Caroline works for the PR department of a major publishing house. Her telephone never stops ringing: authors complaining that she’s neglecting them; journalists furious they’ve not been invited to a book launch; the work experience girl has gone home without doing the photocopies for an urgent press pack. The alarm on her BlackBerry beeps — she's got to go and fetch her daughter for a doctor’s appointment. Caroline grits her teeth. Just two more weeks until the spa trip she’s been so looking forward to. At last she’ll be able to unwind and get rid of all this stress…
Reaching boiling point
We now know that this bulimic way of handling stress — letting it build up until it boils over and you’re forced to stop everything for several days — doesn’t work, and may even be dangerous. It’s exactly that chronic accumulation of stress and anxiety that is bad for the body and saps our positive mood. It clogs up arteries, raises blood pressure, attacks neurones, weakens memory and reduces concentration. It also undermines the immune system, leaving us more vulnerable to colds and even, no doubt, to cancer. It’s also what makes us put on weight and gives us premature wrinkles. What really counts is not leisure time and taking holidays, but how we spend our work days.
Frances manages her life differently. She’s a nurse and, like Caroline, is bombarded by urgent requests from all sides. But she never stops smiling. It’s as if she can plunge into stressful situations for a few minutes when required, and then emerge unscathed. Recent studies have shown that people who react like Frances regain their physiological and emotional equilibrium faster than others. They have a number of little techniques at their command that help them function in the heat of the action, and then walk away. They’re supple, like the reed in La Fontaine’s fable that the wind can’t break.
If you really want to manage your stress levels, don’t wait until the holidays, but deal with it on a daily basis. We are starting to understand the automatic reactions of people like Frances. They quickly identify that they’ve begun to tense up inside, and make immediate adjustments, as we do in yoga practisc: slower, deeper breathing, loosening the shoulders, neck held straight, concentrating on that gentle feeling in the chest that comes as you breathe in and out. To regain their equilibrium, they also concentrate on happy memories. And maybe that is the real value of holidays: to create the stock of happy memories that we can use when we need them.