The stress of good things

This is a first world problem, the stress that a happy event can bring about. But good things can be stressful too.

I experienced it recently. I had my second book published on the 23rd January: a book about mental health aimed at 10 year olds and above (available here!) I really enjoyed writing it, and I care very much about young people having access to clear information about mental health. So many conversations are around, but when I went to a local primary school there was still a lot of confusion between mental health and mental illness, and lots of questions that hadn’t been answered: can you catch it? can you die from it? what has it got to do with the brain? 

Writing is one of my favourite things to do, and talking with young people is another, so this book was really fun. It’s part of a series, originally created by Michael Rosen and Anne Marie Young, that tries to answer big questions honestly for children on a range of topics. All the books include multiple perspectives. The book I wrote was much, much, richer as the result of the eight contributors who wrote words and donated pictures, and the many other people whose quotes and illustrations were included, or who read and commented on early drafts. It was a real collaboration. 

And yet… despite how fun the book was to write, and how pleased I was that it was coming out, in the run up to it being published I had mixed feelings. I was excited, and also worried. In the weeks before publication I often woke up at 5am, lying there in the dark, busy with my own worst case scenarios: someone reading it with shock and saying “How could you have left this really important thing out of it?”, or someone reading it with horror and saying “you’ve said this, to ten years olds, call yourself a clinical psychologist, this is appalling”. These simultaneous fears of having left something out or put something terrible in amounted to the same thing really – feeling exposed, fearing disapproval, or worse, that somehow I would say something which hurt or alienated someone unintentionally.

My partner reminded me that I had felt this way with the first book too. It’s true, I remember speed-reading the whole of Blueprint cover to cover when my copy arrived to check I hadn’t accidentally included some obscenity or just written “la la la la la la” somewhere. A few months after Blueprint came out I also then had a phase of feeling like no one had read it, so perhaps that phase is still on its way…

It’s a brilliant thing to be published – it’s a real privilege to get backing for your words, help from other people to get them out in the world. And, at the same time, it’s also exposing. Events that we want to happen can still knock us off balance and cause feelings of stress. The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory, which measures common stressful life events, includes positive events such a getting a promotion, having a baby, and moving somewhere you want to move to. Maybe creating something and putting it out there should be on the list too. 

I had a second layer of self-judgemental thoughts going on at 5 in the morning – “why can’t I just relax and enjoy this?” But, as the complex and thoughtful human beings we all are, it’s rare to only feel one thing about something. I did relax and enjoy it, especially when meeting some of the contributors and celebrating the launch, and at the same time I felt nervous in the run up.

Now that it’s out in the world it feels great – I feel really happy it’s alive – even if I did get a one star review on the day it came out from someone who didn’t realise the book was for children. It was the wait that was hard – the anticipation and my own imagination of the worst case scenario. 

Different talking therapies address this mental chatter in different ways. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for anxiety recognises the tendency we have to anticipate the worst, and encourages us to test out the thoughts we have about what might happen. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) suggests we keep going towards what we value even though that mental chatter is there. And Compassionate Mind Therapy (CMT) asks us to be kind to ourselves throughout all this. In their different ways they all encourage moving towards the thing that is scary.

In the end, even the one star review wasn’t that bad – it made me laugh even if it did bring the Amazon rating down. And the messages from people who have really got what I was trying to do with the book have been hugely encouraging. I’m still feeling happy about connecting with people over the launch. Whatever the reality of the thing we are waiting for, it is usually better than what our imaginations serve up to us in the early hours, and the aftermath normally feels worth it. Maybe the worry and the early morning waking up is just part of the whole shebang. Good things can also be stressful, because we care about them, and we want them to go well. Long may we care enough about the things we are doing to wake at 5am. Every now and then, anyway.

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