“I’m so chilled right now.” – Me, never
We all have special talents, and one of mine is stressing out. Literally anything – the smallest thing – can send me into a tailspin of anxiety. This is me when the train is delayed/I say something stupid/I forget my keys/I get an official-looking letter that could be a fine/I overcook the omelette:
And this is what my stress is like:
Things that happen to me: My heart races, and my chest feels tight. I feel like I just need to take one long soothing breath but I can’t, and then my heart beats faster. My shoulders hunch up. I get back ache.
Things I do: I get paranoid. I think no one likes me and that I’m a failure. I wake up at four in the morning obsessing over everything I’ve done wrong. I make that noise like, “Aarrrggghhhhhh!!!!”, and slam a door. Then I regret it.
All of this is a cycle: The more doors I slam, the more I stress out about being a dick, then I slam doors again.
As Professor Cary Cooper, who studies stress at the University of Lancaster, explained to me, "When you’re anxious your heart rate goes up. It's the fight-or-flight reaction. In prehistoric times there could have been a predator heading towards you. A vicious one, so you have to get out of there. Or maybe you'd have to fight somebody to survive. Like in a war."
Or maybe there was an omelette that was ruined because you're a BIG MASSIVE LOSER and now you need to flee from this culinary disaster.
I was tired of living with all this stress but had no idea what to do about it. People gave me tips:
“Count to 10!”
“Breathe deeply and slowly.”
“Do more exercise!”
But when you’re on the edge of a panic attack, counting to 10 to calm down just becomes another thing to fail at.
So I thought this was just me, and I didn’t really know what to do about it, until one day I HAD AN IDEA. I was in the pub with my friend and she was proudly showing me her new Fitbit. It was very cool because it tracked her heartbeat to show how good she was at working out.
I tried it on, and watched as the counter began to rise. 68 – 70 – 75 – 80. Once my heartbeat sailed past 100, I realised it was telling me something loud and clear: I was stressed out! My heartbeat was racing waaay faster than my chilled-out friend’s.
So this was the plan: I’d wear a Fitbit every day for a month. Although it wouldn't tell me specifically whether I'm stressed, it would measure my heart rate, which would help me pinpoint what makes me most anxious. THEN I’d get some concrete tips from an expert on how to calm down and commence a de-stressing routine, using the Fitbit to show me what worked and what didn’t. Eventually – ta da! – I would become the zen person I so badly want to be.
Here’s how that went...
The beginning: There’s this thing on my wrist and it’s revealing terrible things about me.
The moment I put the Fitbit on my wrist, my anxiety levels rocket. I feel under pressure, and scared of failure – two of my very worst feelings. I’m also very aware of my heartbeat, which starts to speed up as soon as I will it to slow down.
The Fitbit’s quite bulky and rubbery, and I have to wear it all day and night kind of wedged up my wrist so it can sense the panicked waves of blood race through my arm. I develop wrist sweat, which really shouldn’t be a thing.
Tuesday 19 April
The first night in the Fitbit is pretty restless. Maybe it’s the warmer weather, or maybe it’s the pressure of knowing my sleep is being monitored and JUDGED. As soon as someone says “Show me how good you are at being calm and sleeping”, I am terrible at both – even if that person is me.
The next morning I’m exhausted so wake up late and rush to work. I have a coffee, which I know increases my stress and anxiety, but I need the kick. I don’t think too much about the Fitbit until I check my heart rate about 3pm. I’m literally just sitting in my chair and have been for the last few hours. My heart rate’s 113 bpm.
That night, I study my charts on the Fitbit app. Under 100 bpm the line’s blue, over 100 it’s yellow. It's fine to be in the yellow zone occasionally, especially when you're exercising. But Professor Cooper agrees that if I'm just sitting in my chair, "it could be an indicator of an anxiety attack."
The news from the graphs isn’t good: A series of yellow spikes show my heart beat topping 100 bpm for a lot of the day, even when – especially when – I am doing LITERALLY NOTHING. Wtf.
Wednesday 20 April
I have developed a new condition where I can actually hear my heartbeat. I have a low moment and decide, almost in tears, that I can’t got through with the story. I google “heart attacks in your thirties”.
It's a terrible day at work, which begins with a long, tense meeting at 10am, followed by an awkward meeting at lunchtime, and then a sprint to get through all my work in the afternoon.
I don’t take a break, and by 4.15pm my back is aching. My Fitbit chart is a brutal mountain range of yellow spikes, with 7 hours, 8 minutes over 100 bpm.
