On Stress


Stress and fatigue. How could they possibly have anything to do with a classical musician?

We are taught to be hypercritical towards ourselves, to strive for perfection, and to keep pushing ourselves to "make it". To stay in the game, getting gigs and butter on our bread. But it's not just that. The whole world is stressful right now, what with Covid-19 and all.

The thing is, I thought that being stressed and anxious was alright as long as I could still work. I got out of bed in the morning and did things all day so I must have been fine, even though I felt like shit. I had to read a book about a person with three burnouts to realize that this isn't how everyone does it. That I might be suffering from fatigue or exhaustion. And that this isn't the first time. Unfortunately the book is only in Finnish, but if you can, read it - Eeva Kolu: Korkeintaan vähän väsynyt was a real eye-opener for me.

Hopefully this post can help someone feel less alone with their own process, or be a little kinder towards themselves.

Here are some thoughts that I used to have on stress and fatigue (spoiler alert - they weren't doing me any favours):

  1. I'm not allowed to be exhausted, because many people work much more than me. Tiring so easily means that I'm a lazy shit, not an indication of needing to rest.
  2. I love what I do, so I'm not allowed to whine about it stressing me out.
  3. Whenever I'm offered a gig, I have to take it if I can. Wanting free time is no reason to turn down opportunities and money. If I don't take all the things, I'm lazy and I will fail at life.
  4. If the stress is just in my head, it's unfounded and stupid. (Where else would it be? But this is how I thought.) I'm a person who easily gets stressed and anxious about things that don't affect other people, and then I feel guilty. As if stress is only acceptable if other people say that they feel it too.
  5. I'm just an irritable person. (I'm not. Stress and fatigue make me so. I become very mean and annoying.)
  6. I don't have insomnia, I just don't sleep very well. I'm not allowed to whine about it because other people have it worse than me.
  7. Walking is for wimps. When you're jogging, you have to run all the way. Otherwise you're a lazy sod.

I could continue this list for quite a bit longer, but most of the things fall in two basic categories: a) Me not being allowed to feel things because other people have it worse and b) Me being a lazy shit for being tired. Reading that book I finally understood how stupid these thougths are. I have a right to feel exactly as tired and stressed as I'm feeling. Okay, some people cope with much more on their plate, but they're other people. That's nothing to do with me. The fact that my stress is often unnecessary and only in my head doesn't make it any less real to me, and only by acknowledging it I've been able to start coming to terms with it. I know it sounds obvious, but understanding that I don't have to feel guilty for being tired was a huge revelation. I also realized that I have a personal warning system that activates whenever I should slow down. Here are some examples:

  • Anger. I'm on a bad mood for no reason, becoming irritable and just mean.
  • Sleeping becomes an issue. Laying there in the dark without any distraction from my thoughts? No thank you.
  • Doing fun things becomes a burden. A shopping trip with my sister? A concert date? Lunch with friends? Instant panic and anxiety.

Having realized this I started to change. My life isn't magically more amazing, but it does feel a little bit easier - just realizing that these signs are telling me to take a rest helps. What I do is I try to give myself permission to feel like I feel, and arrange time off when I need it. (Takes an effort, I warn you.) I'm managing my workload whenever possible, and I try to be realistic on how much I can handle without becoming a nervous wreck. Because the longer I let the anxiousness, the stress, and the tiredness reign, the longer it takes to return to a good place. Also I walk outside. It's amazing what air does to you. This is especially true when I'm really tired and stressed, and I would just want to get drunk, play Candy Crush, and not have thoughts. Those times, I've discovered, are exactly the ones when it's most important to go out, do yoga, eat the damn salad, and not hide from the life that is happening to you.

I bet some of you are now thinking, what's she on about? Girl, you should relax! And you would be right, I should. Thing is, it isn't something I can decide just like that. What I can do is to start creating new thought patterns and building a way of life that is less stressful for me - noticing symptoms of fatigue, and learning to react to them early enough.

One huge personal win: Nowadays when I go jogging, I walk whenever I want. Sometimes it's all the way, sometimes just occasionally. It's such a small change, but it feels like I'm really living on the edge, being wild. Being free.