Riding the whelm

Bray Leino’s Henry Challender on keeping your head above water and combatting stress during trying times

Henry Challender

Associate Creative Director Bray Leino


On the lawn outside Bray Leino’s agency in Devon is a space where two majestic trees once stood. After centuries of growth, Storm Eunice came through and sent them crashing to the ground. At the end of a cold, dark, plague-ridden winter (and at the start of what looks to be a hot, long, plague-ridden summer) it felt ominous.

And sure enough, financial, psychological, and meteorological depressions continue to march in. Sea levels, interest rates, and energy prices seem to be in a violent contest with your blood pressure for biggest, fastest rise.

Then you open your inbox to find that people actually expect you to think straight – or harder still, imaginatively.

In The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of our World, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist relates how trees grown in sheltered biodomes tend to topple at a far younger age than those growing in the wild. This is because the ones outside are exposed to the wind, the stress of which forges strength in their very fibre. It’s a concept called hormesis: what doesn’t kill you and all that.

While our resilience builds through our battles with stress, after the past few torrid years it feels like we’re all ready to topple in the next stiff breeze. 2023 is going to be off the Beaufort scale. So we need to find ways to stay upright, let alone creative.

Andrew Blake helps professional big wave surfers remain calm in the literal eye of the storm. Google ‘overwhelm’ and the parallels with wiping out at Nazaré feel apt. During lockdown, when mental health rightly found itself high on the agenda, our Wellness team asked him to help us too.

we need to find ways to stay upright, let alone creative

Henry Challender, Associate Creative Director at Bray Leino

He explains: ‘Stress is a physiological response in the body. A part of the brain called the amygdala kicks in, unleashing your fight or flight response, causing your adrenaline and cortisol levels to spike. Your heart rate increases. Blood pressure rises. Thoughts run away with themselves. And that sense of overwhelm quickly sets in.’

To regain control, his advice is to change our relationship with stress.

‘Once we learn to notice rather than react to stress, we can get a grip on it. Nasal breathing allows us to access our parasympathetic nervous system, change our chemistry and help maintain a state of calm and focus in high-stress situations.’

To do this, he offers a simple tool:

‘Breathe in deeply through your nose for three seconds, expanding the rib cage and diaphragm. Hold it for three seconds. Then release through your nose for six seconds. Repeat this for a minute – or as long as you need – and take a moment to notice the results.’

This technique is useful and effective, but it takes discipline and practice. The ability to notice stress coming for you is harder than it sounds. And when you’re in dire straits, being told ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ or ‘take a deep breath’ can feel borderline patronising. As a friend going through heartbreak told me: ‘All that meditation shit’s gone straight out the window.’

It’s an important tool, but we need others. Further initiatives from our Wellness team include putting up clear boundaries around time each day, like ‘No meeting, we’re eating’ between 12-1pm. See also Wellness Wednesdays, which offer every employee an extra afternoon off each month to do whatever charges their batteries. Mental Health First Aiders, regular tea & talks, access to physical and mental healthcare, free fruit bowls and circuit training, opportunities to give back, helpful content on relevant calendar days – these, and others, are all contributing to a more supportive, resilient culture, and it’s encouraging to see similar initiatives becoming more standard across the industry.

But we need more. After all, there’s no silver bullet for overwhelm – you have to work at it, just when it feels like your capacity to do so is precisely nil. In The Unnameable, Samuel Beckett puts his finger on it: ‘…you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’

Eventually, like trees, we all fall over. But endings can also be beginnings. We’re turning the wood from our broken trees into contemplation benches: a place to go and take a breath whenever we need to. Rafts, perhaps, to help us ride the whelm for many years to come. And even have some decent ideas along the way.

Guest Author

Henry Challender

Associate Creative Director Bray Leino


Henry Challender is Associate Creative Director at Bray Leino. After a degree in English & Philosophy at University of Wales, Swansea, he did a short stint in academic publishing before trading the stresses of the Northern Line for the beaches of North Devon. In the 17 years since, he’s worked on campaigns for the likes of Barilla, Bottlegreen, Braun, Covonia, Ecover, Freederm, Grant’s Whisky, iheartwines, Ibuleve, Jägermeister, Olam, Tefal, Thatchers, WKD and Wrigley. He’s particularly interested in the philosophy of mind, is a Mental Health First Aider, and heads up our Wellness Operations. He likes food, drink, and surfing. He can’t recommend Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter With Things highly enough. Full disclaimer: he’s friends with Andrew Blake.

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