Are you feeling stressed? Don’t ignore the symptoms

Tom Pollock, our guest blogger for Mental Health Awareness Week and author of White Rabbit, Red Wolf, explores this year's theme: stress


Ah, stress.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that we have a mental health awareness week! People should be more aware of their mental health – especially if they aren’t experiencing problems with it at *this* exact moment. There’s a tendency to forget that mental health is something that everyone has, just like everyone has for example, cardiac health. People forget this though. It can lead to them not taking much care of themselves, or treating people who are mentally ill as some fundamentally distinct species. Instead, they’re just people who have simply gotten ill.

That said, one thing that narks me…

(You might even say stresses me) is when all mental illness is lumped together into one undifferentiated mass. There would never be a physical health awareness week – it’s too broad, people wouldn’t know where to start. Sometimes I think we have a tendency to confuse the vast array of different types, symptoms and categories of mental illness (depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, bipolar, BPD and PTSD) into a single blob marked ‘crazy.’ The same is true for severity. We tend to reserve the term ‘mentally ill’ for people whose condition is severe. That sets up a binary where people are either healthy, or in crisis, with nothing in between. That in turn can make it harder for people to talk about their mental health, for fear of being assumed to be in breakdown, which can stop them from seeking help. Then, their health can deteriorate until they are actually in crisis.

This is complicated

And it’s made even more complicated by the fact that people often have more than one condition at once. I, for example, am currently in treatment for clinical depression, anxiety and bulimia. To the diagnostic manual, these are different conditions, but to me, they’re just parts of me. I tend to think of it a bit like looking at a mountain on a cloudy day. Different crags poke through the mist. Each crag has its own contours, shapes and qualities. You can give each one a different name, but they’re all parts of the same bit of rock.

This might sound like I’m contradicting myself from earlier where I bemoaned talking about all mental health conditions like they were the same, but I promise I’m not. Because while anxiety, bulimia and checking the door 17 times before I leave the house are all crags on my personal mental mountain, everyone else (and I don’t just mean people with diagnosed conditions, I mean everyone else) has their own mountains, and all those mountains are different. Different steepnesses and densities, made of different stones. Some are covered in grass and sheep, some in snow. Some are volcanoes.

Which brings me back to stress.

If we’re going to have one week to raise awareness of all mental health, then I’m glad this year’s theme is stress. The one thing that all my various mental health experiences have in common is that stress makes it worse. Stress is the great exacerbator. It’s also, the one area where awareness of my mental health is probably most useful, because I can plan ahead. I can be like ‘ooh, I have a book coming out in May, that’s likely to be a bit stressful…maybe I should make a point of being a bit kinder to myself then? Book in times to get out and go for walks, tell my friends so they can keep an eye out for me going off the rails.’ It seems obvious but it helps, it really does.

It can be easy to dismiss stress.

I was watching an episode of the West Wing last night where Pres Bartlett (who I otherwise revere and love) shrugged it off saying ‘stress is for other people’. It can be easy to think ‘everyone has stress, therefore it’s not a big deal, therefore I should ignore it’.  But if you start having an asthma attack, you don’t ignore it until you asphyxiate on the basis that everyone breathes the same air. The fact that ‘it happens to everyone’ doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal either, after all, everyone loves, and everyone dies.

So do me a favour. Go easy on yourself. You deserve it.

White Rabbit, Red Wolf by Tom Pollock is out now, published by Walker Books. You can follower Tom on Twitter @tomhpollock and Instagram @thjpollock.

Next Steps

  • The Mix's Stresshead tool was designed by young people to help relax and distract you when it all gets too much. It also has great stress-relief advice.
  • AnxietyUK run helplines, email support, live chats and therapy services for people with anxiety disorders. 08444 775 774
  • Eating Disorders Support has a telephone helpline with 24/7 answer message service and email support for people with eating disorders and anyone concerned about them. Call on 01494 793223.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.

By Tom Pollock

Updated on 14-May-2018