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From the surgeon to the Spice Girl: how people in high-pressure jobs cope with stress

‘I like to have an on-the-edge-of-my-seat feeling’

Mishal Husain, BBC news presenter

When I started presenting the Today programme, in 2013, I had a tight knot in my stomach the night before every shift. I’d try to guess what might be on the programme the next morning and then fret about how I would deal with that particular topic, discussion or contributor. It was utterly pointless – I would lose sleep through worrying about a scenario or sequence of events that only really existed in my head.

Gradually, as I gained experience, the sensation eased, and what remains is what I think of as a healthy and – for me – necessary degree of nerves. I would never want to be complacent, and so I like to have a certain on-the-edge-of-my-seat feeling about work. What has really helped me is to think about channelling my nerves towards the result I seek. That in turn makes me focus on the process – picking out the most salient part of a brief, looking up a nugget of information, zeroing in on a good question – rather than the big picture which might be daunting or even overwhelming.

I often think back to advice that Libby Purves, a former Today presenter, gave me before I started on the programme: “Always have a little more than you need.” Being forearmed also helps to keep the doubts and niggling anxieties in check.

The Skills by Mishal Husain, published by Fourth Estate, is out now

‘Don’t let anyone else judge your coping mechanisms’

Marian Keyes, novelist

Marian Keyes: ‘I’m not a fan of mindfulness.’

There was a time when I thought I had to say yes to everything I was asked to do, and taking on too much would leave me feeling very stressed. There’s always a battle between my people-pleasing instincts and the fact that my limitations are quite narrow, but I’ve learned to accept those limitations and not over-promise. I’ve learned to say no.

I’m not a fan of mindfulness. When I had a breakdown, several people told me to try it, and I did, because I was willing to try anything. But being in the present moment made me even more agitated. I subsequently discovered that mindfulness shouldn’t be practised by people in the throes of an acute depressive episode. That really annoyed me because people throw out advice as if they’re all psychiatrists.

I think people should manage stress in whatever way works for them – don’t let anyone else judge your coping mechanisms. I used to bake, and now I upcycle furniture, which I love. I do it less when I’m writing, because disappearing into my characters is also very calming. Another thing that I find immensely helpful is reading crime novels. A nice straightforward police procedural where nothing terrible happens to anyone and by the end it’s all OK in some fashion. That kind of self-contained world is comforting.

The Break by Marian Keyes is out now in paperback, £7.99

‘Boxing, strength training or running makes a difference’

Clara Amfo, Radio 1 DJ

Clara Amfo: ‘Getting eight hours definitely makes me less anxious throughout the day.’

I feel stressed when I feel unprepared. I like to research things meticulously, so If someone is coming on my radio show, or I’m hosting something on TV, I need to have all the material as soon as possible. If I don’t, I feel very anxious. When I’m stressed for longer periods, I stutter a lot, my skin goes to hell and my short-term memory becomes laughable.

When it comes to countering stress, I’ve realised the necessity of physical activity. I really feel the difference in my mood when I take the time to go boxing, do strength training or just grab my trainers for a run. I started running in 2015 because I had FOMO (fear of missing out) from my mates who were in a running club. I hated it at first, then after training for my first half marathon I began depending on it as my stress relief. I’ve also become much more strict with my bedtime. Getting eight hours definitely makes me less anxious throughout the day. Corny as it sounds, the best advice I’d give is the same advice friends have given to me – “this too shall pass”. Feeling stressed and anxious can be frustrating and crippling, but it can’t last for ever.

Clara Amfo will host the The BRIT Awards 2019: Red Carpet. ITV2, 20 Feb

‘Keeping a daily diary can be very therapeutic’

Henry Marsh, Neurosurgeon and author

Henry Marsh

As a neurosurgeon, I was in a state of mild chronic anxiety all the time. Surgery is intensely stressful – not so much the actual operating, as having to deal with patients and their families afterwards when things have gone badly. I never resented the anxiety, as I never doubted the value and importance of my work, and it seemed (and still seems) an appropriate price to pay for the privilege of being a surgeon.

It helped to remind myself that I had been through similar crises before and survived, even if the poor patient hadn’t. Physical exercise has always been extremely important for me; there are few problems that are not helped by a long walk or run, and I still try to run every day. I also find that writing, in particular keeping a daily diary, can be very therapeutic.

Talking to colleagues can be helpful as well; only they can properly understand what it feels like when a patient comes to harm. Over time, I got better at being open about my problems. It is only human to make mistakes. My advice? Ask for help. Have good colleagues. Be a good colleague in return.

Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh is published by Orion (£8.99). To order a copy for £7.91 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only.

