National Stress Awareness Month 2022

Stress 1
Me, c. 2006
© Sue Littleford, 2022

April is National Stress Awareness Month. This is at least a fifteen-minute read, but I make no apology for it.

A few days ago, I attended a webinar on burnout by Kate Horwood, under the auspices of IPSE. It’s a subject I’m interested in, as burnout in my last employment directly led to my being freelance for fifteen years and counting. As I always say, even in the most stressful time of getting my business on its feet (pro tip, do try not to set up a new business in the year before there’s a global financial crisis…) came nowhere near what that employer put me through.

That experience left me on a bit of a hair trigger for overwhelm, though, so managing stress has been something I’ve been keen to learn about. And talking to other freelance editors, as I do at least weekly, I hear them say things that worry me. So, combining my own experience and some of the great things Kate Horwood had to say, here’s my take on managing your stress as a freelancer.

Disclaimer: this is all anecdotal. This is not medical advice. I’m talking about environmental and workplace stresses. Seek professional help as soon as you suspect you may need it, or when the folks around you are suggesting it. If they’re doing that, take notice. They’re not wrong.

Also a disclaimer: I don’t have it all down pat. I do dumb things and screw things up on a regular basis. That’s fine, I’m human. But I do keep trying.

Some stress can be useful

First, the elephant in the room. Stress isn’t always bad. Acute stress is a useful survival feature and it can give you focus, alertness and energy. Here, I’m talking about chronic stress. That’s the dangerous kind.

Chronic stress

If you’re feeling many or all of: disengaged from the people around you, or your daily life; unusually negative or cynical; overwhelmed; drained, tired all the time; isolated; full of self-doubt; or if you are procrastinating more and more, or are getting physical symptoms, then you probably have chronic stress. If those feelings pass, that’s good. After all, they’re all entirely normal parts of everyone’s life from time to time. If they stick around for a few weeks, then you probably have chronic stress.

Chronic stress means that the hormones that prepare you for action in the face of a threat remain raised, even when there’s no immediate situation requiring that level of preparedness.

It will help you to reduce chronic stress so that when relevant stress comes along – a challenging deadline, a family crisis or a health issue – you have the bandwidth to deal with it, and then that stress will pass and you will fall back to a calm state. Read on for some ideas on how to do this. I’m not pretending it’s easy, but I’m definitely saying it’s possible.

I’d also say that recognising the signs, or taking notice when other people say you’re looking stressed, is key to making early change. Don’t do what I did. I ignored it. I was fine. I went to the doctor about abdominal pain I’d been having but before I could even say why I was there, he asked me how work was. Goodness knows what was showing in my face.

I fixed my stress though. I resigned from a well-paying job, took six months off, retrained as a copyeditor, sold up and moved two hundred miles, and tried to get started in a brand-new industry, earning between a big fat zero and a pittance, at first.

So yeah, I’d recommend taking earlier action than I did!

Stress is not all in your head

Stress is a physical reaction, designed to protect you in dangerous situations. Stress hormones are real, and they can make you alert and ready for fight or flight, to save your life.

Stress hormones circulating in your body when there is no physical danger damage your health.

Modern life has screwed this up. Stressors no longer come solely from rockfalls and rampaging predators, but from doomscrolling, lousy clients, too-tight deadlines, family strife, relationship disasters, heavy traffic, comparing yourself against the perfect lives that everyone else is having (based on how they have chosen to present themselves on social media), imposter syndrome, lousy diet, lousy sleep and a gazillion other things that do not put your life in peril.

The problem is that the rest of your body acts on thoughts as if they’re external and objectively real. So a bad encounter on social media, where you are physically safe (stalkers and death threats aside), or being stuck in a traffic jam, is interpreted as being face-to-face with a nest of angry rattlesnakes on the edge of a cliff in a howling gale.

If you are ever face-to-face with a nest of angry rattlesnakes on the edge of a cliff in a howling gale, then you actually do want to be hyperaware, alert, focused and energised. Otherwise, not so much.

The other problem is that we have evolved to cope with stress that happens, then stops. We have not evolved to cope with stress that never lets up.

Taking care of yourself makes damn good sense

Taking care of yourself is not selfish. It’s the best thing you can do if you want to be there to help others. Model good self-care to others, too. Spread the love. (Taking care of only ever yourself is selfish, though. This is not that.)

Bodies work on feedback loops and cycles. If I disturb (stress) my body’s chemistry, I put it out of kilter. If I stop disturbing (stressing) my body, my body’s chemistry will recover and I will toddle merrily on my way. If I don’t stop stressing my body, my body’s chemistry will try to cope, and will try – and fail – to recover effectively, ending up in a vicious cycle.

