Before my daughter showed me otherwise, I thought I knew the importance of self-care. Most of us have go-to activities that will calm us when the stresses of life feel overwhelming – for me it’s art.
I turned to painting when, unthinkably, I lost my brother, father, mother and three aunts in quick succession. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my paints and silks spread out in front of me, with the backdoor open and the sun beaming in. In those moments my breathing slowed down, my mind was focused, and I felt peaceful in the creative flow.
At the same time, our one-year-old daughter Freya was diagnosed with type one diabetes – a life-changing condition which meant controlling her blood sugar levels with insulin injections each time she ate. Taking time to be creative calmed my worried mind.
As a family, we learnt that being in nature was what could turn a stressful day into one of peace and connection, and whenever we felt tensions rise we got our boots on and headed out to the countryside. We had found ways to ride the challenges that came our way.
But life suddenly threw us a curve ball.
Freya’s blood sugar levels started to rise, and became harder to manage. Even the paediatric diabetes team couldn’t identify the cause. I remember the long nights, getting up every few hours for injections which never seemed to work, as though I was injecting water, not insulin. I felt helpless and frustrated.
Freya was, in every other way, a typical eight-year-old girl, with all the worries and concerns you would expect. This was one way I could help her. We talked through her troubles and, as she began to understand how she’d been feeling, her anxiety settled down. And, like magic, so did her blood sugar levels.
The change was dramatic, to the point where we had to urgently reduce her insulin doses. It couldn’t have been clearer – Freya’s anxiety had caused the high blood sugars.
The surprise was not that her stress levels could affect her physical health – we all know that stress isn’t good for you, and there is a clear link between the release of adrenalin and the production of glucose.
What amazed me was the extent to which relatively low-level anxiety can – and does – have an impact. Freya’s worries had been so ‘normal’, so seemingly inconsequential, that the doctors had not even considered them as a possible cause.
For most of us, the effects of underlying stress are imperceptible. But Freya’s blood sugar levels were like a barometer for her state of mind, and they taught us, as a family, never to ignore our emotions. We tune in, regularly.
Our techniques for bringing peace are no longer seen as something to turn to when the going gets tough; they are now integral to our daily lives, just like eating and sleeping. Our goal is to prevent stress, not just to manage it.
My paintings of our local landscape – which draw on the feelings, the atmosphere, the rich colours, patterns and textures of our walks – are my way of sharing the calming effects of nature with others.
Only you know where your happy place is. Just don’t wait for your body to tell you to go there.
Ellie Hipkin, artist