One morning not so long ago, in a central London office, it dawned on me that I couldn’t remember the last time I felt really happy. It was a judder of a realisation, catapulting into crisp focus when my editor asked me a seemingly innocuous question over the desk. “How happy would you rate yourself out of five?” she said. I paused, scrunched my brow in thought, studying the pen in my hand as if it held the answer to her query. “Two?”
Now, I am not an ‘unhappy’ person. I laugh a lot, I’m interested in things. I find my career rewarding. I have friends (and a loving boyfriend) and I am certainly not morose (OK!?). But I am stalked daily – as so many of us are – by a frothing, gnashing, unconquerable beast: stress.
S.T.R.E.S.S. Six poisonous letters strung together to form an arrow so toxic it is capable of taking down even the most powerful of people – politicians, world leaders, business honchos. Stress can be obliterating, it can be career-destroying and in some severe cases, even fatal. For me, the causes of my stress are myriad and not unusual: a little self-doubt, a lot of anxiety, the ever-present fear of disappointing others and the tendency to over-worry about the wellbeing of my family. Plus the simple fact that I am a young professional living in London – we’re all bloody stressed (a recent study revealed that over half of all UK women would describe themselves as ‘moderately or extremely’ stressed); I am certainly not alone. But stir each of these ingredients into a cauldron and you’ll soon see: it ain’t a pretty potion.
Recently, it had got to a point where these daily stresses, exacerbated by a brilliant but high-pressure job, were starting to have a curious impact on my health. The symptoms were bizarre at times: strange and erratic spasms in my nose, a completely numb tongue, a wet feeling in my knee. At one point I even ended up in A&E because doctors thought the choking sensation I was feeling was caused by a fishbone stuck in my throat. All these things, no matter how benign they may sound on their own, were eventually put down to one thing: stress.
So when the chance came to turn my life, as I had been living it, on its head, I felt I owed it to myself to grasp it. It involved risk: leaving a job that I loved and was doing well at to travel the world as an unemployed woman approaching her thirties (with no current permanent address – gulp), but I felt compelled to see what effect taking a hiatus from my normal routine would have on my wellbeing. In a way, it was an experiment. I wanted to wrestle out of the hold that stress had on me. To perhaps try and recalibrate, to start again.
Thus, I am writing this post ‘on the road’, from a remote campsite near Chobe National Park in Botswana (there are now elephants in my ‘office’). My boyfriend chose to join me on my trip – leaving his job, too – and we’ve been out of the UK for almost a month now. Not only have I already noticed physical changes in myself (no random facial paroxysms for a start), I’ve also, even in this short time, learnt things about stress that I never would have learnt from behind a desk in London. Here are just a few of them:
1. Everyone has work stress
It’s all too easy (and self-indulgent) to assume that we are more stressed than anyone else because we work harder, because our jobs are more important, or because we have more demands on our time and our resources. But this is simply not true. Everywhere you go, you will find people – from rural farmers in Botswana, to corporate workers in Australia – who are fighting an epic battle against the stresses of working life: long hours, difficult bosses, workplace politics, doubts about performance.
