Since having a car accident last summer, I have been having regular physio on my neck and shoulders. It’s not great, at 33, to feel like your body can’t repair itself without (quite a lot of) help.
One of my observations has been the correlation between stress and my pain levels. A tense meeting or day can leave me in agony, and often unable to sleep (which I can confirm, is unhelpful). In effect, ‘fight or flight’ has the effect of flaring up the existing damage I’ve done, which my poor body is busy trying to fix.
As someone who routinely seeks out difficult problems to fix – both inside and outside of work – stress is quite hard to avoid. As I’ve got older I’ve realised that I like challenge, I like the sense of success that doing difficult things well brings, and in effect, I’m probably addicted to a certain level of stress.
This has given me a dilemma. Do I endure physical pain for the rest of my life? Or do I try harder to give up some of the activities and behaviours that are impeding my recovery?
In pondering this, I have begun to analyse in some detail the activities that create stress and tension. Some are obvious: being sat at a PC for too long (I am getting better at doing conference calls while walking), long and frustrating meetings (I try to restrict these), over-committing myself to activities at evenings and weekends (and then not sitting still for more than ten minutes). This has all helped to an extent – but yet I’m still suffering.
So what else could be impacting my stress levels? In the last few months it’s become very clear to me.
I live in a suburb between Manchester and Stockport – approximately five miles from Manchester City centre, where I typically work three days a week. We pay a premium to live in the ‘commuter belt’ for a major city, and one which has continued to grow and expand over the 15 or so years I’ve lived in the area.
In that period I’ve seen the roads and public transport in Greater Manchester move from something that I would boast about to southern friends (‘I have a 15 minute commute – why would I ever work in London???’), to easily the single biggest frustration in my life. ‘First world problems’, I know, but my five mile journey takes at least an hour on public transport, and in the car will only take less than that if you are travelling before 7am or after 7pm.
The sheer waste of time is only one factor to the stress this causes me. The incredible lack of reliability is perhaps much more frustrating. Most of my city’s roads seem to be closed or dug up, most of the time. Road structures and one-way systems are continually being re-thought, seemingly in a drive to deter motorists from driving at all. And then we have the sporadic ‘sink holes’ which seem to have been a constant feature for some time…. delay after delay only making motorists drive badly to try to get home faster (with accidents inevitably resulting). I live in a constant loop of people cutting down the side of lines of traffic, only to cut in again at the last moment. Sometimes I shout at them so much that I feel I might actually have a heart attack. At 33.
And why the hell am I driving? I hate driving. Environmentally I don’t believe in driving (if avoidable). The accident which causes me all this pain came from driving. And yet I mostly do drive. Why? Because Manchester Council decided to encourage the development of an enormous business district (Spinningfields) which is singularly un-served by public transport. The nearest proper train or bus station is a 20 minute walk. And in case you haven’t noticed, we have a lot of rain in Manchester. On what planet did the council think that the professional community (many of whom get given car allowances and parking) would choose a slow, expensive and soggy traipse across a dirty city, over sitting in their own cars?
All in all, while I feel incredibly privileged to live in the U.K., I feel like my enjoyment of it’s many benefits is being restricted by the frustration of travel – and I know many people, in many towns and cities, who feel the same. There are days where the only thing that cheers me up is singing ‘Rat Race’ by the Specials in my head, and laughing at how silly it is to spend my precious time on this planet feeling so exasperated.
As I type this, I am on a train in the Netherlands, which is really showing me that the answers are out there. Amsterdam to Rotterdam in 25 minutes? Somewhat of an improvement on the 1hr+ between Manchester and Leeds / Liverpool. Let alone my paltry 5 mile commute!
The Northern Powerhouse will never gain traction unless these issues can be fixed (and we seem some way off doing that – proposals such as HS3 seem decades away). Until then I will take lots of deep breaths, try to travel at anti-social times, and perhaps dust off my bike. I’m not convinced it won’t get me killed in another way, but I’ll at least feel more healthy in between.