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.

Too easy an excuse

Last Saturday’s front page Guardian was grim. “Revealed: just 1.5% of rape cases lead to summons.”

This refers to the number of reported rapes that result in a summons. The stat is worse than it was when, ten years ago, I was first involved in a piece of research which tried to better understand the huge attrition rate in rape cases.

At that time the stats were bad, only 6% of reported rapes went on to a successful prosecution. Today, those stats are even worse.

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Genetics study findings signpost new lines of investigation for anorexia treatment

Anorexia nervosa is a condition with serious emotional and physical consequences. Emotional consequences include deep distress, isolation, and loss of pleasure in things that once were loved. Physical consequences can be long-term and severe, and in the worst case anorexia can be fatal. There are some treatments that help, but not everyone, and the problem remains in need of innovative interventions for the people experiencing the disorder and their families.

A new study just published in Nature Genetics brings hope of some new ways of approaching the disorder. Researchers have found eight genetic variations which are associated with greater risk of anorexia.

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Resources for journalists who are interviewing people about sexual assault and trauma

I’m lucky enough to be in Lausanne at the World Conference of Science Journalists this week, on a panel about interviewing people who have experienced bullying, harassment, and sexual assault. It’s a responsible issue to be talking about and there’s lots of information to share.

This blog pulls together some resources for journalists who are interviewing people who have experienced something traumatic, and in particular sexual assault. Links are embedded throughout. I hope it’s useful.

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A reason to enjoy the rain


I have been loving the sound of the rain on the veranda recently, and the smell of the plants that gets so much stronger and fresher after they’ve been doused. Being under shelter as the rain falls on the roof reminds me a bit of camping at festivals, and a bit of being really young and in my dad’s workshop out the back, with its corrugated roofing and smell of cut wood and glue.

The sound of the rain also made me think about the news items there have been about forest-bathing recently, the Japanese practice of immersing oneself in nature, and research which has shown it’s good for us to have time in the wild.

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Why it’s so hard to speak up about assault

Night buses in London are wild – on busy nights you’re just grateful to catch one that isn’t full up but the things that go on in them are sometimes really sketchy. I once saw someone showing off a gun to his friends. I don’t live in London anymore but I had many a night bus journey when I did, travelling back to Camberwell in the early hours.

Melania Geyonat and her girlfriend Chris, were a couple amongst those travelling home on a night bus recently, only they got attacked on their way home, because they were two women in a relationship. The couple were verbally and physically assaulted, and they spoke out in the news about it.

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