By ‘vicious cycle’, I mean that the very presence of raised stress hormone levels in your body makes you feel more stressed, even if you’ve now put away your phone, or finished work for the day, or parked your car. And if you’re feeling anxious and stressed, wow, you must be stressed, right? And if you’re stressed, your body needs to pump out more of those double-edged hormones so that you’re ready for fight or flight. But there’s no one to fight. There’s nothing to run from. Your adrenaline is all dressed up with nowhere to go, so it keeps circulating.

Good diet, good sleep, good habits

We’re learning more and more that good blood sugar control, avoiding insulin resistance, is key to avoiding so many chronic diseases. We used to die of infection and injury. Now we die of chronic illnesses – heart disease, cancers, autoimmune conditions. Chronic inflammation is responsible for a scary range of illnesses, many of them life-threatening. Acute inflammation is a healer. A spot of judicious googling will give you all kinds of information and resources to start tackling this.

A single night’s bad sleep can cause measurable insulin resistance. Insulin resistance leads, among many other things (of which type 2 diabetes is the most prominent), to inflammation. A night’s bad sleep gives rise to measurable cognitive problems. We get over the odd night of disturbed sleep, of course. Perpetual bad sleep leads to sleep deprivation (and sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture), but so many of us burn the candle at both ends, voluntarily torturing ourselves. Why? I’ll come back to this.

Forming good self-care habits will enable you to look after you, and therefore your business and those around you. If you’re running on empty, you can’t help others.

The freelance life

What strikes me most in people who have come to freelancing from an employment background, is that the corporate mindset comes with them. I know mine did, and I see it in so many others. It’s ingrained habit to look for the approved way of doing things, and even of being. What does my boss expect? If I do something without someone else’s permission, will I be hauled over the coals?

As soon as you start to freelance – and I’m talking now in an editorial context only, as that’s the only one I know – you are the boss. Basically, as long as it’s legal, you can do anything you want. It helps if it’s moral and kind and sensible, too, of course, but really, legality is the only limitation on how you run your business.

Stress 2
© Sue Littleford, 2022

Sure, there are best practices, but our contexts are so diverse, even in just the editorial sphere, that it’s a matter of applying any advice you read or hear to your own context, rather than saying that X told me they always do Y, therefore I have to do Y too. Why? (Sorry – couldn’t resist!) Is your business identical to X’s? Do you have the same training and experience, and identical clients? The same skills, talents and preferences?

Comparisons with others are a lovely source of stress. And you can easily avoid them.

Many of us have experienced toxic workplaces. I know I certainly have. But now you’re in charge of your workplace. You may be having to work on a corner of the kitchen table, but you’re in charge of who you work with. It’s perfectly possible to fire clients. It’s not at all easy if you’re desperate for the money, I get that. But it’s possible. You’re allowed to say you’re too busy, if a horrible client wants to work with you again. You don’t need my permission, but if you want it, you can have it.

The power is all yours, now. Step into it. You don’t need anyone’s permission to take your lunch break now instead of in an hour’s time, or to spend the morning in bed catching up on sleep if you’re zonked, or to change your working methods, or patterns. YOU are running YOUR business. Freelancers generally are their business, in the editorial world. So be an editorial freelancer on your own terms.

Lack of control is one of the greatest stressors. You have control. Exercise it. It’s liberating and it will make you smile and grow.

Being scared of putting a foot wrong is a huge stressor. Who’s judging you? Just you! Be kind to yourself. Telling yourself that you’re learning and growing as a freelancer will be far more productive than berating yourself. That never motivated anyone to do their best, except in the most warped way.

It’s normal to be terrified of the work drying up. The mistake is to keep taking horrible work at a lousy rate of pay for a client who doesn’t appreciate what you’re doing for them. That crushes the soul. It also takes up all the time and energy that could have been spent seeking out far better work and clients.

You’re not an employee of the client (unless you actually are – different blog post that I’ve not written yet!). You’re a freelance professional with the expertise and the time that the client needs. Having that independence is rated so much as being part of freelance life that HMRC even tests it to see if you really are self-employed! I’ve picked out a few items from this list:

You’re probably self-employed if you:

  • run your business for yourself and take responsibility for its success or failure
  • have several customers at the same time
  • can decide how, where and when you do your work
  • can hire other people at your own expense to help you or to do the work for you
  • charge an agreed fixed price for your work
  • sell goods or services to make a profit

That says ‘you’re in charge’ to me. And that puts you in charge of everything.

