When first I started this blog, I promised you both the ups and the downs of running a livery yard.
I am a very positive person, so the downs are few and far between for me. Especially as I am so grateful for everything I have professionally and everything we have achieved as a family. Any minor downs are happily brushed off as part and parcel of living the dream. Well, my dream, at least.
However, I think there is one thing worth talking about that has affected me over the last year or so and I know I am not alone in this.
Always a little late to the party, having missed The Mental Health Foundation’s mental health awareness week in May, I would like to talk about stress.
I am not a psychologist, but it is my understanding (from a highly accurate and dependable Google search) that there are different types of stress:
Acute stress is your body’s fight or flight response to an immediate or impending situation. This is the kind of stress you feel when a bolting horse runs towards you on a narrow lane or you discover an escaped pony has broken into the feed room and has devoured three sacks of dry sugar beet.
It is the kind of stress you feel when you are carrying a tray of teas and coffees and a horse fly lands on your arm. Or the kind where you are poo picking in the field and an itchy looking horse sidles over to your full wheelbarrow and starts rubbing against it, causing you to run towards them, flailing your arms madly and shouting incoherently at the horse in something that closely resembles a linguistic blend of ancient Arabic and speaking in tongues (No? Just me?).
This is, generally, a useful ‘fight or flight’ kind of stress that allows you to deal with the current situation effectively (for example, mad panic plus Arabic), before returning to a more normal and relaxed state of mind and body once the stressor has passed.
Episodic acute stress is the frequent suffering of acute stress. It is usually attributed to a personality type. The, ‘why does it always happen to me?’ types. The, ‘if something can go wrong, it will,’ types.
We all know people who seem to continually have one disaster after another in their life. Their horse goes lame, then their hay man never turned up, they’ve lost their horse’s passport and they’ve got a big competition coming up, they ordered a new numnah, but it’s arrived in the wrong size.
Chronic stress occurs when acute stress is not resolved and starts to increase or continues for a long time.
In normal stress response, levels of the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, return to normal once the perceived threat has passed. It is that feeling of relief and your heart rate calming down once the bolting horse has been caught and put safely into a stable.
In chronic stress, the levels of stress hormones in the body remain high all the time, leaving that person in a constant state of fight or flight.
It is not healthy. Chronic stress affects our physical and mental well-being, sleep and brain function. Ultimately, chronic stress can lead to exhaustion and burnout. Even suicide.
It is this chronic stress that has caught up with me over the past year or so.
I was a little disillusioned in my belief that I could not suffer from stress because I am a very relaxed person. So laid back, I’m horizontal, I’ve been told more than once.
I had mistakenly associated stress with anxiety. I am not a worrier, so I could not possibly be stressed? It appears I was wrong. Stress can come about simply from being ‘on the go’ all the time. Basically from being very, very busy.
I cannot complain about my stress, because it has been caused purely by my successes and passions. The yard, horses, liveries and my family are all stressors in my life and I wouldn’t be without any of them. I would not want to whinge about my lifestyle, because it is pretty awesome! But starting the day in a rush at 6.30am and finishing the day in only slightly less of a rush at midnight every single day does start to take its toll. I was amazed at the very real physical effects that stress had on my body.
It took a while for me to diagnose my stress. I started noticing that I would have regular bouts of nausea whenever I got in the car to drive and in the evenings, at home. The nausea was so significant that I went to the extent of confirming that the impossible had not happened (again) and bought a pregnancy test. After cracking open the Prosecco in relief to celebrate the negative result, I talked my symptoms through with various friends. They helped me to realise that the nausea was a side effect of running on such high levels of adrenaline all the time. The moment I stopped rushing about (sitting down to drive somewhere or eat dinner) was when I would feel unwell.
I was also clenching my jaw horrifically at night, which gave me a condition called TMJD where your jaw becomes painful and locks and clicks while talking, yawning or chewing.
I was experiencing random heart palpitations, confusion and brain fog so extreme that I once sprayed air freshener under my arms instead of deodorant and walked around for the rest of the day exuding the aromas of Glade’s Warm Winter Hug in apple, cinnamon and nutmeg. Ideal.
I would also say that the past year or two has left with me a quantity of grey hairs and lines on my face that I would call an injustice to my actual age. I might well be steaming ahead into my early thirties, but I do feel the face of a sun-loving pensioner is a slightly harsh price to pay for my lifestyle.
The ‘treatment’ for stress is essentially, remove the stressors, look after your body and indulge in some self-care. My stressors will not go away and I would not want them to. It is completely unrealistic to remove stress from my life, so instead, I now try to manage it:
• I take one day a week off from the yard and try to keep it a horse-free day. My husband does his bit to ensure this happens by writing ‘HORSE FREE DAY!’ on my weekly planner for me. Living on-site makes this a lot harder now, but I am learning to fiercely defend my sacred Sundays (you always end up doing just a little bit of work, though).
• I respond to messages as soon as I can, but when is reasonable to me (unless urgent). I refuse to be at the mercy of my phone.
• I am lucky that my job involves plenty of exercise and time spent outside. Both are excellent stress busters.
• I make time for things outside of work that I love — going to the beach with the kids on a sunny day or running 5km round the block.
• I ask for help. Whether that is feeding the kids while I finish up the stables or picking up some feed bags for me, if I need to delegate, I will.
Riding is a huge stress reliever for so many of us. I think that is part of the bug.
I have been making time to get some training in with my coaches, Mark and Becky, at Lakefield Equestrian Centre. Aside from the gains this gives me in self-esteem from practising and developing my knowledge, skills and techniques, there is something very relaxing about sitting back and letting someone else run the show for a while.
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Katy and Chunky made a successful eventing debut and now have ambitions for Badminton
It could be that, or it could be the fact that I get to sit alone in the car for 40 minutes each way, able to belt out whatever chart single is on Radio One without any small people to insult and criticise my singing. This could be the best therapy and stress relief known to man.
I think we have to accept that stress is simply a part of modern life. If you have horses in your life, too, then stress probably IS your life. Do what you can to minimise stress, put measures in place to ensure you are physically and mentally as well as you can be, take any help you are offered and lastly… try really hard not to stress about stress!
I certainly feel much better.
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