• Carolyn Stuart

When stress catches you unawares

There are two highly strung, mischievous, and completely adorable kittens in our bubble. They arrived on a plane one Thursday afternoon a few weeks before New Zealand entered into the Covid Rāhui. We had been warned that these kittens would be stressed when they arrived but with an ignorant confidence we assumed that, as we’d been owned by many cats before, we knew what we were doing. It turned out we couldn’t have been more wrong.

I now know, thanks to our vet, that kittens show they are stressed by peeing in places other than their dirt box. For the first few weeks I maintained a really low level of stress with regards to this undesirable behaviour, removing targets such as cushions, dispatching peed-upon items to the washing machine and comforting myself with the vet’s assurance that given time the kittens would settle down.

My stress level rose a little the day one of them jumped on a couch and managed to pee on a beautiful quilt my sister had given me one birthday. But taking a deep breath I popped the quilt into a cold, gentle machine wash and it came out restored to its original beauty. I placed it onto a stool in the kitchen under the heat pump to finish drying. I was calm. I was the perfect unflappable kitten-mother. I had this. Nothing our fur babies could do was going to unhinge me.

And then the washing machine died.

And then a kitten jumped up on the stool and peed on the quilt again.

And I lost the plot. If kitten traders had been in the street at that moment I would have paid to get rid of my beautiful but highly stressed fur babies. In the end I popped the offending kitten outside on the deck in order to give me some much needed space.

Once I had calmed down I began to contemplate what had caused my disproportionate reaction. Up to that point I had quite adequately managed the kittens' stress-induced behaviours; I’d coped with the quilt being targeted, and I’d dealt with the washing machine breaking down. But why I lost the plot was because three things happened at once and there had been nothing I could do to prevent any of it.

And that is how times of stress or disaster can happen. Small things, which on their own are manageable, come at you all at once, and cause potentially calamitous outcomes. I remember reading about this in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books when he explained that it is highly unlikely that one failure will cause an aeroplane to crash. It is when several things go wrong at the same time that disaster strikes.

I don’t think that there will be anyone who is escaping the Covid Rāhui without some level of increased stress. If you are lucky the things that cause you to feel anxious will be coming at you one at a time. If you are not so fortunate you will be dealing with several things coming at you at the same time which will be significantly increasing your stress.

An important key in dealing with stress is to be able to identify what it is you do when you are starting to be under the pump. A leader I was working with this week made the observation:

“The things people appreciate about me is the same thing people hate about me when I get under stress”

And I think this is a very common situation. If you are someone who likes to be organised then you may well find that in times of stress you over-organise. Conversely if you are someone who likes to go with the flow you may become so laid back that you stop making any attempt to control the things that are happening to you. When I get really stressed I clean and I know I do this as my way of controlling something within my environment when lots of things are happening out of my control.

Having a level of self-awareness around what you do when you become stressed can be really helpful to stop a situation escalating, as can having a close friend or partner who can tactfully steer you away from your current trajectory.

We are living through an extraordinary time. We are not used to living under our present restrictions. We need to remember to be kind to ourselves and to each other and that the Covid Rāhui is best navigated together.

Kia Kaha

Til next time


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