I’ve been pretty stressed over the last couple of weeks: a growing feeling of pressure that I recognise with dread from last year.
Shutdown cramped fog-brain.
Last year, with the help of my counsellor, I was able to draw some good lessons from the opaque nastiness:
- The opposite of control is trust
- Responsibility is a powerful force: share it around or you’ll get fried
But it’s one thing to learn my lessons, it’s another thing entirely to be able to intervene decisively, in the shadow of the darkest fog, to give myself the best chance of rising strong.
For that, we’ll need more powerful medicine…
Do you know exactly how you were feeling a year ago today?
At 2pm on 12 May 2022, I was feeling a ‘not bad’ bog standard 3 out of 5. For context, here’s what I noted down at the time:
Working on the newsletter. Tired the last couple of days. Rising stress with Thighs?
You see, most days, I log how I’m feeling using a nifty little app that my dad made for me during the first Covid lockdown.
It’s dead simple: at a random time in the day, a box pops up on my computer and asks me how I’m feeling on a scale of 1 to 5. I can then add a few notes for context.
I’ve logged 644 days since September 2020 — almost exactly two thirds of available days — so there’s a good bunch of data in there now.
From all this delicious data, I can tell you that my average wellbeing score is 3.24.
I’d say that was a bit better than not bad, edging, in that very English way, towards pretty good.
I can also tell you that, contrary to the unfounded assertion of TS Eliot, April is not the cruellest month, but my happiest — and by some distance too.
Over the past three years, April scores an average of 3.63. The next happiest months are May and November, both scoring 3.33.
On the shoulder of summer, I think April takes me by delight with its leafy freshness, frisky birdsong and moony evenings.
While the April thing was unexpected, entirely predictable is my score from June last year, the nadir of my brain foggy symptoms.
June 2022 ~ May 2023
From 20 logged days, June 2022 scored a shocking 2.65 — a full 1.08 points lower than April of the same year.
Looking back over my text comments, it’s easy to see that I really wasn’t feeling great for a full fortnight in the second half of the month:
Woozy. Skin tender. Heady. Took painkillers. Hot. It is hot though.
Tired and heady and throaty. Sunny, hot. I felt better on Monday when it was cooler…
Just absolutely zapped. Another nap today. I thought this morning I was feeling a bit more energetic. Throat and nose better. But a headache (wine?!)
Just bumping along at the bottom. A bit heady. A bit sinusy. A bit tiredy. 2 weeks now…
What’s worrying is that these comments could have been written at any point this week. Here are my notes from the past two days:
Really tired today. Yesterday irritable. Today just whacked. Hot and headachey. Exhausted. Went for a run this morning and a meditate. Urgh.
Headache. Tired. Just classic brain foggy symptoms like last year. Stress? So what’s the solution, if any? I’m struggling to write, struggling to see the positive.
Just to be clear: I’m not worried that I don’t feel 5 out of 5 every single day — I’m human, after all.
No: I’m worried because I really don’t want to repeat how I responded to my lowest feelings last year.
2022: The Rest Recipe
Last year, my approach was to cancel things — often social activities — in a desperate attempt to create a feeling of space.
I cancelled a weekend of outdoor instructing. I stayed at home when my friends went for a bike ride in the New Forest. I even cancelled a big part of my fortieth birthday party — and, worse, forced everyone to meet me in Basingstoke.
Now. This urge to cancel isn’t an obviously stupid idea. I was feeling physically and mentally drained; it’s not insane to think that I needed to rest.
Indeed, the internet is littered with countless stress-busting blog posts featuring variations on the rest recipe:
- Cancel stuff to make space for yourself
- Run a bath, ideally with bubbles
- Light a candle
- Put on some whale song
- Read a book
The only problem with this approach, for me, is that it didn’t work — and often left me feeling worse.
So what might work for me?
In the words of the Michael J Fox movie that never was, it’s time to go…
Back To The Data!
Let’s flip over and look at what happened on the 23 days since 2020 when I have logged the top wellbeing score of 5.
