Well, here we are – the last in the series of common causes of stress.
The last of these causes is arguably the biggest because of its far-reaching consequences and that is our health.
Except I think I may have inadvertently misled you.
When I started this series, I knew that the subject of health would form the final part of it but now I’m not sure if it’s entirely accurate to cite it as a common cause of stress – I’m not sure it’s in the same category as the others.
The reason is because our health is not just a potential cause of stress but a symptom of it. It’s all a bit chicken and egg – does poor health cause us stress or does stress cause us to have poor health? I rather suspect both to be true.
Health – it’s physical and mental
Even the word ‘health’ is a bit of a catch-all; when people talk about their health they can often be referring to totally different aspects of it.
For example, health is typically broken down into two categories – physical health and mental health – and these are the two that I’ll be talking about in this post.
However, there are plenty of people who would subscribe to a four-part health model which comprises of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.
I would park myself firmly in the category as a paid-up member of this model and believe the last two are as important as the first two in any conversation about holistic health.
However, they tend to not be as prevalent in discussions of poor, or ill, health and are intensely private and unique with respect to the individual involved.
Physical and mental health issues are experienced by pretty much all of us at some point or other and even if you feel that’s true for you, it’s almost certainly the case that you know someone it is true for.
Let’s back up and consider physical health for a moment. Even that term, ‘physical health’ covers a huge spectrum of possibility and topics.
For example, I regularly get cold sores. If it’s very bad, I get flu-like symptoms first and often need to stay in bed, sweating buckets and feeling horribly sorry for myself.
At the point where the cold sores deign to appear, all the other symptoms magically disappear and I feel absolutely fine again, even if I do look like the bride of Frankenstein!
Another example involves occasional back pain I get that occurs in a very specific place – always under my left shoulder-blade on the right-hand side; I can identify it with pin-point accuracy.
I could offer plenty of similar examples but it’s what connects them that’s interesting – they are all symptoms of emotional stress, manifesting in physical pain/illness to a greater or lesser degree.
I only get cold sores after a period of emotional stress – I often don’t realise this is the case until the cold sores appear and I immediately feel better. The back pain under my shoulder blade only occurs when I’ve had a bad day at work, never at any other time.
These are real, physical symptoms caused by real – but emotional – triggers.
Enter – the Stressless Wonder Challenge
It wouldn’t be true to say I’m in poor health but, like most people, I do have a lot of ‘health niggles’ that cumulatively build up to take the shines off the day. But how many of these are simply stress reflectors – the physical manifestation of something stressing me emotionally?
The reason this is important is because it means my health isn’t a cause of my stress; my stress is what is causing my health to suffer!
I do want to take a moment to acknowledge that there are plenty of illnesses and health conditions that are irrefutably a cause of stress.
A diagnosis of cancer or a big operation would be stressful for anyone as well as those around them and I don’t want to trivialise this in any way.
The focus of this post is to try and begin to answer the question as to whether all the health-related quirks we experience but put up with, are often about something else and whether it’s possible to address them in a more effective and positive way.
Enter the subject of mental health.
Mental health is the Rose Red to physical health’s Snow White; the slightly less popular and less important one we’d rather not focus on.
There may be a number of reasons for this but I’m going to suggest just one: fear. There remains a stigma around mental health and there is almost no discussion at all around mental wellness.
I really hope this changes in my lifetime. But until then, it’s important to acknowledge that it can be difficult to maintain good mental health in a world that ignores any other kind.
Mental health and ‘normal’
I would also argue that our society is more comfortable operating in the extremes than in the grey, murky shadows that lie somewhere in the middle. But that’s exactly where most of us live, especially when it comes to our mental health.
When we talk about mental health issues, it’s all too easy to jump to disorders and diagnoses. But that’s not how it works for the majority.
I know only a teensy tiny number of people who would claim they’ve had no mental health issues of any kind. But that doesn’t automatically mean they require any medical diagnosis or put on 24-hour watch either.
Even if you personally have never had any experience of stress, anxiety or depression, I’m willing to bet you know someone who has.
Whilst for some people they are affected to the point of requiring professional help, the majority just live with knowing that they may feel a little ‘off-kilter’.
They know there will be good days and bad days, highs and lows and that some days are just a little harder to get through than others.
I’m unsure as to whether this is all part of being human or not but I do believe that in this time and the current society in which we live, it’s normal to feel this way.
I also believe that it’s perfectly ‘normal’ to be naturally anxious or depressive and that some of us are just wired that way and in a world that is engineered to provide constant stimulation, we never switch-off completely and therefore the hormones race around like workaholic bees and refuse to take a day off.
A 24/7 news culture and social media don’t help. Nor does the fact we have collectively developed a habit of eating out of boxes, travelling in boxes, living and working in boxes and we unwind by watching ‘the box’ – we’ve lost our ability to connect with the people and natural world around us.
Listening to our body – it knows best
Where am I going with all this?
To make this point: we’ve somehow managed to create a world where maintaining a healthy, balanced mentality requires effort and it’s not a given. And to come full circle, back to where this post started, ill-health can sometimes be the cause of our stress but more often than not is a symptom of it.
It’s our bodies’ way of letting us know that something isn’t quite right and because our reflections don’t talk to us, it has to communicate with us in some other way. Babies cry, dogs bark, backs have pain, minds get worried.
It doesn’t have to be extreme or life-threatening. It just needs to be chronic and ongoing for long enough for us to decide we’ve had enough.
In my case, I have lots of signs and symptoms I’d associate with someone much older than me. And I often find I get socially anxious in a crowd or everyday sounds ‘hurt’ my ears when I’m tired or down.
I know my health reflects my resilience to cope with the world at any given time and it’s this resilience I’m looking to build.
[Update: Since writing this post, I’ve taken a free online course in resilience. You can read my review here.]
We all have different health issues and we all have different tolerances, goals and priorities. But most of us could benefit from consciously and actively reducing our stress levels and improving both out physical and mental health.
Let me know what works for you in the comments below.