Time management

One of the big things you’re in charge of is your time. I say in Going Solo: Creating Your Freelance Editorial Business (free to Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading members, £10 to non-members) that you should never plan your time so that you are 100% committed. What do you do if you have a migraine (or Covid), or a child is sick, or the job takes longer than you expected, or arrives late, overlapping with other things in your diary, or you’re offered an urgent job that you’d really like to take on, or anything at all happens to bend your schedule? You have no room for manoeuvre, no additional resources of time and energy.

Build in wiggle room – for a book-length job I reckon on having two or three days built into my schedule to allow for the unexpected. Because we can and should (as Terrahawks’ Tiger Ninestein used to say) “Expect the unexpected!”

Having no breathing room is a major stressor: you can end up endlessly fretting about all the possible – and impossible – what-ifs at three in the morning, juggling and rejuggling your commitments and realising you now have to work far into the night most of the week.

You’re as in control of your schedule as you want to be. Say no and mean it. Set deadlines when agreeing to take on work. Specify when it must be received by. Make it clear that if it’s late, you can’t hold the spot open for that client, and they’ll need to reschedule. Discourage that from happening in the first place by requiring a non-refundable deposit to hold the booking.

The thing is – it’s your choice. We all have times where schedules bend out of shape and we have to work longer hours, or there’s an unexpected gap when a job is delayed despite our best efforts. But these are transient stresses. Don’t plan your business or your life so that this is your normal.

Who’s the boss of you?

You are!

Easy steps that will probably take quite a bit of effort, actually

Eat well

Keep your blood sugar steady (so no carb-only meals, especially at breakfast; get some proteins and fats into every one, and every snack). Use good nutrition to support a calm body. Don’t stress yourself further by going on a crash diet when you’re already wired. Seriously, for long-term health and well-being, look at the Mediterranean diet. My favourite book on this is The Pioppi Diet by Aseem Malhotra and Donal O’Neill (ISBN 9781405932639). I like this so much I’ve gifted it to friends – and the Pioppi way covers far more than just what you eat. The word ‘diet’ actually refers to your way of life, not just food.

Sleep well

Bad sleep is a cause and effect of stress. Bad sleep is also a cause and effect of too much caffeine, too much sugar, too much of the stress hormones. Read up on sleep hygiene, reduce your caffeine (why do so many editors make their coffee consumption a point of honour? Don’t believe me? Check out Twitter), separate work and home life, even if you only work at home – just don’t work in your bedroom if there’s any other possible solution.

Sit less

I’m not talking about driving yourself into the ground at the gym. I’m talking about getting up every 30–60 minutes and moving around. Do a bit of self-care. Change the laundry load over. Go and deadhead something in your garden, or amble around the block. Take something out of the freezer ready for dinner.

Get out of your chair and move. Sitting for hours on end is Bad For You. Stretch your hip flexors.

Cull distractions

Editors need to be able to do deep work. Distractions are a death knell to deep work. Figure out what keeps pulling you out of focusing on your work and deal with it. Log out of email, use one of the apps that shuts you out of social media, plan lunch with a friend if they keep calling you in the middle of your working hours, so they get your full attention for a while (and maybe you tell them you’ll be putting your phone on silent while you’re working, so it’s pointless them calling you in office hours).

Know that change is possible

You can change and grow. You’re not the person you were pre-pandemic, or ten years ago, or as a gauche teen. You’re not the person you were last week.

As many people have said, from Virgil onwards (and possibly, but not necessarily, Henry Ford): “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

Think you will never be able to find good clients? You’re right!

Think you can find really good clients if you put the effort into being competent and visible? You’re right!

Think your life is a mess and things will never get better? You’re right!

Think that things are rough at the moment, but that they’re in the process of improving? You’re right!

Burst your bubble

Get out of your own little bubble – mental, work-wise or physical – especially if you live and work alone. Seek out human contact, or have a pet, or both. Here’s where the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading is marvellous for its members – forums, Zoom meetings, local groups, the annual conference. Take advantage. Talk to others who are in the same boat as you, and people who aren’t quite, and people who have quite a different perspective.

Don’t work all the time

Take time out, and time off. Rest and refresh yourself during the day, and take longer breaks (holiday time!) as often as you can. Allow your subconscious to roam free, and be delighted by the insights and brilliant ideas you can come up with when you soften your focus.

There is abundant evidence that grinding on at work makes you work less well, and more slowly, and make more mistakes. Better to stop, go for a walk, have a decent lunch break, stop work for the day, whatever, and come back fresh. I know you don’t have the time to do that! You have to get the work done!! I’ve been there and thought that. I was wrong.

