog with my tips for working parents. I work part time. I have a cleaner. I no longer have a two year old, and no one should ever forget how stressful that is. At the moment, my husband doesn’t commute and does at least half the childcare and school admin. But there still aren’t enough hours in the day and I am very, very stressed.
I am aware that there are certain times when my stress levels peak. When I get into work after a non-working day and open Outlook, for example. There may be emails from irate clients, information such as medical notes that means I need to find a significant amount of time in my day to read them, clients demanding money where I haven’t yet prepared estate accounts, complex letters of claim that I need to respond to, emails about personnel or office issues. As I go through these emails, my heart beats harder and quicker and my face gets hot.
At various points in my life - usually at exam times - my mum has told me to 'go up a gear': get out of bed an hour earlier, get my nose closer to the grindstone, and focus. This is what I do when I go through the emails. No one else is going to prepare the accounts or respond to the letter of claim or deal with the personnel issue so I will have to do it. I will have to find a way.
There are also points with the children when my stress levels peak. I don’t have to take them to school on a working day for the time being, but when I did I would often cry on the way to work because I had shouted at them so much to put their shoes on/pick up their guitars/read a page of their reading book/not undo the plaits I’d just done or let the Enormous Puppy out the front door.
But aside from these peak times, I thought my baseline stress levels were OK. How my husband laughed when I said that to him. 'You do a stressful job, and you come home to this,' he said, gesturing generally behind him. As our weekends get busier again, I realise he is right and I am worried by all the balls we try to keep in the air. I was drying school socks up to 8.30am this morning. I basically needed completely free weekends to stand a chance of keeping on top of things.
And, going back to my friend’s mum, my point is this. My body is suddenly falling apart. I’m pretty young. At the time of writing I’m labouring the point to whoever will listen that I am too young for a vaccine. But when I looked in my rearview mirror this morning there was a big frown line between my eyebrows that wasn’t there yesterday. I have had some sort of rash on my face for about nine months that no amount of moisturiser is fixing but I can’t face going to the doctor about. I have had a bad back since September. I have some gynecological issues I don’t need to go into. I have a weird sleep disorder. Whilst I have been trying to sort these problems in isolation, a common cause of all of them is stress.
It is all very well constantly 'going up a gear'. It is probably fine when you are young to have these huge peaks of stress in your day. But maybe we get to a point when our hearts, our joints, our bowels and our brains start to feel the long term effects and our bouncebackability starts to resemble that of the Peppa Pig football that has been at the bottom of my garden for the last five years. Of course, the last year has probably seen all our baseline stress levels rise too - whether through financial insecurity, or worry for our loved ones, or that word I can’t say anymore that begins with an H and ends with ooling.
This Mental Health Awareness Week, let us also be aware of the toll on our bodies of going through something tough - or more likely for most of us, going through something tough most days for years on end. I don’t have all the answers, but I don’t love my job so much that I am happy for it to affect my ability to play football in the garden with my kids, or go down a waterslide on holiday, or look my (very, very young) age, or sleep. I also don’t want to teach my kids that this is OK. You will never regret any changes you make to reduce your stress levels, but you may regret it in the long term if you don’t.
*Some facts and identities have been altered in the above article