‘Carefully chosen playlists help to regulate my mood’

James Haskell, rugby player

James Haskell

I try to manage pre-match performance anxiety with visualisations. If I’m worried about a specific tackle, I imagine it going amazingly, and really feel every sensation of that great tackle. It makes a big difference.

I’ve learned through working with a sports psychologist that music is also a really powerful tool. I use carefully chosen playlists to regulate my mood – whether that’s to try and pump myself up and feel like a million dollars before a match, or to try and wind down when I’m experiencing stress relating to injury. Being injured is a very specific kind of stress. One of the most anxious periods of my career was in 2017 when I had toe surgery and wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to play rugby again.

I run a couple of businesses outside of rugby, and time management can be another source of stress. When I have a million things going through my head, writing notes of the most important things can help stop my mind racing. An important lesson has been remembering to only worry about what you can control. You can’t control other people or situations that are out of your hands, you can only control your response.

Cooking for Fitness by James Haskell is out now in hardback for £19.95

‘Things improve if I swim regularly and eat well’

Jess Phillips, Labour MP

Jess Phillips

In politics, things change rapidly, and I find myself cancelling plans and running late, which I find very stressful. I feel obligated not to let people down, so it’s hard when votes shift or sudden urgent debates are called. I also juggle a lot of harrowing cases, such as people being wrongly deported, or families facing eviction and homelessness. It can be stressful thinking you might drop a ball that is someone’s life. All this goes on with the background noise of people feeling perfectly happy to tell you how much they hate you, how awful you are at your job and how they hope you lose it.

When my anxiety is at its worst, I cannot brush off even the smallest worry. I also struggle with sleep and feel physically sick. The week that Jo Cox was killed, we voted to leave the EU and the prime minister resigned, I was sick pretty much every day. I do find things improve if I swim regularly. Taking the time to quietly think is calming, and regular exercise is helpful for getting to sleep. Eating well also helps, as well as actually doing stuff with my kids, such as cooking, rather than just watching telly together, which is just existing in the same space. When things are really bad I take medication for my anxiety and sleeplessness.

I’m not a natural sharer, but following a very severe episode of anxiety, I’ve learned to be more honest and tell people how I’m feeling. That’s the best advice I can give – speak to someone. It helps.

Everywoman by Jess Phillips is published by Hutchinson (£8.99). To order a copy for £7.91 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

‘I have a bath, put my phone away and go to bed early’

Professor Green, rapper and documentary maker

I had experience of stress and anxiety before I even knew what they were – and definitely before I had the tools to cope with them. There was a lot of chaos when I was growing up: my mum left when I was one year-old, my dad was in and out of my life. I’d get belly aches, but the doctors couldn’t find a physical cause. It wasn’t until I was about 27 that I had a name for it.

It was during a period when I was working ridiculous hours, either in the studio or travelling. Most of what I do is performance-based, so there’s a lot of adrenaline that comes with it. I wasn’t sleeping, so I went to the doctor, who prescribed me Valium. That came with its own set of problems.

Now I’ve learned how important it is to give myself routines: I exercise, I have a hot bath, I put my phone away and go to bed early. They are seemingly simple things that a lot of us forget to do, but consistency is key. Being in the studio is a helpful outlet, it’s therapy.

Having a dog is also an important part of my wellbeing: no matter what, I have to look after him. Come rain or shine, I always feel better when I get home from walking Arthur.

‘Morning Bikram yoga helped me switch off’

Mabel, singer-songwriter

Mabel: ‘I can feel really anxious before big performances, and think, “I can’t do this”.’

When 9/11 happened, I was five years-old and at my first day of school – it’s one of the first times I remember feeling really anxious. It lasted until my late teens. I also had a lot of social anxiety, and when I was 15 or 16 it caused me to leave school and be home-schooled. Lots of creative people struggle with similar things, so my parents [singer-songwriter Neneh Cherry and record producer Cameron McVey] were very understanding.

What helped me the most was to take up exercise every day. I went to Bikram yoga at 6.30am pretty much daily for two years. I was exhausted from constantly putting myself down, so having a daily routine whereby I could switch off from that was really good.

These days, when I feel stressed it’s because I’ve lost perspective. I can feel really anxious before big performances, and think “this is insane, I can’t do this”. The solution can be as simple as telling everyone I need a minute, taking a deep breath and focusing on 10 things that are happening that are really sick. Usually the good things outweigh the bad. When I push through that fear, that’s when I feel my best, and amazing things happen.

Mabel’s single, Don’t Call Me Up, is out now

‘Be approachable and understand your team’

Angela Hartnett, Chef

Angela Hartnett has learned to stop and take five minutes when things go wrong in the kitchen.

