Stress and anxiety, the past, the present and the future

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The latest staff blog from our Comms Assistant, Ed Peston, speaking so eloquently from lived experience.

With it being stress awareness month, I thought I would write a bit about what I have learnt about stress and anxiety over the years, with it having been a part of my life, or in the background, at various times in my life.

This is a personal take which I hope will be of some use, but everyone will have their own ways of coping with stress which are of value.

One of the key points I have found is that, particularly when I am going through a difficult time, it can feel like particular times in the past were much better, and I can think about trying in some shape or form to get back to those times. But what is it about the past that is comforting in this way, and can this be used to help with what one is dealing with in the present?

Uncertainty: the past as compared with the present and the future

Clearly, good and bad things can have happened in the past, but either way the events are a given. Generally speaking, there is certainty about what happened. The present and the future however are fraught with uncertainty.

There is a quote, originally attributed to American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. If, like me, you find uncertainty a potential source of anxiety, the present as it unfolds may cause you, like me, to worry about what is going to happen in our lives, whether it be what happens with war in Ukraine or something being faced on an individual level.

But in contrast to the present and future, there is a large amount of certainty about the past. So in my view we are perhaps unlikely to worry about it in the same way as the future, unless something that happened in the past returns to create a present day problem or generally persists into the present and future. Times when I used to worry about finding the right sort of work disappeared when the problem got resolved.

However, the past was of course once the present, and there was just as much inherent uncertainty in it at the time as there is now. There were problems we had to overcome, events that were stressful and distressing. But the key point in my view is that once these passed and became fully known about, they for the most part were not anxiety provoking to nearly the same degree.

If the past was once the present, so too the present and future will become the past. What we may be worrying about now will eventually become a part of our individual and collective life history in a more neutral way, in the same way that the past currently is.

Using the certainty of the past to help the present and future

With there being certainty about what happened in the past, my past experience has taught me that many or most problems generally get resolved one way or another with the passage of time. I therefore find that if something is troubling me in the present, it can help to remember that at some point it will almost certainly not be an issue any more. Experience tells me that wars or individual problems get resolved eventually, although I often don’t know exactly when or how.

So, if when a problem is on my mind I focus on the notion that one day it won’t exist any more, this usually helps me to feel better. This is particularly the case when it is not immediately obvious what the best way of solving something is, if I am not feeling up to taking those sorts of steps right now, or if it is not within my individual power to solve it. With this knowledge and insight, I find I am better able to handle present day uncertainty.

Similarly, if a potential resolution to a problem is likely to be imminent, but I am nevertheless still worried, focussing now on how I am likely to feel once the resolution has happened can for me help to relieve the present day anxiety. At the very least, any residual anxiety stemming from uncertainty won’t be there.

Freewriting – freeing past experience to use in the present

If the above focuses on the rational mind, freewriting is a technique of writing down whatever comes into your head for a few minutes, or until you have reached the end of a piece of paper. The key is to carry on writing no matter what comes up. If you can’t think of anything at any given moment, write “I can’t think of anything” just to keep going.

I usually find that if there is something troubling me, this may figure in what I write, but then I usually go off on a tangent and could end up writing about anything, and quite often things from my past come back into my conscious mind. I find this can be a good way to take my mind off present day problems, covering times that were often good which I can perhaps revisit through areas such as people, music, films or books.

I take the view that all areas of our lives and pasts matter, no matter how apparently insignificant they may seem. Freewriting can be a good way of drawing upon that experience, suggesting new ways of looking at the present and activities to do in it.

Final word

Everyone is different and will have different strategies to aid their mental health, but I wanted to relay some of my thoughts on this in case they are of use to you.

 

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