Stress and Building Resilience

“If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”  Dr Martin Luther King

Stress is a tough one. No one is going to be able to escape some level of pressure in their life.

Like many people, I have had to deal with major pressures in work and at home. Sometimes the stars have just conspired against me (I call it m-aligned) and I have faced both pressures simultaneously. 

That’s when you learn to really focus down and, yes, dig into reserves you didn’t know you had...

I hold down a senior marketing director role and I have a husband who has had significant cardiovascular issues. In fact, he had a stroke that left him with a brain injury in the middle of the biggest national media campaign of my life. I was already spinning plates, orchestrating coverage across every major newspaper, with slots in TV news and daytime programmes. When he fell seriously ill, I had to also fit in twice-daily trips to the hospital. 

I learned then how to compartmentalise. Literally switch my brain on and off so I only focused on what I had in front of me. It’s a vital survival tactic. I believe that’s one of the functions of adrenaline; it forces your brain to focus only on the danger ahead, and it’s immensely helpful.

You cannot chase two rabbits so don’t try. 

Prioritisation became my byword. I realised 100% commitment was impossible so I gave myself permission to just do 70%, and put myself first.  Because the other thing I learned, which I’ve borrowed from the aviation industry, is that you need to put on your own oxygen mask, before you put on someone else’s… if I’m incapacitated and you’re incapacitated, it helps no-one. That meant I learned to say no to people. No, I don’t have the capacity/resources to help. No, I don’t want your pressure either directly or vicariously; on this occasion, guys, you have to own your own pressures and not pass them on to me. Amazingly, they seemed to cope.

Sometimes, I made it a “not yet”, rather than a “no”. And remarkably, more than once, the problem disappeared.

I learned that if something appeared too huge to deal with and I could feel panic starting to rise inside, to set it aside, go for a walk, and then break it down into smaller chunks to be tackled one at a time. As a result, I became (rather sadly!) a slave to my to-do lists, but they were my anchor, my bedrock, and my shoreline during the times when – more than once - I was feeling totally at sea.

To shore up my emotional energy, I tried to look after my physical self, with mixed results, but I did enough. I did a lot of walking too and from the hospital (well you try finding a car parking space at visiting time!). But exercise helped dissipate the stress, breath unfiltered air, and released much needed endorphins. 

I was working late to fit in around the hospital visiting hours which meant that I ate somewhat sporadically (and yes, lost about a stone in weight – I didn’t say I was perfect!). But I tried to sleep at least five hours a night, which at least stopped me going mad!

I controlled how much of my time and emotional energy I expended on family by nominating someone to relay messages.

The only time I actually stopped moving was when I was sitting next to his hospital bed. Which I did for hours. 

I very much lived from day to day; dealing with what was in front of me. 

I mainly worked from home to be close to the hospital, but I went into the office occasionally just to be reminded of life among healthy, well people and not be surrounded by very sick people. It helped.

I wasn’t alone by any means. I was supported by a close circle of good friends (and yes, you do discover who they are), who didn’t need to ask, they just baked, and poured the wine, and listened, and joked. Humour, wherever I could find it, was really important to keep me connected to the outside world.

I managed to deliver the national campaign I dreamed of, with coverage across 400 outlets in total.

My husband eventually came home but sadly there were complications leading to a long, slow recovery.

Despite this I have maintained a senior marketing role and in the years since his stroke, I have led many other successful campaigns as well as studied in the evenings and weekends to get IoD- and Google-accredited board-level qualifications, of which I’m immensely proud.

I won’t lie, it’s been incredibly hard. And I have had to pass on some dream opportunities. But while I’ve had to make compromises, I have also learned resilience. Because that’s what dealing with enormous stress has taught me. 

As a couple, our priorities have had to change but I have resolutely held onto my dreams, and nothing matches the memories I have of our road trips together in the USA and Canada. The road less travelled is something that unites us.

Always looking forward, with goals in mind has ultimately been what has seen me through hugely stressful situations and will continue to do so.

Written by Gerry Vincent, FCIM, IoD Dip, Marketing Communications Director