The more observant amongst you may have noticed that I haven’t been around for a while. I’ve been dealing with a whole load of Complicated Life Stuff – a perfect storm of stressful life events. It’s not the first time this has happened – earlier in the year I had a period when both my parents were ill, one of my kids was unwell, I was in the middle of a house sale that fell through and then developed a mystery illness all of my own. I remember sitting on the Tube on the way to visit my dad in hospital, having spent the morning with my mum in a different hospital, trying to breathe my way through a rising sense of panic that gripped my chest so hard I could barely breathe.
I don’t want to be overdramatic about it – after all, there are plenty of people who have it worse, and most of my friends my age are dealing with all sorts of crap. But how do you cope with it all without imploding yourself, when you have 101 things all crying out for your attention and you’re the one person in the middle, holding it all together?
Well, I can’t claim to have any perfect answers – the truth is there’s no ideal solution – but I have figured out a few things that have helped me to stay in reasonable shape even in the dark times. Here are my five top tips for how to stay healthy when shit happens.
1. Be really, really clear about your priorities.
When everyone wants a piece of you, you need to know, without stopping to think, who or what comes first. For me it goes like this: family, paid work, sport, social life, unpaid work, housework. Strictly in that order. Which is why I haven’t blogged for a while and why my house is a disgrace. Because I’m clear about where my priorities lie, I won’t beat myself up about the cobwebs or the dust, and if a few readers fall away I’ll be sorry to see them go, but I won’t give myself a hard time about it. I put my sport above my social life, partly because I rely on exercise to stay healthy and partly because I happen to do a uniquely sociable sport. I wouldn’t judge you if you put them the other way round. Friends are super-important too.
2. Accept the way things are.
I’m not talking about adopting a defeatist air of resignation. What I am talking about is learning to stop fighting the fact that things are shit at the moment and accept that, for now, that’s just the way it is. It doesn’t mean you don’t do everything in your power to improve the situation. But it does mean that you stop raging against the unfairness of it all. That you stop looking enviously at people who have it better. That you refuse to do the whole ‘why me?’ thing. That you stop the inner dialogue that begins, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me”. If you can do this – and I’m not saying it’s easy – it will instantly give you a whole load of energy that was being sapped away from you.
Accept, too, that you will almost certainly lose some fitness. The fact is that when life is complicated, unless you’ve put exercise at the top of your list of priorities, which I’m guessing is unlikely, the fact is you’re not going to be able to do as much as you’d like. Rather than lamenting this, it helps to accept it. I decided this year, quite early on, that there were certain big events I wasn’t going to compete in. So when I lost fitness it wasn’t a disaster. I was able to pick it up again later in the year when life calmed down a bit, and that was fine. Take the pressure off yourself. Don’t get talked into a marathon. Or a half marathon. There’s always next year, or the year after.
3. Be creative.
If you are going to get some exercise – and it helps if you can get some – then you may need to get a bit creative. When I was shuttling between hospitals, I had a complicated journey that involved different buses and tubes. So I changed the route to give me a 15-minute walk (yes, often in the rain) at the end of the journey and also saved me an extra bus ride. I also avoided the hospital lift (full of coughing people, anyway) and walked up to the seventh floor where my dad’s ward was. Believe me, seven floors’ worth of hospital stairs provide an ample daily workout.
Later, when the hospital visiting was all over but life hadn’t returned to its normal rhythm – I was still away from home for several days every week so there was no prospect of rowing – I took a deep breath and started running again for the first time in three years. And to my astonishment I discovered I almost quite liked it.
So what I’m saying is be prepared to get active in ways that you wouldn’t normally think of. You might not have a chance to get to the gym or an exercise class, but you may be able to fit something else in that keeps your heart rate up.
4. Remember to breathe
Stress has an incredibly corrosive effect on your health, as I discovered when I struggled to breathe on the underground earlier this year. If you’ve read this far, the chances are you’re going through – or have been through – a difficult, stressful time. You probably can’t change the thing that is causing your stress, but you can take steps to manage how you deal with the trauma. In the mindfulness course I did last year, one of the most useful things we learned was the mini-meditation – because, let’s face it, when shit happens the chances are you don’t have a handy 30 minutes to sit quietly on your own, contemplating your navel. A minute – less, even – to settle yourself, deepen your breath, relax your shoulders and jaw can make the difference between sinking and swimming. It’s what got me out of the tube in one piece without needing a hospital visit of my own and what enabled me to sleep – not exactly well, but enough to get by. If you don’t know where to start, try a meditation app like Headspace.
I also find it helps if I make an effort to eat well, go easy on the alcohol and the caffeine (OK, I’ll admit I’m not doing so well on the caffeine front) and when things are really tough, to take a supplement or two.
5. Accept all offers of help.
For a long time I was too proud to do this. I would tell everyone I was fine and soldier on. But then it dawned on me that people actually wanted to help. It made them feel better, too. So I started saying yes. One friend cleaned my house before a prospective buyer’s visit. Another did a load of ironing for me. A bunch of girlfriends clubbed together and paid for me to have a massage. And I’m looking forward to the time when I can return the favour. It all evens out over the course of a lifetime.
I hope that helps. I hope that if shit is happening to you, things get better soon. And I hope I’ll be back on the blogging case more regularly before too long.