Manifest Stress: Hives & Shingles

In as terse a way as possible, I would define stress as an inability to cope.

With this definition in mind it appears that I’ve not been looking after myself for the past 18 months, and my body is trying to tell me something.

This week, from last Sunday, I’ve come down with shingles. This is on top of the bout of hives that I’m still taking a daily cocktail of antihistamines (6 a day for the last 15 months or so) to defeat. The images accompanying this article are of me at my hivey height: at its very worst in June 2015, about a month after its initial onset. Fortunately, due to the medication, I haven’t had a single red-ring appear since April 2016, and once the prescribed course of tablets finish in April 2017 I’m hoping to remain red-ring free from then on.

Other than these two afflictions I’m in robust health; I am not immunocompromised, I exercise regularly, I eat a healthy diet. The doctors I’ve visited have pinned the onset of these irritants on one thing: stress.

Chest and neck hives

Back hives

If I skip back a decade, as a 23 year old I could cope with multiple conflicting priorities much better than I can now. I could context switch from one activity to another with relative ease, with little in the way of additional cognitive load. The tasks and projects didn’t even need to be connected: I could juggle a couple of software development projects alongside some video editing, alongside some sound editing, alongside attending training courses and alongside managing multiple projects at my day job. Sometimes I might have gotten a little bit anxious about my workload, but I never felt my capacity was anywhere near full or overflowing.

Today, this isn’t the case. As the years have whistled passed I’ve come to the conclusion that my golden number is two: that is, in a perfect world, I am permitted two projects, each of corresponding weight that form a conclusive whole. Any other projects vying for my attention should be shelved, delayed, delegated or abolished.

At the moment I’m over this target. I’m probably running at 5, maybe 6. I’ve got a mobile phone app I’m working on, that’s probably 50% of my work day, followed by adding ad hoc finishing touches to RopeWeaver’s new SaaS system at 40%. Having sold a chunk of my TuitionKit shareholding I’m now more of a backseat partner, but it still requires some day-to-day involvement, so that’s perhaps 5% of each day. I’m currently sat in a makeshift home-office in what should be my lounge, as my the constant disruption of my top-to-bottom house refurbishment is about to enter it’s 7th month (with at least another 7 to go), managing that takes at least 10% of the day, along with the financial planning. That totals 105%, and I’ve not even bothered totalising the other random projects I allow myself to get roped into. I’m an enabler: I allow myself to get stressed, by putting myself into situations that encourage it.

On the surface I don’t feel any burden – I don’t sit at my desk hyper-ventilating, in a panic at how I’m going to get everything done. I’d describe the load as more of a tension; something pulling on me. It isn’t a tension you actually notice, but subconsciously your body is constantly under strain, holding itself in position, resisting the impulse to fall. Even if you don’t notice it every day over time this tension aggregates.

My hives are on the mend, and in a few weeks the shingles will pass too. Will I make any changes to my lifestyle to stop things like this from occurring? I don’t know. I won’t say I can’t, because I’m the one in the driving seat: if I choose to sever ties with certain things I am in the privileged position to be able to, but there’s some things that I simply must finish. Let’s hope I’m not doing myself any lasting damage.

The World’s Slowest Three Peak Challenge

A trio of computer geeks finally finish climbing the UK’s three highest peaks

As a rule, for it to strictly count, the National Three Peaks Challenge should be completed in less than 24 hours.

We were a little slower; it’s taken us three years – but nevertheless we’ve done it.

Dean, me and Danno atop Scafell Pike

Last Saturday my alarm woke me at 5.30 a.m. As the years progress I’m becoming less and less a ‘morning person’, but on this occasion I wasn’t the least bit groggy – I was excited because it was to be the day we would finally complete our mission to climb the tallest mountains in Scotland, Wales and England. We summited Scotland’s Ben Nevis in September 2011, Wales’s Snowdon in July 2012, and we were hours away from completing the trio with Scafell Pike, hidden in the midst of England’s Lake District. Come September I’m due to climb Ben Nevis again, this time with my brother in tow. I found it hard the first time, as we had horrendously over-packed our rucksacks and thus were burdened by excessive weight. I got no photographs from the summit either, as thick fog restricted visibility to a handful of yards, and it was raining sideways. The whole ‘climbing Ben Nevis’ thing had been a random idea I had proposed for Danno’s stag weekend, and surprisingly Dean had been thoroughly behind it. Our climbing of the other two tallest peaks had seemed the natural order of things; an unspoken promise to each other that we would complete the trio together.

At 6.00 a.m. Dean arrived. I was shocked; he’s never on time for anything, plus he’d already collected Danno. My scant gear was quickly loaded into his Ford S-Max, I popped a pair of contact lenses into my hay-fever-stricken peepers, and at 6.10 a.m. we set off. With a playlist of Beastie Boys thumping out of the refreshingly high-quality speakers we chatted animatedly for an hour, and then Danno succumbed to the vibrations of the road and fell asleep. We stopped once, to consume a late breakfast of sausage and egg sandwiches from a roadside snack wagon we fortunately happened across, nestled in the shade of trees by a winding Cumbrian road.

