Stress: Striking the Right Balance

Today is R U OK? Day. I want to tell my story in the hope that it will help you break out of the stress and depression cycle.

Unless you’re remarkably lucky, running your own business is stressful. Although I expected this before I took over O’Neill Kinesiology College, I didn’t expect it would take such a massive toll. For someone who had never really struggled (I always had things under control, was very organised and had plenty of life goals) it was a shock and a surprise to realise that I could no longer cope.

It started with the best of intentions. I had never enjoyed a job so much as I did the one I had at the college. I had watched my mum power her way through life and start the college with passion and energy, and I was involved from day dot. When I took over, the hours were hectic and there was so much I wanted to accomplish for both the school and our amazing student body.

I was already a parent to two wonderful daughters when I bought the business. But pregnancy had changed me. I thought I’d have my children and just be my usual self again afterwards. How naïve I was. I was different in ways I never thought possible. For example, I never, ever needed a diary before; I just remembered things. My ‘new brain’ meant I was forgetting frequently and I needed to take notes for even small things. I woke up — and still do — every morning with my mind running through the never-ending list of things that needed to be done for them that day. My husband is incredibly supportive and adores our girls but, as their mum, I’m always thinking about the family. I know now that mental output never stops.

The spiral downwards

Running a business and having a family was a major juggling act but it got overwhelming last year when education reforms came into effect. I was full to the brim already and I didn’t think I had room to fill my cup with one more stressful thing. That may have been true but here’s where I went very wrong: my self-care went completely out the window and I started to become a shadow of my former self. I wasn’t eating well or exercising; I wasn’t socialising or relaxing. I had become chronically unwell. I still thought that although I was run down, I’d get over it and go back to ‘normal’ when I wasn’t so busy (oh, the hilarity. When will that time come?).

It only got worse. I became so depleted, mentally and physically, that I was struggling with everyday tasks. Of course, during those months spiralling downwards I did try to make things better. But it was an uphill battle. When you’re running around with stress hormones pumping through your system for such a long period, it’s much harder to come back from that point.

Unfortunately, it turned out I had developed an autoimmune problem due to stress. What’s more, I was depressed from it all. This was something I’d never experienced before and I never thought would happen to me. The day I could barely look after my kids was the day I knew I needed to make drastic changes. I know it sounds dramatic, but I felt I was on the fast track to an early grave.

My advice for others

If you’re curious, here’s what I did to get better: I started reading up about the links between gut function and stress, I cut dairy and gluten from my diet, I started having weekly Kinesiology sessions again, I got back into gentle exercise gradually, and — as much as it pained me — I realised I needed to step back from the business and start delegating tasks. It finally dawned on me that if I wasn’t functioning properly, then everybody loses. I’m happy to say that as I made these changes, I did feel healthier and I did feel the depression lift, little by little.

I realise that taking a step back and working part-time isn’t an option for all of us. But there are still options. You first have to evaluate what’s important to you. Is it being alive and being there for your family to create a life you enjoy living? Or is it the rat race, money and a bigger house? Happiness and a life worth living should be your main priority, no matter who you are. It might sound “Pollyanna” of me but I’ve watched people go back to a job they detest just so they can buy a bigger house. It’s just not worth it.

Everyone thinks it won’t happen to them. Stress and burnout are apparently things that happen to someone else. But I’m here to tell you that it can happen to anyone. The problem is, you don’t notice when it happens gradually. In 2014 I was probably the healthiest and happiest I’ve ever been, but then there were things that happened that were completely beyond my control and created a new level of stress for me. How I reacted to them, however, was within my control and I admit I didn’t necessarily make the best choices.

Making poor food choices, not sleeping well and not exercising was disastrous. As a society, we are finally realising how a diet low on nutrients can dramatically affect both the health of our body and our mind. Many of us feel this low-level unhappiness and lethargy day in day out, and assume this is the ‘real world’. It isn’t. Have a read of this great in-depth article about the link between junk food and depression.

Nobody knew I was unwell until I was at breaking point, struggling to get up each day, when I finally had the courage to tell people I wasn’t coping. We need to embrace the message of things like R U OK? Day and not feel ashamed of putting our hands up and admitting we’re not okay.

– Tania O’Neill McGowan, O’Neill Kinesiology College Director

If you’d like to know more about Kinesiology or Tania, visit www.oneillcollege.com.au or call us on (08) 9330 7443. For more information on R U OK?, go to www.ruok.org.au