If you want to catch up you can find the pre-session, week one ("What is Stress?"), week two ("Controlling Your Body"), week three ("Controlling Your Mind"), week four ("Controlling Your Thoughts") and week five ("Panic and Sleeping Well") posts in the links
And so StressControl comes to an end. The title is from one of the slides in this session, but there was an open understanding that it's something easier said than done. We followed a broadly similar approach as previous weeks, this time looking at our personal wellbeing and then covering a quick summary of the previous five weeks. I'm going to talk a bit about wellbeing here as well as covering some of the things I've noticed or that have changed since I started, as well as what some next steps might be.
In week one, we covered the idea that stress is a continuum with high levels of stress at one end, and low levels at the other. This is a distinction worth making because it's not the goal to eradicate stress entirely, but to try and put ourselves towards the lower end of this particular spectrum. If we think about stress as this horizontal line, wellbeing can be thought of as a similar, vertical continuum with poor wellbeing at the bottom and good wellbeing at the top.
The World Health Organisation talks about these two extremes as 'languishing' and 'flourishing' and of course, the idea is to move ourselves towards the flourishing end more often than not, whilst also increasing our ability to manage our stress. As with anything worth knowing, overlaying these two concepts gives you a handy 2x2 matrix:
Obviously we want to be in the top left as often as possible and in the bottom right as scarcely as possible, and because we're people, we'll often move around all four of these. Some high level stats suggest that for every 10 people, three are langishing, five are middling and two are flourising and the tools we have at our disposal are aimed at keeping us away from the languishing end of the spectrum as often as possible.
We talked about what sort of things you could do to try and improve your own wellbeing, and with my work hat on for the briefest of moments, I was pleased to see that volunteering your time was something that was encouraged. Being able to contribute to the wider world around us increases our own personal wellbeing too. Listening to music, being more physically active, getting more fresh air and practicing mindfulness were all suggested too. Learning something new or picking up an old hobby came up too and the idea is that our brains value the sense of accomplishment that comes with learning or completing something.
Mindfulness is something we hear more and more of but it was interesting to hear the definition they gave, which was really about focusing on the moment we're in without letting ourselves worry about the future or brood about the past. It sounds fairly simple when you hear it like that, but trying to let your mind focus purely on what our sense are experiencing right here and right now can be hard. I think autumn is a good time to try more of that as the leaves change colour, the air gets a little cooler and the familiar scent of fireworks starts to fill the air. It's definitely something that needs practice, but along with some of the breathing exercises we covered, I think it can be really helpful.
We also talked about the fact that we almost certainly talk to ourselves much more harshly than we would do to anyone else who may be going through something similar. We're often our own worst critic, telling ourselves that something should be easy to do, or that worrying or feeling down is something we can just snap out of, when we'd take a kinder and more gentle approach to friends or family or came to use with the same feelings. I think we all probably recognise that, and it's useful to think about what our compassionate self would say to our stressed self.
The final thing we covered was something I've heard of before but am yet to try and it's the idea of finding three things to be grateful or thankful for each day. I suppose the idea behind it is that we're allowing ourselves to think about the positive things we've experienced rather than having that feeling that there's nothing good going on. I'll see where I get to...
We finished the course with a quick tour back through the other five sessions but I won't repeat those here - links at the top of this post if you want to check out anything particular
So what have the last six weeks meant practically? Well six weeks isn't really a long time so some of the changes or differences are in their infancy and as they said, it's almost like the hard work starts now when putting these things into practice every day away from the course.
I'll start with the positives:
- I've definitely used my rational voice more when I'm approaching known stressful situations (e.g. travelling). I now need to think about being able to have that midset when more unexpected areas of stress arise.
- I've cut out more caffeine later in the day. This is pretty difficult sometimes as my work schedule can be a little unpredictable but overall it's an improvement.
- I've followed some of the progressive muscle relaxation and breathing techniques fairly regularly and I think the breathing in particular has been really helpful.
- I've started blogging again - admittedly only about this course, but it's got me back into something I enjoy when I feel like there's something worth writing down
- I've started listening to a bit more music and watching a little less Netflix. Music has been a longstanding passion of mine but it had become a smaller part of my day and redressing that has been good
- I've done more to cut out eating/snacking to try and cope with feeling tired or stressed. Early days but it's a step in the right direction
- I've gradually started doing a little more exercise. It's not quite as regular or frequent as I'd like, but definitely feels like a positive step
- I've only had one tension headache in about two months - that's definitely worth celebrating!
And a couple of things that aren't as good:
- I'm a lot more conscious that sometimes I just find myself clenching my jaw and I'm not sure how often it's been going on, but it needs to be very deliberate recognition of it before I stop
- I'm a lot more conscious of a pain or ache in my neck. I can't work out if it means my pillow isn't quite right, or whether it's just holding tension in that part of my body
- I'm equally more conscious of the pain I get in my hip/leg that came before, during and after the London Marathon in April so I think I need to dig out the foam roller again for that
- I still feel knackered all the time
So what next?
We did a wellbeing questionnaire in weeks one, four and six and whilst my score in the stress half of it decreased (10 to 9 to 8), the low mood half remained fairly static (14 to 13 to 14) and I guess that's something to think about. A lot of the symptoms associated with stress also correlate to the idea of low mood and whilst that might make the stress part of the diagram more manageable, it means you end up being fairly static on the wellbeing axis.
One of the facilitators suggested I ring up the IAPT wellbeing number and book in for some one-to-one discussion about disentangling the stress and anxiety from the low mood. That feels like a pretty big step. Part of me thinks that it should be easier having done this course - remember it took six months for me to ring up to book onto this in the first place. Having taken the first couple of steps it should be easier to take the next few. But it also feels hard to put yourself in a vulnerable place to talk about something you probably don't really understand yourself.
I'm going to keep plugging away with the techniques we learned on the course, and keep reinforcing the positive things I've started as best I can. Progress isn't perfectly linear in things like this and it's OK to have the occasional step backwards as long as you're taking a couple forward too. And I'm probably going to make that call...
If you made it this far (both on this post and throughout the course) then I hope it's been helpful in some way. Everyone's experiences and circumstances are different so use what you can and discard the rest. Hopefully I'll keep coming back to the keyboard more often than not - the focus can be quite cathartic sometimes.
Diabetes UK are running a hugely important campaign about improving the provision of and access to a variety of emotional support services. People with diabetes are twice as likely to suffer from burnout or difficulties with their own mental health compared to those without the condition. Some estimates suggest that one in ten people with diabetes are clinically depressed. You can read more about the vital It's Missing campaign by following the link. My story is just my story. If you need to talk to someone about how diabetes is making you feel, you can ring the Diabetes UK Helpline on 0345 123 2399 or you can ring Samaritans 24 hours a day on 116 123