One chap I met recently in South Africa put things into rather harsh perspective for me. After he gave one of his employees a less-than-glowing appraisal, rather than simply belittling him to her friends and undermining his authority at all future opportunities, she instead tried to top him off; poisoning him with iron filings that she had grated onto the top of his birthday cake to look like chocolate sprinkles. He spent the next week bed-bound, vomiting and sweating profusely, desperately trying to flush the poison out of his system. (Talk about a bad day in the office). Another man I met, who had worked devotedly for years as a handyman on a farm, was blighted daily by fears that his livelihood would be taken away from him. One day, he saw a group of hostile-looking men wearing balaclavas closing in on the farm. Terrified that they were armed and intent on pillaging the house, he activated the security alarm and told the owner and her daughter (with a small baby in her arms) to lock themselves away behind the security gate. It was only after the police and hordes of neighbours had shown up, armed with their very own firearms, that he realised these men weren’t violent robbers at all – they were a team sent by the agricultural ministry to spray the nearby crops with pesticide…
2. Patience is a virtue
If travelling has done anything for me, it has made me realise quite how ludicrous my need for instant gratification had become back in the UK. It’s still there, of course, worrying away, testing the fences every now and then, but I’m having to learn to sit in the discomfort and deal with not having everything I goddam want at my fingertips the very moment I should happen to want it. At first, faced with no phone signal and not even the faintest glimmer of wifi access, I could literally feel my fingers itch whenever a question popped into my head that I was unable to google on my phone (‘Has a hyena ever attacked a human?’ ‘What does a flamingo baby look like?). In the early evenings I’d look forlornly at my watch and wonder what on earth I was going to do with the next few hours when there was no bad television to keep me occupied (answer: go to bed at half seven and wake up at four). But I had to snap out of it sharpish. Because EVERYTHING takes ages when, like us, you are camping, especially in Africa (“No hurry in Africa!”, the locals like to say). If you want to shower with warm water, for example, it’s likely you’ll have to go round the back of your camping plot, attempt (with varying degrees of success) to light the ‘donkey’ – that’s a fire that burns underneath a water tank – and then wait approximately forty-five minutes for the heat to take effect. If you want to move your car ever so slightly, you’ll have to pack up your roof tent (a mind-numbing process) and tuck away your sleeping bags, pillows and belongings, before even moving an inch. But while (necessary) routines like these are frustrating, and the lack of digital entertainment in the evenings might be hideously painful, I’m actually starting to think that learning to slow down could be integral to beating stress. By removing the culture of instant access that has seeped into every part of my existence at home (a culture that means I get pissed off when my wifi cuts out between stations on the tube), and by trying to learn to just sit and do absolutely nothing whenever the opportunity arises (which is all the time when you’re camping), I might eventually start to dull the fiery behemoth of stress. Maybe.
3. Being a woman will always be stressful
Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, wherever you are travelling to, life will always be a little bit more stressful if you are a woman. Sorry, but ‘tis true. As well as the routine biological stuff – not being able to wee standing up has been a surprising hindrance for me on this trip, and I live in fear of being caught short without tampons if my period starts while I’m camping in the middle of the bush (I stuffed a whole compartment of my rucksack with sanitary towels lest this happens) – there’s the more depressing stuff, too: at times you will feel unsafe, you will often be ignored, you will be leered at routinely, you will be underestimated and you will be roundly judged. I’ve found this happens pretty much wherever you go. And it sucks.
4. It pays to let some things slide
When I left for this trip, I made a pact with myself: that I would stop giving myself such a hard time – about what I ate, about how I looked, about what I achieved. I even broke my own ‘no shorts’ rule and have let my mottled, fleshy thighs spill out of what can only be described as ‘safari hotpants’ with abandon for the last few weeks. Also, instead of monitoring my diet to excruciating lengths and denying myself anything that looks like it contains even a tiny milligram of fun (as I’m wont to do at home), I have watched my stomach swell to Augustus Gloop proportions as I’ve gobbled down mountains of bread, bucketloads of additive-laced drinks (I hereby pledge my allegiance to Sparletta’s Sparberry flavour), chocolate, crisps, cakes, biscuits, beer, sweets. You name it: I’ll consume it. And let me tell you – it’s been pretty fun so far. Just don’t photograph me from below, ok?
5.You will always be able find something to worry about
Of course, if you’re a natural fretter like me, wherever you are and whatever you are doing, you will always find something to focus your anxiety on (what else would we do with our time?). For eg. What if the gas tank explodes in the car and we all go down in a fiery inferno? What if that rumble I just heard was in fact the beginnings of a tsunami? What if we hit a marauding herd of elephants on the road on the way to the airport and write off the car? For some of us, stress, worry and anxiety is a part of our daily lives. It is always going to manifest in some way because it is as much a part of us as our fingerprints. But by taking a step back, forcing ourselves to live and think a bit differently (even if only temporarily) and refocussing the way we approach stress, maybe we can learn to assimilate it into our lives in the least harmful way possible? At least that’s what I’m hoping to do.