As Forrest Gump said, life is a box of chocolates, and in the variety of situations we face what feels like ‘bad stress’ or ‘good stress’ for one person can be different for another. On the first of this month my grandmother, Nana Lillas, passed away. She was 94 years old. She passed away peacefully with her two daughters, two eldest granddaughters (incl. me) and youngest great-granddaughter with her. While she’d been in fairly good health for most of her life and old age, in recent months she’d slowed up considerably and a couple months ago moved out of her house and into a rest home after being quite unwell. During that time I came face to face with the fact that she wouldn’t be with us for a lot longer and that I was going to have to say goodbye one day. The grieving process began.
Perhaps because of this, on the day she died I felt very peaceful. She’d had a stroke a week prior and it was hard to see her suffering. It was a great relief when she was finally released from that. I felt she was going to a very good place, I knew she was more than ready, and that she was also going to be reunited with her husband, my Grandad Norm, whom she’d been apart from for 28 years. A week later we had her funeral which was a lovely service and ‘very Nana’; she would have liked it. Apart from briefly when some of my cousins got quite upset, I felt calm and at ease with the letting go that day.
While it wasn’t a hugely upsetting experience for me (and certainly not like previous losses such as my Grandad when I was young), I feel the weariness in myself now, a week and a half later. I’ve made sure I’ve had some blocks of time this week for quiet and rest, but how easy is it to just plough on into the next work week without taking a breath?
These reflections have had me thinking about the effects of ‘good stress’ on us too – and it’s a conversation I often have with clients. Sometimes even the things we feel peaceful or excited about will take enormous energy, from a wedding to falling in love to being promoted. We can get caught out when we don’t take this into consideration and look after ourselves carefully. I recall discussing with a client how run-down he was following a recent promotion (he is a doctor), moving house and their third child arriving – all of which occurred six months prior in the same six week period. He still hadn’t recovered from that period, the level of activity and lack of sleep – even though the things occurring were really positive.
Supporting the body
‘Good stress’ does take its toll on the body and nervous system, sleep can be disrupted or de-prioritised (who needs sleep when you’ve met the person of your dreams, right?! You do. We all do!) and we can feel any of the effects of the stress response – tiredness, ‘wired’ at night when you’re trying to go to sleep, broken sleep and anxiety/’the buzz’ during the day.
At times like this we need to really intentionally support the body and nervous system to rest and replenish. That might include:
- Having a series of early nights to catch up on sleep (our most replenishing sleep is that which occurs before 3am, so early nights are much more useful than sleep-ins).
- Making a point of being well hydrated during the day, aiming to drink 2-3 litres of water per day.
- Using your breath to settle the body (from excitement as much as from stress/anxiety). Sit comfortably or lie in bed and simply breathe in for six counts and out for six counts. This practice (from mBraining by Marvin Oka and Grant Soosalu) brings coherence to the autonomic nervous system and settles your heart rate and body. Build up from 3 or 4 count breathing to the six counts if that feels like quite a long breath for you.
- Identify if you need a bigger break to replenish such as a week off or a couple of long weekends. From my own experience and in working with many clients around the effects of burn-out, I can tell you now that taking time off and recovering sooner rather than later almost always results in needing less time off in the long run. When we don’t give our body rest, it will eventually stop us in our tracks anyway!
Be excessively gentle with yourself.
Excitement uses energy too
It’s worth noting that the experience of excitement in the body is on the same continuum as fear/stress – it has quite similar effects in the body such as adrenaline kicking in and the heart rate going up. In small and mild doses it helps our performance and gives us good energy. It feels great to be anticipating a big event coming up or feeling the excitement and buzz on the actual day. Just remember that staying in that state for any length of time is using energy. It’s a state the body can handle easily in short doses, but is only supposed to be temporary, so bringing the body back into a state of calm and equilibrium is important for ongoing health. This is definitely worth keeping in mind if you are someone who is super passionate about your work.
It’s not that we don’t want to be excited and having fun (oh mercy!) but sometimes it’s good to remember that we can be happy and calm, and that is rather nice too. Bring gentleness to your juicy, exciting moments.
More than anything, keep listening to your body and feel for what it needs. It will tell you every time. (If you tune in and listen).