20/02/2017 08:55 GMT | Updated 21/02/2018 05:12 GMT

Stress Nearly Destroyed Me - Here's Why We Need To Fix It

Please tell me how a successful, happy 31-year-old woman got to the point where she was sitting in her bathroom at 3am carefully dabbing neat bleach onto her skin? And above all, how on earth that woman was me.


I didn't really realise I was stressed, despite vast evidence to the contrary. My marriage broke down, I moved house three times, I left my job and started a new business - all in two years.  I thought I was coping: I prided myself on 'keeping it together'. I got up early, worked hard, exercised well, and I didn't turn to the usual suspects of alcohol, drugs, or junk food to help me cope.


In reality, I wasn't coping at all - a fact my brain stubbornly refused to acknowledge. So, my body decided to let me know instead.


It started with weight loss: I lost more than two stone very quickly. My family were worried about me but I put the change in my body down to exercising a lot. I developed sores in my mouth; my gums bled and my teeth loosened. I picked up every cold going, but I'd dose myself up with Vitamin C and carry on regardless, all the while praising myself for being such a trooper.


Then came persistent, terrifying heart palpitations. I began to experience breathing difficulties, and a tightness in my chest so strong that I was unable to take a full breath for hours at a time. I developed appendicitis and had to have an emergency appendectomy.  I wasn't sleeping for more than a couple of hours a night, and my body seemed to have lost its ability to regulate my temperature: I was either freezing cold or unbearably hot, all the time.


None of this acted as the wake-up call I needed - so I kept ploughing on. I was blindsided one day when I was washing my hair in the shower and it started to fall out in enormous clumps. I remember staring, quite horrified, at my hair in my hands as the hot water ran down my arms. But it wouldn't put me off: I was a businesswoman! I was determined to focus on solutions, not problems. I found a hair salon which specialised in hair extensions for cancer patients and alopecia sufferers, and had another woman's hair stitched onto my head to avoid having to confront what my body was trying to tell me.


Eventually, a nasty rash spread all over my body - eczema. I was prescribed steroids which didn't help. After a few weeks and much reading of online forums, my overtired, stressed brain decided that I had ringworm - and so it was that I ended up in my bathroom at 3am, crying as I used a cotton pad to dab neat bleach onto my skin in an effort to treat the imaginary infection.


At my lowest ebb, something clicked into place.


I went off and saw a dermatologist, a trichologist and a cardiologist. I was prescribed beta-blockers. I had an ECG for the heart palpitations, and a chest X-ray with a pulmonary specialist for the breathing difficulties - at one point the doctors were convinced I had asthma, but were baffled when I didn't respond to inhalers.


As it turned out, of course, I didn't have asthma. Not did I have a heart defect, nor anything wrong with my lungs, or any of the myriad things it was suggested I might have before yet more tests that came back clear. The only thing wrong was that I was stressed out of my mind.


I say 'only' because it sounds so innocent, doesn't it? Yet the word is so overused.

"How are you?" is routinely met with "God, I'm so stressed".  We nod in agreement, confirming that yes, indeed, we feel terribly stressed too. It's almost a badge of honour to be stressed: if you're not, you're not working hard enough.


Many people's response to anxiety is to try and suppress it and work through. Mother Nature, however, is crafty, and usually finds a way to get her message through: often those people who appear 'strongest' are the ones who will experience acute physical symptoms.


Do you feel that tightness of breath again as you hurry down into the tube to get to work? Don't push it into the back of your mind - it might not be the first symptom of asthma, or lung cancer, or emphysema (as an ex-smoker I understand where the mind has a tendency to go in these situations). It could well be stress. Acknowledge it - feel it. Stop and listen to what your body is trying to tell you.  


Once you've understood the problem, you need to treat the cause, not the symptoms. Don't treat stress-related alopecia with hair extensions. Don't treat hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating) with botox (yes, this is an actual thing). Don't treat anxiety-induced heart palpitations with beta-blockers. Tune into your body, not out of it.


I run three companies. One of them, Sidekicks - a secretarial recruiter - runs an initiative called Work to Recover, helping people who have suffered from mental health issues back into productive employment. I can't tell you how shocked I was when I realised how many of our programme participants identified severe stress as the trigger for their subsequent mental health difficulties. It was unbelievable to me that such horrific issues could be triggered by something we view as largely controllable.


If we understood stress and how to treat it effectively we could solve so many problems. It would be incredible for the economy: work-related productivity would rise enormously, we'd see fewer sick days, and happier employees.


I still bear the physical scars from the bleach incident - but, thankfully, there aren't any emotional ones. I am strong, happy and robust. I also understand now that it's not a sign of weakness to be self-aware or in tune with yourself and your stress levels. It's just common sense.