Hazel McHaffie

stress

Stress busting!

I’ve been reminded all over again this week of the importance of books in the nation’s health; never, I suspect, has that need been greater than now when a pandemic is threatening our very foundations and security.

It’s been an uncharacteristically stressful week in my own little world, most of it stemming from the vagaries of technology. Frightening how much we depend on the internet and all things electronic in our everyday lives, isn’t it? Being without connections feels like working with one and a half broken arms.

But I know that my personal stresses are as nothing compared with those of countless others during this time of Covid. The BBC wheeled out some big guns in the world of psychiatry during the past few days, who all tell us about the abnormally high incidence of worrying symptoms for mental illness, symptoms sufficiently serious to warrant medical intervention under normal circumstances.

Well, I’ve always been acutely aware of the fine dividing line between normal and abnormal when it comes to mental health. I rapidly but determinedly side-stepped psychiatry in my training, even though the way the mind works and its link with physical health fascinate me. And I’ve never forgotten the patient who first alerted his family to pathological disease when he started cutting his sausages lengthwise … but that’s another story. This week, when things started unravelling for me, it was time to segue into active stress-management mode.

Aromatherapy, mental puzzles and games, exercise, relaxation techniques, helping others less fortunate … the whole gamut came into play. And breathe … And relax …

But of course, books remain one of my main go-to resources. There’s nothing to beat losing yourself in another world. And in this context all I need is something unexacting but gripping. Time to turn to a tried and tested author: Harlan Coben.

I have a stack of his books on my shelves for exactly this kind of situation; these are just a selection, collected over many years. First off the shelf was Run Away.

First page, opening paragraph¬† …
Simon sat on a bench in Central Park – in Strawberry Fields to be more precise – and felt his heart shatter … he stared straight ahead, blinking, devastated …

and I’m already asking who, what, why, when?

His once lovely daughter Paige – who ran away from her comfortable, professional, stable, ordered family life, to shack up with a criminal and wallow in addiction, has been seen busking in that very park where Simon sits with his heart splintering into fragments. Watching her. He’s appalled by what he sees: a malodorous, strung out bag of bones with matted hair and yellow teeth and a cracked voice. Trickster, manipulator, thief. And that encounter leads him deep into the dark and dangerous underworld that swallowed her up – guns, violence, murder, drugs …
because if someone hurts your daughter, a father has an obligation to stop him, no matter what.
But when the man who took her to this hellish place is murdered, Paige vanishes. He’s lost her again.

A second plot line shows a series of young men being targeted and killed. Why? What’s the connection? I twigged the ‘what’ by P167, and the ‘who’ by P194, but not the ultimate ‘why’… P319. Kept me turning the pages. Better still, it crept close to my own field of interest – genetic inheritance, infertility, adoption, ethics … now you’re talking my language!

And all the threads don’t fully come together until the epilogue. The work of a devilishly clever mind. And balm to my troubled one.

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Strength in adversity

What does not kill you, makes you stronger.‘¬† We’ve all heard it. You might even have had it fired at you, or worse still, directed it at someone else in an effort to bolster their resilience in the face of trouble. As you’ll also probably know, it was the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who originally penned it.

But just over a year ago a bunch of US scientists from Buffalo university reckoned they could supply scientific evidence that there was more than a grain of truth in this aphorism. Not surprisingly they found that major traumatic experiences Рbereavement, assault and cataclysmic natural disasters Рwere more damaging than beneficial. However, a certain amount of adversity was more healthy than a stress-free life.  Their theory was that negative experiences encourage the development of coping mechanisms for life and strengthen the bonds of social networks.

What d’you reckon? True for you?

Me, I’m hanging onto that thought as I grapple with various stresses in my own life at the moment. They, and competing demands on my time and energies, have been getting in the way of work this week, so it’s something of a miracle that I have any progress to report. But yes, things are moving. ManuscriptThe manuscript of my current novel, Over my Dead Body, is now finished (wahey!), I’ve agreed terms with the cover designer, and I’ve started to approach reviewers – time now to finalise those last big decisions about publication.

Life certainly has a habit of surprising us. I mean, who’d have thought bombs would disrupt a harmless marathon, whereas Baroness Thatcher’s funeral would pass off without obvious disruptive incident, in the same week. Lessons to be learned there, I’m sure.

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