Tell perfectionism to take a running jump

Perfection is impossible, though you might get lucky and hit it once in a while. Repeated perfection is definitely impossible. Perfection all the time is a ludicrous idea.

Aim to be good. Aim to be very good. Aim to give decent value for the fee you’re getting. Going over and over work to make it ‘perfect’ will stress you out, and reduce the value of your fee – a double whammy to make you feel bad.

Have something else you like doing

Have a leisure activity that you really enjoy doing. Then do it. The brain doesn’t like doing nothing (depriving the brain of stimulus is another form of torture). But the brain just loves doing something different. When you’re not at work, and time flies, what were you doing? That’s what your brain loves!

Self-sabotage

I said I’d come back to this – why do we sabotage our efforts to improve ourselves? That’s adding stress! Why do we voluntarily deprive ourselves of sleep and decent fuel?

There are lots of theories. Personally, I think the most likely is fear of failure. If we don’t try, we can’t fail, right? (If we don’t try, we can’t succeed, either.)

Change requires forging new neural pathways. That takes time, and humans do love instant results. It’s disheartening when we work away at something and the rewards don’t come fast enough, so we stop. And quite often, I reckon, we stop short just when the result was within grasp.

Instead of thinking about the goal, think about achieving the next step towards that goal. When I’m making a dietary change, say, I don’t think about a weight-loss number, or a date, I just tell myself all I have to do is get the next meal right. That’s all. And then when the next meal is coming around, I tell myself that all I have to do is get that next meal right. And if I don’t get it right, well, another meal will be due soon enough, and I can get that one right. And repeat.

Apply that thought process to moving towards whatever it is you want to achieve. Or to back away from.

Oh, fun fact. I always had trouble going to bed at a reasonable time and was perpetually knackered, which only added to my stress levels. I finally worked out why I was so resistant. When I was a kid, I’d be ushered off to bed so my parents could watch a TV show that they thought was too adult and scary for me. So I internalised that the good stuff happened without me, because I was exiled in bed. Fast forward a few decades, and I finally realise that no good stuff is going to happen without me after I’ve gone to bed, because I’m in charge of all the good stuff that goes on in my house these days.

I bet you’ve internalised some, er, shaky beliefs, too.

Final thoughts

Let me leave you with a few final thoughts.

  • Ups and downs are normal. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t have spring and summer without autumn and winter to regroup. Life is change. Nothing stays the same forever – bad times pass, good times pass. Remind yourself of this if life’s normal cycles are themselves stressing you.
  • It’s not just you. There are 7.9 billion people on this planet. It’s never just you.
  • We have fetishised constant work, constant coffee and running on empty. If you don’t say you’re snowed under when people ask if you’re busy, they sympathise – something must be wrong! One person I know freaks out if I just say I’m having a nice gentle week with things ticking along. My business must be about to collapse! Er, no. I’m just brilliant at planning my time.
  • We have sneered at time off, taking things gently, and saying no when you might have said yes. Busy-ness is praised. That’s bonkers.
  • Things can be stressful for you that other people would find odd, and that’s perfectly fine. I, for one, find going away on holiday really stressful. I much prefer pottering around at home. Newsflash: I’m not going to start going on holidays I don’t want to make other people feel better about their own choices.
  • You’re not on the planet just to validate people with other tastes and needs by distorting your own to match theirs.
  • You are a work in progress, as is your business. Pick a thing you want to tackle, and tackle that. Accept that you will backslide, or fall off the wagon. Maybe it was the wrong strategy for you. Maybe you’ve learned not to trust yourself because when you tell yourself you’re going to bed at 10pm, you’re still watching telly at midnight. Or you didn’t do something else you’d told yourself you were going to do.

Have a think, adjust, dust yourself off and have another crack at it. It’ll be fine.

2 thoughts on “National Stress Awareness Month 2022”

  1. Sue, thanks so much for a great post! I really need this right now.

    Also, with your anecdote about you and your parents, you made me think about times when I stay up late/self-sabotage. I’ve often felt it’s because I’m being “naughty”, like the way I’d refuse to go to bed as a small kid sometimes. And that was always because I wanted to carry on playing! So now I’m wondering if those times I’m being “naughty” are actually signals that I need to give myself some play time. Hmmm…

    So much food for thought!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Emma, and I’m really glad it’s resonated with you. Sounds like you’re onto something, there… Sometimes it just needs a stray remark from someone to set you off on a chain of thinking that sheds welcome light on something 🙂

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