Monday 25 April
Another bad day!! I have a shit-ton of work to get through and end up glued to my chair for eight hours. I wee maybe three times max, and that is literally all my exercise for the day. Later my Fitbit reports that I was in the yellow zone FOR 8.5 HOURS. I need help.
The middle: Help!
Armed with a load of depressing Fitbit graphs, I turn to an expert for advice on how to chill the fuck out. Charlotte Watts, author of The De-stress Effect, offers me some tips for lowering my heart rate and calming down:
1. Take breaks
“Sitting at a computer is massively overstimulating for your eyes and brain. Take a break at least every couple of hours, and ideally head out for some fresh air. Replicate that natural sound you’d make if you’d just completed a big task: an ‘ahhh’ of relief and satisfaction which tells the body it can calm down.”
“Having a hug from anyone, including yourself, is very calming. You need a hug of 20 seconds or more to feel the soothing effect.”
3. Tech embargo
“Try to enforce a tech ban after 9pm to allow your body and mind to wind down before sleep.”
OK, I’m set. The plan is to use my de-stressing techniques to try to keep my heart rate under 100 for most of the day. Exceptions can be made for exercise of any kind.
Monday 9 May
I kick things off with a coffee, which is a terrible idea because I immediately feel shaky and panicky. By noon my heart rate is spiking. Time for an emergency hug. I sit on the toilet and wee and hug myself at the same time. It’s surprisingly relaxing, though also slightly creepy. But back at my desk my heart rate’s down to 85. Go hugs!
After a pretty bad morning (behold the yellow spikes on my chart) I vow to have a more relaxed afternoon and take more breaks. There’s nowhere really to go in our small open-plan office, so every 30 minutes or so I just wander over to the kitchen and back, like someone with nothing better to do. It makes me feel kind of like a slacker, but it seems to work – my heart rate is way more chilled in the afternoon.
I decide I need to stop caring what people think of me, and this includes checking to see if anyone likes me on Twitter before bed. Instead I read my book, and get 7 hours and 20 minutes sleep. Well done me.
Tuesday 10 May
I’m finding taking regular breaks incredibly difficult. Partly it’s because I get locked into what I’m doing, but I’m also scared of what my managers will think. By 11.30am my heart rate hits 100, so I force myself to go for a wander. I hang about by the coffee machine, swinging my arms and sort of hugging myself in a way that could look like a stretch if anyone saw. I stare meaningfully at the mug shelf. Back at my desk, my heart rate’s down to 86… This shit works!
I check the Fitbit graph on my phone more often through the day. The secret to calming down, I realise, is vigilance, constant monitoring, and obsessing over graphs. Forced relaxation is relaxing me, and my graph is a thing of beauty – so blue today, so chilled!
Wednesday 11 May
I’m really getting into the swing of being more of a slacker, and get up for a pointless wander around the office at least once an hour.
In the afternoon I head out to walk around the block and accidentally wander into H&M, one of the least relaxing places on earth. Standing by a traffic jam is comparatively soothing.
At the end of the day, I’m immensely proud to discover that I managed to get out of my chair and walk 250 steps every hour, for which I am rewarded with a special Fitbit prize. And the amazing thing is, I feel a bit less stressed! A bit less! This, for me, is progress.
The end: So how did it go and what did I learn?
• There is something powerful about being watched and judged when you are trying to change your life. It’s probably why people hire military trainers to stand over them screaming “More! Harder! Faster! More!” when they’re trying to lose weight.
The Fitbit judged me, and that made me try my best. I’m not a zen master yet, but if someone asks what my talents are, maybe I won’t say "getting stressed out" any more. I’m just not as good at it these days.
• The obsessive aspect of monitoring my health was a little unhealthy – panicking that you can hear your heartbeat and thinking you’re going to have a heart attack is not relaxing at all, though this anxiety did ease after a week or so.
• The design of the Fitbit is flawed – it’s bulky and not waterproof, and I’m the sort of person who will accidentally wear it in the shower one day and kill it.
• It was definitely ~interesting~ to see how stressed my body gets just sitting down all day. People warn about the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, and, my friends, the danger is real.
Taking regular breaks is probably the closest thing I found to a miracle “cure” for feeling stressed.
On the days when I got out of my chair every hour or so and literally just wandered about the office like a weirdo, or stood in the street, or embraced myself lovingly on the toilet, my heart rate slowed down. I felt calmer and I could deal with my worries better. I may seem like a lazier, weirder member of staff, but I’m a happier one – and that’s what counts.