Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey: Scots suffering from high-pressure lifestyle

For many, drink is the quickest way to relieve stress, but its more symptom than solution. Picture: ThinkStock/Getty
For many, drink is the quickest way to relieve stress, but its more symptom than solution. Picture: ThinkStock/Getty
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Stress is a natural part of life, but too many Scots live with unnatural levels of stress, writes Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey

My family and I have been “residentially challenged” for the last couple of weeks.

Plans to move into our new home were undone by a gathering storm of setbacks which started with an estate agent releasing our keys two weeks late.

Upon gaining access to our property we discovered it was an electronic death-trap that had to be completely rewired – a fact the home report understated – and this rewiring had to run parallel to everything else going on.

This, in turn, knocked our arrangements for plasterers, painters and kitchen and bathroom fitters woefully out of sync, driving up our costs, as we bunked up at my partner’s parents for a couple of weeks – with a one-year-old insomniac.
For what seems like an eternity, we’ve been waking up early in the morning, after very little sleep, to put in 12-18 hour days at either our multiple jobs, or this bomb-site of a house, before travelling back to basecamp to do it all again, with no end in sight.

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Never in my life have I felt so overwhelmed with stress. In this short period I’ve been subjected to migraines, severe stomach-pain, a viral infection and wild fluctuations in mood. In the past I had one way of managing stress: drink to oblivion. Nowadays, that’s not an option but I’d be lying if I said the thought hadn’t crossed my mind.

However, for many people this level of stress is the norm. Every day is a battle except there is no end goal to look forward to.

There is no pay-off in sight. Instead, it’s the fag with your cup of tea at lunchtime or that first cold pint at the end of your shift. For others, it’s the first bite of a takeaway, a glass (or two) of wine or the comforting sound of a device booting up as you “get settled” with your “treats” at the end of another predictably hard day.

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We all enjoy – and seem to need – our home comforts, whatever they may be, and we tend to think they say something about who we are. But how much of what we think is our lifestyle is just a result of failing coping mechanisms to soothe, manage and self-medicate stress? And what, if anything, does that say about us, not only as individuals but as a society?

In this country we have no shortage of health problems. Issues related to poor lifestyle; heart disease, cancer and diabetes always seem to be on the rise. Such conditions thrive in poorer areas where stress levels are high; placing an unsustainable strain on public services. However, whenever we discuss the issues we face as a society, around physical and mental health, we never talk about it in terms of stress. Which seems odd, as doing so might be a helpful simplification of what we are dealing with in Scotland at present.

If you’ve been to an A&E unit recently, and waited five hours to be seen, you’ll remember how overwrought everyone appeared – medics and patients alike.

If you’ve waited at a doctor’s surgery with multiple stress-related ailments such as insomnia, chest-pain or anxiety, then you’ll remember that stressed expression on the doctor’s exhausted face as she explained she could only deal with one of your problems and that you’ll need to make another appointment for the other ones.

Why? Because there is so much strain on her time, due to increasing numbers of physically, mentally and emotionally stressed patients who also need to be seen, that you can make an appointment to discuss just one health problem at a time.

The cultural culmination of our individual stress manifests in our public services, which are under considerable stress of their own.

Our biggest problem, as a society, is stress and the things we do to manage it as individuals, families and communities. Stress is the connective tissue between our many, seemingly disparate, social ills such as addiction, violence and ill-health, as well as the multiple-crises in our public services.

In many cases, a short sharp burst of stress can be a positive force, propelling us to superhuman acts of creativity or endurance. However, prolonged stress, of the kind so many of us find ourselves suffering, can become chronic and create the fertile ground from which those all-too-familiar health conditions grow.

It’s the most natural thing in the world to want to make yourself feel less stressed.

But sadly, we are not very sophisticated, as a country, in how we educate ourselves in this regard.

Hence, the Scottish lifestyle of hard-drinking, fried food and ice-cream vans, so often worn as a badge of honour, is really a failed attempt at managing stress which has, like so many of our national failures, somehow attained a self-defeating mythical status.

Local economies, up and down the country, are based on supplying an unending demand for temporary relief from stress; see your bookies, bingo, tobacconist and chippy for examples of this.

Some people have taken to blaming immigrants for the stress in their communities, to which I say, simply: Have you ever seen a racist at meditation class?

Stress not only inhibits our capacity to respond appropriately to problems, but crucially, it distorts how we assess those problems in the first place; impairing our judgement and potentially making an already difficult situation worse.

There can be no meaningful analysis of the nature of Scotland’s problems, nor solution proposed, without an acknowledgment of the role emotional and psychological strain is playing in shaping the tone and direction of our culture.

Stress is, of course, a natural part of life but too many of us live with unnatural levels of stress.