At the campsite we pitched our tents, donned our hiking boots, lathered ourselves in suntan cream, and at 12.20 p.m. began the climb. The start was tricky; at just under 30 degrees centigrade it was a hot day, and we were thankful the sky was a little overcast, the extra shielding providing much needed respite. The higher we got the less encased by neighbouring peaks we were, allowing a cooling breeze to drift through the passes and take the edge off the heat.

It was by no means a quick climb; 2 hours and 45 minutes, but suddenly it was done – we were at the summit. We commenced upon forty-five minutes of photography, rehydration and food consumption, and then headed back the way we came. Back at camp we showered and put on fresh clothes, then headed to a village pub two minutes from the campsite. With our bellies filled we returned to camp, and chatted for a while whilst sat in the lee of our tents, but exhaustion prevailed and we chose to retire. By 10.30 p.m. we were trussed up in sleeping bags, a long day done, a promise kept, a quest completed.

On Depression

As a software engineer who suffers from depression, I present a few strategies for coping

Over the years I’ve read many articles on depression. I actively seek them out, because I suffer from chronic, or unipolar, depression.

I usually admit this to very few people, but I’m in a no-nonsense mood, so it’s all hearts on sleeves tonight. I don’t suffer with the manic highs that a bipolar depressive would have to endure, just the crippling lows that leave me feeling like I’m walking through sludge, and sometimes want to give up and drown in it. But I’m not the sort to just take things lying down, I endeavour to take the battle to my enemies. Treatment is trial and error, here’s some of the things I’ve tried:

Revelation

This definitely helped, incontrovertibly the most important step I took. For years I kept things secreted away within my own mind, but not any more. The actual physical act of telling someone, even if they aren’t going to be providing further comfort to you, is a liberating experience. A few years ago I came clean to a few friends, and it was this that led to me talking to a doctor friend of mine, who prescribed the course of medication I subsequently began.

Medication

I have tried many homeopathic remedies over the years, too many to detail, and none have worked. As for clinically prescribed substances, I have just come off a course of 20mg citalopram tablets, one per day, taken for a period of seven months. It initially took a fortnight to adjust to the medication, during which time my mood oscillated dramatically (I particularly recall a single morning of even deeper gloom as my system sought to adjust) and my flatulence and belching increased. These issues settled down after two weeks, but throughout the seven months my sexual potency was markedly reduced (the same drug is also used to treat premature ejaculation).

Typically my bouts of depression hit hardest first thing in the morning, and on the citalopram I still felt that the melancholy was there underneath, but it had been significantly muffled. I liken the feeling to wearing oven gloves when handling hot dishes; I could still feel the heat, but it was at a level with which I could cope. After 6 months I began a weaning down period, to see if the depression was still simmering, and after a few weeks of reduced dosage (down from one tablet per day to one every two days) I found all depressive feelings had ceased. To continue the oven glove metaphor, the medication had protected my hands until the dish had cooled, and I was able to return to glovelessness.

As a disclaimer I will say there are alternative substances, this is the only one I tried and it worked for me, and I wouldn’t hesitate to take it again. Should I ever feel the need to begin another course of medication I would like to explore alternatives first, purely to find one without the sexual blunting.

Exercise

I do a few activities purely for my physical fitness, but I’ve always held out hope that these would also contribute to mood elevation as a bonus. I have jogged and cycled, played football, tennis and golf, and lifted weights…but no, other than improving stamina, burning fat and building muscle none of these have resulted in mood stabilisation. I exercise purely for fitness and enjoyment, but overall any mood alterations are tiny and temporary.

Having said this, earlier this year I partook in paintballing for the first time, and I woke up the following morning with a startlingly substantial mood enhancement, which felt utterly remarkable as I was in the midst of the gloomy period prior to beginning the course of medication detailed above. The boost lasted for a couple of days, disappearing completely by the middle of the week following the Saturday afternoon’s paintballing session. I put the improvement down to a solid few hours of constant pumping adrenaline, generated by the conflict and risk nature of a war game. My advice for people looking to exercise to elevate mood is to hunt around for your sport of choice, as in my experience it is clear that not all activities will activate and affect your physiology in the same way. To be honest I haven’t been paintballing since, so I have been unable to repeat the experiment.

Your mileage may vary

Ultimately we all have to find our own way through life. Likewise when combating depression you have to experiment with and tailor your treatment. If you are a sufferer I urge you to be hungry for all advice, but to not necessarily heed it. With any remedy your mileage may vary, so if you try something and it doesn’t work then don’t be afraid to look for other answers, or to garnish the treatment in ways that work for you. The only baselines that should be adopted by all sufferers are a healthy diet and adequate nutrition, quality sleep, and enjoyable distractions from the daily grind.