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Grace Under Pressure

Staying calm when stress is part of your life isn't easy. These women explored their options and found relief.

stay calm under pressure

Good stress, bad stress

Some pressures are healthy, and even necessary. The adrenaline rush we feel at the start of a new project, or when we have a deadline approaching, helps motivate us. But when we try to do too much, all the time, stress becomes the enemy - quite literally. 

Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, raises the body’s metabolic rate in readiness for a 'fight or flight' response. It increases heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. It affects background body functions too, like digestion, cell division and even our reproductive processes — putting them on hold until calm returns.

Being on constant alert and able to react to an imminent, life-threatening emergency is great when you need it, but living constantly in that state is detrimental. Stress affects our ability to think clearly and remember things; it has been shown to increase the likelihood of depression and can exacerbate health risks like stroke and heart disease. It also impacts our immune systems, which scientists now fear can impair our ability to fight cancer.

When did everyday pressures become 'stress?'

In the last 100 years women’s roles and the opportunities open to them have changed almost beyond recognition. Now, for most of us, it’s perfectly possible to get a Ph.D., be the company CEO and call the shots in our relationships. Yet, we are still the bearers and nurturers of children and many of us still seek to create that romantic ideal of the family unit.

This gives rise to the inevitable stresses of running a career alongside a busy home life. And ‘having it all’ can very quickly turn into ‘having to do it all.’ In this situation, stress is a double-edged sword: you can’t afford to acknowledge it (because you might be overwhelmed), or succumb to it (because you have no choice but to press on).

Stop the merry-go-round

Life coach Isabel van der Ven was living with husband Peter in her native Holland, holding down a high-powered job as a project manager for the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, as well as being mom to her two- and six-year-old daughters. Combine this with a three-hour commute every day and you’ll see her life was just about as full as it could be.

Isabel didn’t feel it was too much: “I would have described my life as a fairytale existence,” she says. But when she found a breast lump while showering, shortly after her 40th birthday, she could almost hear the plates crashing down around her. Shocked to learn she would need a full mastectomy, Isabel coped with ten months of treatment, two failed attempts at reconstruction using an expander implant, then finally a TRAM flap using skin and muscle from her abdomen. She was forced to give up her career, as the treatment exhausted her and ‘chemo brain’ meant she couldn’t think straight.

Isabel felt the resulting stress in her life most keenly once treatment had ended. “When there are no more appointments to attend, it’s as if your safety net has been taken away. That’s when the anger, fear, confusion and the big questions like ‘what next?’ come out.” She tried a few volunteer roles to create a regular daily routine, but couldn’t find the right thing. The family even took three months to travel across the U.S. in a camper van - an amazing adventure but, alas, not a life-changer. Then Peter was offered a job in the U.K., which seemed like a fabulous opportunity. “When we first met, we agreed we’d love to travel as much as possible and experience different cultures, so we decided to take the plunge and relocate.”

Living in the rural south of England was wonderful but, after helping her daughters settle into school, Isabel still felt she needed some direction. Flipping through a magazine at the hairdresser’s salon one day, she came across an article about a life coaching retreat in Spain. “I’d never even heard of life coaching before. But just by reading this I knew it was what I needed right now.” 

Sometimes, relieving stress is about escaping from the everyday and just turning down the volume for a while.

Equal billing

Spurred on by finding out so much about herself on the retreat, Isabel decided to study for a degree in coaching. She applied the teachings to her own life: “I now understood more about my values, the things that are necessary for me to feel truly fulfilled. These include getting in touch with nature, which is why we got our wonderful Golden Retriever, Max, who gets me out on daily walks in the countryside.”

On the coaching retreat they asked Isabel if there was something she’d always wanted to do but never got around to it. “I’d always wanted to play the saxophone - although I didn’t know if I’d be any good.” So she started learning just four years ago, although to hear her play you would think she’d been doing it all her life. Isabel’s other key value, independence, had to be matched with her need to work and be productive. And that’s how Live Your Life After Cancer (LYLAC) was born. Together with her partner Jo Lee, a doctor and life coach who has also had breast cancer, she now runs workshops across the south of England, helping women get their lives back on track after breast cancer, as well as coaching clients individually.

