Life without limits

Every couple of months, I have a regular appointment with my psychiatrist. Most times, there’s not much to report, but for me these check-ups are an important way of keeping on-top of my bipolar disorder.

Last week, during one of our appointments, I mentioned to my psychiatrist that I had received a promotion at work. Invariably, this job will involve more work, more responsibility and – potentially – more stress.

Upon hearing this news, my psychiatrist commented (to my surprise) that – in fact – not all stress is bad. She told me about a successful businessman she knew, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his early 40’s. Since his diagnosis, he has been so scared of stress – and what it might do to him – that he has quit his job, refuses to travel overseas and rarely leaves his home. In his case, the desire to keep all stress out of his life has actually stopped him from living life to the full.

To be honest, I could kind of see where he was coming from. Knowing that stress is a big trigger for my condition, my friends and family often warn me against taking on things that will cause too much stress. And I try to listen… in most cases.

The thing is though, I tend to agree with my psychiatrist that not all stress is bad. Without some stress in our life, we probably wouldn’t be motivated to get things done, or achieve new things.

The trick is trying to find the right balance. While a little stress before a presentation or deadline might help me to put my head down and get the job done – too much stress will see me lying awake at night, thoughts racing through my head and having difficulty sleeping.

For most people, loosing a couple of night’s sleep might just mean they need an extra strong coffee in the morning.  But for me, a string of sleepless nights could be enough to trigger a manic episode.

With this in mind, I try to keep a close eye on the level of stress in my life and – where possible – keep it as low as possible.  One of the ways I do this is to stop myself from volunteering on every committee I’m asked to join, or booking up every night of the week.  I’ve also chosen to work for an organisation that encourage work/life balance and values their employees.   After all, at the end of the day, my health and happiness are more important than the size of my paycheck.

Still, like anyone, I find stress creeping into my life.  Last year, during an especially stressful period, I went to see a psychologist.  She gave me some great tips on keeping stress – and subsequent anxiety – under control.  One of her tips was when I found myself stressing about something to take a break and do something to distract and soothe my anxious mind – like making a cup of tea, or taking a walk around the office or block.  She then suggested I ask myself, “what’s the worst thing that can possibly happen?”

I found myself using this advice when dealing with my seven year old on the way to school this week.  Running late, he was starting to stress.  I casually asked him, “what’s the worst thing that could happen if you are late?” and listened as he told me he was nervous about having to go to the office to get a late pass.  I then told him that if we were late, I would walk him into school and I would tell the office staff it was my fault he was late (which it was!) and then walk him to his classroom.  This immediately calmed him down, as he realised that actually – being late wasn’t going to be the end of the world.

So the moral of the story?  I’ve learnt that stress isn’t always a bad thing – it’s how we deal with it that matters.  There are great strategies to keep our stress levels under control. I’ve just got to start putting them into practice…

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