When I’m feeling stressed in the kitchen, I can get quite quiet and irritable. If food isn’t going out quickly enough, or something goes wrong, I’ve learned to stop and take five minutes. It’s important to address smaller issues as they arise, dealing with the situation as calmly as possible means that it doesn’t spiral out of control.

When it comes to bigger problems, you shouldn’t jump in straight away. If the situation allows, then sleep on it or think about what’s bothering you. Things can look easier the next day. Emails really up my anxiety levels, so I always pick up the phone or speak to someone face to face if I can.

Years ago, when I was at the Connaught, stressed and quite new to being a head chef, Richard Corrigan told me one of the most important things is to get to know your team. They might travel for two hours each day, or have other things going on outside of work, and as an employer, being approachable and understanding the team is key. At the same time, I’ve learned to try and guide people, but also to let them deal with things themselves – I don’t want to be like a kindergarten teacher. That balance is important.

‘It can be productive to have a cup of tea and a think’

Richard Branson, business magnate

Richard Branson finds kite surfing a relaxing way to escape work pressures.

I’m very fortunate to love what I do, but since I launched my first business more than 50 years ago there have been many stressful situations. Usually, if I feel anxious it’s because I’m worrying about what could happen, not what is happening. I try to focus on the present, and do all I can to mitigate the downsides – it’s all anyone can do. It can also be really productive to have a cup of tea and think about the source of your stress, then write down practical steps to solve your problem or manage the situation.

Sometimes I feel stressed when I’m being pulled in too many directions, but I’ve learned to focus on one thing at a time, rather than do a million things at once. Exercise helps to get me out of a work mindset. I always try to include some physical activity in my day: tennis or kitesurfing if I’m on Necker, or a walk, gym session or a run if I’m travelling. I often find that solutions come to me when I’m allowing my mind that bit of time to relax.

It’s better to focus on learning, developing and trying to solve problems rather than to dwell on them.

Finding my Virginity by Richard Branson out now in paperback, £9.99

‘Knowing I’ve rehearsed enough helps me to relax’

Melanie C, Singer-songwriter

I’ve got the Spice Girls tour this summer, playing to huge stadiums. It’s very exciting, but also anxiety ridden, because it’s a long time since we’ve toured, and we want the show to be incredible for the fans who’ve waited so long. Adrenaline is a great thing for a performer, but it can get the better of you.

When I’m going into a stressful scenario, feeling prepared and knowing that I’ve rehearsed enough helps me to relax. I’ve practised yoga on and off for about 20 years, and I’ve learned that controlling my breathing is another good way to stay calm. I’ve also done a couple of mindfulness courses, which I found really helpful. I was taught to set a positive intention every day – mine is often “I will be patient and tolerant today”. Just repeating those words a few times can really set the tone for your day, rather than leaping out of bed thinking “Oh god, I’ve not paid that bill, and I’m running late”.

Everyone knows what it’s like to have difficulty sleeping, or experience that very uncomfortable feeling of anxiety where your breathing is very high in your chest or your heart is beating rapidly. But so many of the things we get wound up about don’t really matter. If I forget a few words on stage, nobody dies. It can be hard to keep perspective when you’re caught up in your anxiety, but it’s important to remind yourself that everything is always OK in the end.

‘If I can go to bed knowing I did my best today, I’m happy’

Gina Miller, Business owner and campaigner

Gina Miller only has four hours sleep a night.

When I worked in financial services, as part of a female-led business, I found that pitching to very male-dominated boards created stress. When we’re anxious we tend to shrink into a defeatist position, curving our shoulders or backs. Learning to stand straight, take a breath and speak slowly helps to project a sense of confidence, relieving some of that anxiety.

I’ve been a vocal campaigner for nearly 15 years, which has made me very good at making enemies. I don’t take it home as much as you’d imagine because I’ve never been somebody who worries whether people like me. I’d recommend it, because caring about what people think is a terrible, terrible burden. I have a “pillow test” – can I go to bed tonight knowing that I did my best today? If I can, I’m happy.

I’ve managed to achieve a lot because I sleep very little. I tend to survive on about four hours a night, but when I’m stressed it’s even less. When I’ve gone through a stressful situation, the way I counterbalance it is by allowing time to build up my reserves.

I’m not someone who responds very well to things like mindfulness and yoga; I’m impatient and they don’t empty my mind. Instead, I love adrenaline sports such as racing cars and free climbing, which completely distract the part of my brain concerned with professional life. I also find music extraordinarily empowering and therapeutic. You can’t beat a jig around the room to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, for instance.

Rise: Life Lessons in Speaking Out, Standing Tall & Leading the Way by Gina Miller is published by Canongate. To order a copy for £8.79 (RRP £9.99) go to

or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Source: TheGuardian