What do these days have in common?
For starters, no fewer than a quarter of my best days have landed in Aprils, but besides that, I’ve identified three themes to my notes.
1. Active Time Outdoors
Sunny. Out all day, more or less. Saw G. Run, skate, walk.
18km walk. Sunny. Dartmoor. Slow morning reading. I was tired yesterday, but today’s walk and sun really energised me. Relaxing?! B came down in the evening.
Freezing cold toes, but loving the ride. In a community wood after burger and chips at Scotland’s best takeaway 2021 in Burntisland.
2. Seeing Friends And Family
Apart from getting soaked… Had a lovely morning with mum and dad, second breakfast at Chineside. Then cycled 50km with G and J!
So nice to be with thighs and eating amazing food! Super sunny too! H, G, E, J, J, A, F, I!
Tiredish, but happy to be here and with C. Faffed on the computer for ages, but then got a bit of focus on Monday Tasks.
3. Tired Contentment From The Feeling Of Having Been Well Used
I think this is my favourite commonality to my best days.
Tired, but content. Felt woozy a little earlier. One sneeze. Fluey!? DofE.
Tired, but great. Moon rising. Just got back from a great day’s walking in Dartmoor. Sunny, mostly. Gorgeous evening. Got back safe. Lovely, wind-chapped. Well used.
The thing that really jumps out at me from this analysis of my notes is that tiredness, discomfort, unproductivity and even flu symptoms don’t always mean I feel like shit.
Remember: these are days when I maxed out on happiness.
Physical and mental exhaustion can leave me feeling incredible.
2023: The Release Recipe
While I understand that the rest recipe is nice and can make space for pressure to dissipate, the evidence would suggest that, personally, I get much more out of the complete opposite:
- Instead of cancelling, commit to ecstatic (and probably social) experiences to build pressure
- Dance, sing, play
- Trip, meditate, pray
- Get sweaty, get sexy, get fresh air
- Then — boom! — let all that pressure go in a cathartic release
A good example of this was last week, when I travelled up to London to go and see Yard Act, not once, but twice, two nights in a row.
On the face of it, this was self-destructive behaviour. I wasn’t feeling great when I left home on Thursday lunchtime and I lost half a day of work and two nights of good sleep.
But that doesn’t even begin to capture what I gained.
The euphoria of the catharsis, the release, stayed with me all day on Friday and Saturday and, even though I was tired, I got plenty of good work done.
From Rest To Release
Just to be clear: I’m not against bubble baths.
I think the rest recipe might work well for people who lose their sense of self in the stress of their lives — those who feel that they are always serving others, perhaps.
They’d be justified (perhaps) in wanting a little more me-time.
But my stress is different: it’s the stress of too much me-time and, specifically, too much me-indoors-time.
It is my I that feels the responsibility of organising a 5,400km bike trip for 104 people and it is my I that works and (most often) lives alone, indoors, in front of this computer screen.
So it makes sense that creating more space for my I to be alone wouldn’t work too well at relieving the pressure.
What I need is to lose my I, forget my I, subsume my I to the ecstasy of the sublime experience. To get out of my head.
Even last year, with stress building to what felt like breaking point, the moment the wheels started turning and we set off from Glasgow with that first group of wonderful cyclists, every drop of stress fell away, released into the air.
If it’s release rather than rest that I need, then there’s simply no point cancelling things to create a sense of space.
This year, I’m determined to do the opposite: commit to much more time losing control in order to create a sense of release.
If the way I felt after going to see Yard Act (twice) is any guide, then this approach is also going to be a lot more fun than a bath — with or without bubbles.
ps: After writing two thirds of this newsletter, on Thursday, I left my computer and cycled out into the sundown to meet friends on the beach for pizza.
✔️ Well Used
It’ll surprise none of you to hear that I felt much better.
Thanks to G (👋) for the pizza, B & M (👋) for the dance, and C (👋) for the original inspiration.