I recently heard a great analogy about stress from a colleague that I will not take any credit for it but it really resonated with me and I think it is worth sharing.
Fill up a glass of water and try to guess the weight. Okay, you could cheat and put it on a set of scales but the actual measurement of how much the glass and the water weigh is irrelevant. The true impact of the weight depends on how long you hold the glass of water. If it’s a minute, not too bad. An hour, your wrist and hand are going numb. A day, your whole body starts screaming in pain even though it is only a glass of water.
Immediately when I heard this analogy, I started thinking about the connotations in terms of mental health. There are many causes and triggers for poor mental health and if your condition is severe - such as schizophrenia or personality disorders - it can often feel like you are not in control. The challenge is to find those aspects of life that can influence our mental health and learn how to control them.
It is easy to imagine your problems, anxieties and personal issues as a glass of water and it is easy to picture yourself putting that glass down before it hurts too much. But is it that easy to discard your issues in real life?
The glass of water is symbolic because as much as it can cause us pain if we hold it for too long, we also need it. It can be life-preserving, it can be good for us to hold on. In fact, the things that cause us pain are often intrinsic to our lives, something we want or need even if it hurts us (otherwise we would never pick up the glass in the first place). So if we have to hold on, the real challenge is figuring out how long to hold on for.
I found this in my own experiences at home and at work. There were essential parts of my job that I realised were causing stress, making me anxious or unhappy. Yet I had to do them (the very essence of the phrase “necessary evil”) in order to progress with my work and achieve my goals. But sometimes I would lie awake in bed for days still obsessing over that one task, worrying about what my peers and bosses would think of my work. This would set me off down a spiraling path of anxiety and depression from which I struggled to return.
I held on for too long.
In other aspects, I did not give enough care and attention to the issue. An example was when my grandfather passed away, a great loss for my whole family. I consciously occupied myself with making arrangements for his funeral and being supportive for the rest of my family. This meant that I did not allow myself the proper time to grieve, to process my own emotions and allow the mental healing to occur naturally. It was not until the day of the funeral itself that it hit me and it hit me harder than anybody else despite my attempts to hide my pain.
I did not hang on for long enough.
So how do we know exactly how long to hold on for?
The answer, as you can imagine, is subjective. It is something that only you can determine for yourself by considering your own strengths and weaknesses. Each issue (glass of water) that you come across in life will be different and it can take time to train your mental agility (the arm that lifts the glass) to be flexible enough to deal with different levels of stress. It is also something you can get better at with practice.
It is important to be conscious about the issues that have a negative impact on your mental health. Picture them as a glass of water; for me it was the task at work or the grief of a lost relative but it could be anything. It is possible to learn how to control your reaction to certain issues – with the right support, guidance and motivation – so that you know how long you can hold on and find the right way to let go of your problems.