De-stress Success Stories


Canadian Julija McDowell, 41, and her Australian husband, Nicholas, 37, live in Sydney with their three children: Dragan, 6; Avanyu, 4; and Taikaro, 2. They recently moved here from San Francisco in search of a less stressful life.

Seven years ago, I had a high-paying, high-stress job as an animator, working for Hollywood filmmaker George Lucas’s visual-effects company, Industrial Light & Magic. Sixty- to 100-hour weeks were the norm, and my partner, also in the industry, worked just as hard.

Eventually, the pressure became too much. When I got pregnant in 2004, I began to think about how I’d balance work with motherhood. I went for motherhood—and left my job. It was my first taste of life without work stress, and I loved it.

While I dedicated myself full-time to family, I began keeping an online diary of what my children did every day. From this, I started an online company that gives parents and carers suggestions for play and interaction with children. It was a concept that was mobile, too.

A year ago, we moved to Australia. Surprisingly, landing in a new country instantly eliminated many daily stressors—our lives were simplified by having fewer possessions and commitments. Admittedly, moving countries did bring its own pressures, but in this fresh environment, we created a whole new approach to how we lived our lives.

Now my husband and I are both self-employed and work from home. We earn less than we used to, but we decided to make some sacrifices, at least for now. These days, because we’re so often together, our relationships—both our marriage and our bonds with our children—are better than ever.

We kick stress by kicking back. We eat together every night and take it in turns to talk about our favourite part of the day. It’s a great way to relieve stress; it reminds us of what’s important to our family and encourages us to focus on the good things that happen each day.

We’ve also banished TV from the house, which has increased the quality time we spend with each other and on ourselves. Each morning, for example, I walk 2 km with my son to school while my husband looks after our other two children. The walk home, through Sydney Harbour National Park, is my time. It’s energising and recharges my emotional batteries!


Lisa Murray, 43, is a business coach. She lives on the Sunshine Coast. Overwhelmed by work, Lisa learned to manage her stress by motivating others.

I’ve suffered three burnouts in my career. Each time, my workload became unbearable. Most recently, it got so bad, I couldn’t get up in the morning. I saw my GP, who prescribed a month off work and suggested antidepressants. I knew I wasn’t depressed, but the amount of pressure I was under was unsustainable for me, both physically and mentally.

I took almost 12 months off work and lived on money I’d drawn out of my mortgage. After years of overachieving, I found it difficult to accept my new limitations, but I gradually began thinking about my future. I knew I wasn’t resilient enough to work for someone else again, so self-employment seemed worth exploring.

I visited a life-purpose intuitive counsellor, who assessed my strengths, weaknesses, passions and dislikes. When she suggested I become a business coach and writer, I experienced a light-bulb moment: I could help others make sure they didn’t end up in my situation. Plus, I could satisfy my creative urge to write.

Working for yourself does bring stress; you’re the boss, the administrator and the dogsbody, all rolled into one. Still, I never feel overburdened in the way I used to.

To manage my workload and avoid work-related stress, I keep three to-do lists: a list of things I’m currently working on, a list of projects to start soon, and a list of goals to achieve over time. Dividing my time between the here and now and future incentives helps me tick off tasks.

My other strategies include setting a reminder on my computer to do something nice for myself every day; taking a book to meetings held outdoors so I can read afterwards in the sunshine or in a cafe, which helps me wind down before the next task; and seeing a co-mentor every week to discuss the three most important things we each want to achieve by our next meeting. I pay attention to my body’s signals, too. If I feel tense, I walk along the beach to relax, even if I’m behind in my work. I know I’ll get it done much faster after a break.

The secret to minimising stress is to back yourself. If a voice in your head is warning you that a project, situation or job is causing undue pressure, then don’t take it on.

It’s easy to believe that work and its attendant stress are all that matter in life, but it’s important to remember that it’s you who matters most. When you nurture yourself, everything else flows.


Chrissy Leighton, 39, and her husband, John, 46, live in Sydney with their daughter, Mia, 3. Family illness forced Chrissy to re-evaluate her work-life balance.

In 1998, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I took a month off work to care for her while she was in palliative care. Nothing was more important to me than being with my mum.

During her illness, I saw a counsellor to help me deal with the stress of looking after my mother. The counsellor suggested I take up a hobby to channel my worries. One day, I passed a bead store offering courses in jewellery making. I signed up, and I loved it.

Making jewellery during the dark days of my mother’s illness stopped me from falling into despair. Each time my mother had her radiation treatment, I’d make her a piece of jewellery to cheer her up. Friends began asking me to make pieces for them, and word spread so that making jewellery kept me busy while on breaks from taking care of Mum. Oddly enough, I felt happy, and slowly, Mum recovered.

Even though I loved my job, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever. My mother’s cancer scare was a wake-up call. I cut down my ad-agency work to part-time and concentrated on spending time with family. I also continued designing, so that after a couple of years, I was able to work on jewellery-making full-time.

Starting a business is scary, yet after the stress of my mother’s illness, I’m more chilled out than I’ve ever been. I do what I love, so work’s not a chore. Even when I wake at night, I don’t worry about every little thing. Instead, I design a piece of jewellery in my mind; it calms me down.

One of my strategies to keep stress in check is to always make time for people I love, no matter what’s going on. Luckily, my mum is healthy now. She’s my best friend, and after a chat with her, I always feel more positive and settled.

You can’t take anything for granted. Something might happen in an instant to turn your life around; there’s no point trying to control things. Ultimately, going with the flow frees you from stress.