Coaching helped Isabel realise what stress is for her, and how to deal with it. “It’s about finding a balance, giving equal billing to all the things that are really important in your life,” she concludes. “For me, cancer was a gift in ugly wrapping paper. If I hadn’t had cancer, I wouldn’t have travelled across America, moved to the U.K., got a dog or be playing in a successful jazz-swing band as well as an orchestra. Once you know what changes to make, you have to think hard about how you can make them possible. Then you know what you have to do.

Grace and balance

Running marathons and climbing mountains might not be everyone’s idea of stress relief, but when podiatrist Trish Otto was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 37 and commenced the gruelling treatments, she didn’t want to give up something that not only gives her great pleasure but also makes her feel she’s in control of at least one area of her life.

Trish was spinning lots of plates when she found a breast lump. She and her husband and small daughter were staying in Portland, Oregon for the weekend, looking at schools and a place for them to rent when Trish took up her new job and the family relocated from Wisconsin. A subsequent mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy resulted in a positive diagnosis - a complete shock to Trish.

Galvanized into action, she called on all her medical colleagues to help decide on the best course of treatment for her - a double mastectomy. “I had an aggressive form of cancer and I wanted to eliminate, as far as possible, the chance of it returning,” she explains. This was followed by a difficult course of chemo, all of which took place in the middle of Trish’s move to Portland and the start of her new job.

"They told me I could take time off but I said no. I think working helped me, and I ran about six miles every other day while having chemo - my doctor thought I was mad, but I know it helped keep my energy levels up.”

Trish accepts that her life had been stressful before she had cancer. “As a doctor you are on call, and your schedule gets crazy. I am a workaholic and after my diagnosis I was forced to put my life into perspective. I now know you have to take time out and relax, but for me that doesn’t mean doing nothing!”

Far from easing up since her diagnosis, besides running marathons and ultra-marathons, Trish has started climbing too. “That’s how I met a lady named Linda, who is 72 and has breast cancer that’s spread to her bones - but she’s unstoppable!” The two women climb together on weekends, and have raised money for breast cancer charities.

Trish knows many women would find this form of stress relief pretty daunting but, like Isabel, she firmly believes we all need a way to switch off and forget about everything. “You need an avenue that you can filter energy through. In the early days after my diagnosis, I would have nightmares about the future. But meeting Linda and seeing how she lives life to the fullest, I’ve realized I have to do that too. And in getting my life back, I’ve banished all my nightmares.”

grace under pressure

Find your safety-valve

Because most of us can’t simply cut out large chunks of our lives, we need other ways to relieve stress and rebalance. For Isabel, finding out what was important to her led to a different career and, crucially, some hobbies that really inspire her. For Trish, endurance running has remained a constant comfort in her life.
Sometimes, relieving stress is about escaping from the everyday and just turning down the volume for a while. That’s why weekend retreats and spa breaks are so popular: they give you time to focus on yourself, sort out your thoughts or choose to think about nothing at all. You don’t have to wait for holidays either - a Sunday afternoon walk or a long soak in the bath can work wonders when your schedule won’t stretch to anything more. 

Rebalancing is therapeutic

Australian psychologist Sue Baughman reminds us that ‘therapy’ is any technique or activity that promotes and assists with healing - it can be passive or active, the choice is yours. The key thing is to find your safety-valve, an then make time to practice releasing it.

Sue counsels scheduling ‘me time’ just like a regular meeting. “It’s about making a commitment to a regular practice of self-care - even if it’s only five minutes a day,” she says. “This allows you to develop and cultivate one of the most important relationships in your life - the relationship with the self. If our energy reserves are topped up and we are feeling love for the self, then we are in a much better position to give to others.”

This is no time for peer pressure, advises Sue: “Don’t take other people’s word for it. Have your own direct experience and trust your intuition.” You might already have found your stress-reliever. Think about the things you love most - whether it’s reading or morning walks, spending time with your children or baking. If you haven’t found it, allow yourself to embark upon a gloriously self-indulgent journey of discovery.

Give it all the love and energy it deserves, because this time it really is all about you! 

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Christina Relf is a writer, stylist and communications consultant and single mom. 

Sue Baughman is a registered psychologist, an accredited Satyananda Yoga teacher, an energy therapist and co-facilitator of psychosocial spiritual retreats. 

Isabel van der Ven’s UK-based coaching business for women who have had breast cancer, Live Your Life After Cancer, can be found at