Sobbing in the shower – how stress damages

How do you cope with the stressful periods in your life? With a bit of time on the clock, I’ve had a couple of times in my life where I wrestled with stress and its unhappy consequences. And I don’t mean the normal everyday stresses that family, work and community life throw at us on a regular basis. I’m talking about the excoriating effects of dealing with persistent stress – the kind that sends a relentless stream of damaging cortisol into your system over a long period of time. The kind of stress so powerful it can change your personality permanently.

The worst and most damaging kind of stress comes from a situation where you have little control over circumstances and no prospect of that situation changing. Individuals differ in their response to stressful situations and some of us seem to be more vulnerable than others.

I succumbed to serious stress some years ago when I took on a role that required twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week attention on top of my full-time teaching job. I was constitutionally unsuited to the relentless demands of the role and I crashed after a couple of years of struggling to cope. All the joy went out of life; I became easily upset and lost my sense of perspective.

A marking deadline would loom like an impending disaster; I would angst over a routine meeting with colleagues. I had trouble sleeping, waking after a couple of hours to a restless brain filled with endlessly circling worries and unhappy thoughts. Exhaustion made me hungry, and I put on weight – stressful in itself. My brain was functioning so poorly that I convinced myself that sobbing in the shower every morning was a positive coping strategy rather than a powerful indication that I had a serious problem.

Of course I thought I could beat it. I started yoga classes and a vigorous walking regime. I got fitter and the weight gain stopped but the other effects of stress did not. In fact, they became worse.

Yoga class did turn out to be helpful though, and not just to my strength and flexibility. At the end of class we always completed a relaxation sequence and one evening, I was gifted a rare moment of clarity. As I lay on the thin mat, uncomfortable tears running down my face and seeping into the neck of my tee-shirt, I realised that I had to change my situation; that it wouldn’t matter how many kilometres I walked or how many hours of yoga I did, my stress levels would not improve if I stayed in the job.

So I resigned, took some sick leave, and slowly regained my equilibrium along with my senses of humour. When I became impatient with progress, a wise friend gave me some invaluable advice: “Angela,” he said, “It took you at least two years to get yourself into this mess, and it will probably take about that long to recover.” And he was right.

Recovery, even if slow, was via a pretty simple prescription. It didn’t include professional help or drugs of any kind; it just involved resting the brain. In other words: going to bed early, resting during the day, reading, meeting friends for support and conversation, eating well and taking light exercise when I felt like it.

In other words, avoiding any pressure until my system had rid itself of the damaging chemical cocktail that stress produces and repaired itself.

I realise how lucky I was to be in a position to be able to take the time needed to accomplish this and I feel for others not so well placed.

That bout with stress taught me some things about myself I would rather not have learnt, although the knowledge has been useful subsequently. Along with family circumstances, it was pride that made me stay in the role for longer than I should have. I did not want to be embarrassed by failing to live up to my own and others’ expectations. I have not fallen over that particular hurdle again – I’m quite happy to admit I need help and to accept it.

And since then, I have been alert to the warning signs of stress. I know that I’m more vulnerable to pressure now – as if those two years wore down what resilience against stress I originally had. Losing my sense of humour is the first sign that I need to look closely at what I’m doing and make changes.

If you think you’re suffering from serious stress, please seek help. Stress is not something you can just power through – at least, not without damaging yourself. And I’d like to see more understanding of those in seriously stressful situations.

Their stress levels will not be helped by advice from themselves or others to ‘harden up’ or by an exercise regime or healthy eating or any of the modern panaceas with which we think we can transform our lives. On the contrary, it’s their circumstances that need attention along with support to make the necessary changes.

  • First published in the Nelson Mail
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Angela Fitchett

Angela Fitchett is a retired teacher living in Nelson. Also retired from writing English textbooks and columns for local paper the Nelson Mail, she is researching and writing a memoir based around her father’s war experiences while attempting to keep up with her grandchildren and garden.