Sunday 30 April 2017

How to be happy: Part One

In the first of a five-step tutorial on managing stress and fostering positive mental health, Dr Claire Hayes asks us to take time to smell the roses

Cravings, especially for sugary foods, can be a sign of heightened stress levels Photo: Depositphotos
Cravings, especially for sugary foods, can be a sign of heightened stress levels Photo: Depositphotos

Winter has arrived. The days seem shorter and we are reminded everywhere that time is running out as we head towards Christmas. Children may even think it has arrived already.

People say life speeds up as we get older. That has certainly been my experience. I sometimes feel as if I am on a fast train that is zooming through my days, weeks and months.

One of my favourite poems is 'Leisure' by WH Davis, which was published in 1911. It starts with a question:

"What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?"

I only recently learned that WH Davis led a life filled with challenges, including the loss of one of his legs when he was 28 years old. His foot was crushed as he tried to jump on to a moving train and he lived the rest of his life with a wooden peg to help him walk.

I don't intend jumping on to a moving train, but I would like the one I am on to slow down so I can get off.

Are our lives actually more stressful now, or does it only seem that way? People throughout time have faced enormous challenges. Perhaps the difference is that our ancestors had time to recover in-between. They may also have been better at asking for and taking support than many of us are.

Interestingly, most of us cope well with the major stresses of life, such as bereavement or illness. We recognise that it is acceptable for us to feel pressured and distressed. Others recognise that too and support us.

What about the other stresses? The ones that are so tiny that we may not even see them. These may include being late due to unexpected heavy traffic; an unexpected bill; requests to help out at a local or family event; arriving home without remembering to get milk and bread; spilling something on our jumper as we walk out of the door with no time to change. The list is endless.

No time to change. Is that true? How would it be for each of us if we took time to change. It is never too late. Mindful approaches to life teach us to focus on the present moment, letting the past go and the future be.

Sometimes I do this. I look up from what I am doing and notice what is around me. I have learned to ignore the automatic, taunting thought: "Why didn't I notice this before?" Instead, I wonder how it was that until I deliberately looked, I had not seen the colours, the people, the life that surrounded me. I don't always remember to do it, but when I do it takes just moments.

My interest in helping people cope with stress began in 1988 when I carried out research looking at how people in different professions coped with it. It was not about how much stress they had but instead about the internal and external supports they used. I started to teach others to cope with stress and on one occasion was invited to be a guest speaker at a conference that my parents attended.

I remember well the puzzlement in my dad's voice as he asked me afterwards if I ever listened to myself as I spoke. He knew, as I did, that I really did teach what I needed to learn. It was no accident that I was drawn to help others understand and manage stress.

In this series of five articles I will share things that I have found help me understand and manage my stress. They are probably not going to be anything you do not know already. But, perhaps now is the time for you to reflect on them again and to see how you can incorporate them more into your life.

The first is to invite you to slow down. To notice which stressors give you pleasure and which cause you distress? How do you know when you have simply too many stressors and insufficient resources to cope with them? Is it when you lose things, break things, snap, withdraw, cry, eat sugary foods, drink to excess, or experience a combination of all of these? We each have our own signs.

Someone asked me recently how can we know if we are "too stressed". I realised 30 years ago that when I began to crave a particular type of chocolate I was too stressed. Now I recognise other signs. I become overly sensitive to the views of others and increasingly harsh on myself. I pile on more and more work, activities and demands, forgetting how important it is to recharge my own batteries.

The ultimate warning sign for me is when my sleep becomes affected. Then, I know, really know, that it is time to slow down. It is time to change because exactly as WH Davies answered in the end of his poem 'Leisure:

"A poor life this if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.

Dr Claire Hayes is clinical director with mental health charity Aware, which provides nationwide support, education and information services around depression and bipolar disorder. Register online at fitmagazine.ie for the 11th Annual Aware Christmas Run, which takes place on December 10 in the Phoenix Park

Irish Independent

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