Superstressed? Stop trying so hard
Submitted by Dr Jo Iddon
Our minds are very flexible, and that’s the great thing about them, whatever happens, nothing is fixed. When you are feeling down, it doesn't have to stay that way, it’s temporary. It’s not a mental health problem unless you let it become one, if you let yourself be a victim of your circumstances. Whilst you can't stop the thoughts that swim up into your conscious mind, you can decide how you respond to them. Our thoughts are just that, thoughts. Work out how to better manage whatever it is that’s triggering that overwhelmed, stressed out, want to escape from the world sort of feeling. If the same issues keep coming up and are making your life a misery and ruining your relationships, change tack.
Imagine you are looking at yourself from the outside, what is your fear? Not being able to cope? Failing? Losing your job? Not being good enough? Not being a decent parent? Not having money to pay the bills? The trigger virtually always comes from the environment, your boss pushing you too hard when you already have an overwhelming amount of work to do; one of your kids asking you what’s for tea when you have only just cleared away from lunch; being constantly interrupted and making no headway on that enormous to do list; struggling to make ends meet with no obvious way out and another bill popping through the letterbox. In our lives of today, there are so many reasons but basically we just have too much to do in too little time. Life seems so often to be about rushing around on the mobile phones, multi-tasking as we go.
But when you have been doing too much for far too long, business and mild stress can turn into relentless pressure and exhaustion, and the longer that goes on the closer you get to burnout. The snapping point. That point when life feels too overwhelming, too stressy, too much and you have become snappy and reactive, you just want to shut yourself away, shut the world out. When that happens you may struggle to eat, to sleep, to interact socially. You feel numb and can't cope with anything, even the smallest thing can send you into an overreaction. It takes a long time to get to this point, and other people are rarely understanding, so busy are they dealing with their own lives. You have to remember that they can't see what's happening in your head or your life and ironically we quite frequently make the wrong assumptions about other people just at the very time we might most need a big hug and have their understanding.
Probably the most important thing to do, yet the biggest challenge when you reach this point is to learn to recognise what is going on. What are the challenges, the triggers and how is it making you feel and behave. Perhaps you are having physical sensations where you feel nauseous or dizzy (that’s anxiety), are struggling to leave the house (agoraphobia). Perhaps there is confusion, chaos in your mind, in your house, you are struggling to cook, to get organised, having negative thoughts about yourself, avoiding others, losing weight, finding it difficult to deal with other people. Maybe you can't even face work and have had to take some time off. But here is my motto – 'There is always a reason, you just have to work out what it is.’ Of critical importance is NOT to assume you have a (mental health) problem, this is just a temporary phase, and you need to work it through. Try these things:
1. Sit down, get a piece of paper and make a diagram connecting what is going on in your life with how you are feeling and how that is making you behave. Very often it's the most powerful thing you can do. Getting stuff out onto paper in a diagram can bring the insight you need to get down to working out what is causing you to feel the way you are. Insight is the key to reconfiguring life.
2. Take a look at your thoughts, and choose more adaptive ones. Our thoughts are signals and challenging them to be more helpful to you can make a huge difference.
3. Stop trying so hard; when things seem too much, stop, clench your shoulders and fists very tight and then let go and say to yourself 'goddamn it, everything will work out'.
4. Put into place some boundaries. Tell your boss in a commanding, 'don’t push me around anymore' sort of voice, that there are only so many hours in the day and that you have a life to live too. Then turn it around on them, ask them if they are OK, because you have noticed how stressed they seem to be. That boss may well be projecting their fears onto you, or passing the buck because they are overloaded too, but don't let them do that. Stand your ground. Take the power back. Empathise with them and encourage them to give you space and their understanding too.
5. Show your children your massive to-do list and share out some of the workload. Empower them by giving them the opportunity to learn ‘life skills’ and then send them away arguing over the chores list. Get them to make tea, do the weeding, then grab a glass of wine, shut your study door and tell them not to interrupt you unless it’s an emergency.
6. Get some of those things done you desperately need to, even a small dent in that long to-do list can start to make you feel a little better, it can sometimes purely be about starting to get back on top of things again.
7. As for money, yes that’s a tough one. I have found that when it gets so bad that you can’t even afford to buy food for tea, let alone pay the mortgage or the bills, you just have to write and explain that. Ask them to stop sending the threatening letters, that you will be in touch when you have found a means to pay in due course. That hassling you is just making it worse. That you are only human. I mean what are they going to do? The threatening letters about court, bailiffs and so on are usually just that. Be aware that automation is growing and so many of the letters are generated by a machine based on their algorithm. The employees of service companies are often under pressure themselves from their boss remember. Companies are bullies and if you genuinely can't pay and have a good reason for that, just be honest. If nothing else it will buy you more time to work things out. Bullying is a tactic, these companies have less power than you think.
8. If you have been trying to sort out anything particularly complicated to do with bills/telephone/tax etc for a while, change tack – contact the CEO of the company – you can find their details on the internet, it works. Or contact the ombudsperson.
The key thing is to do something, however small, to start moving forward – step by step – it will help. I personally wouldn't suggest turning to the antidepressants unless you have reached the point of crying constantly and being able to think only in rhyming couplets. If you do reach that point, you need to do something fast to help yourself. The bottom line is that if you get too stressed out in life and try too hard to please everyone else, you just become mentally exhausted, racking your brains trying to solve all the problems, yet it seems to make you even more stuck. You lose sight of yourself, your life and eventually your sanity. That is when you are trying too hard. I have told my kids that if and when I go into that kind of mad mum mode, making jokes about everything and laughing kind of a bit too hilariously, that they need to take heed that this is a warning that I am starting to derail and they goddamn need to step up and help me more, stop being so selfish, and step away from being their usual teen self, because I need them.
You really do have to remember what’s important in life too, after all you could drop down dead tomorrow, and believe me it really can. A friend of mine said to me once “Life is silly ...remember to laugh!” and he was right. I have learnt that when I can’t see the wood from the trees and it’s starting to go really badly, then more bad stuff will happen until I choose to respond differently. Often I myself only realise that I am close to that point because of the mad mum mode, the rhyming couplets returning. That's the thing, we can't see what is going on, but learn to know the signs, learn about those around you, what they are like when they are in a tough place. An over-reactive son and not being able to seemingly do anything right, is more likely than not a sign that they are super stressed themselves.
So in summary – recognise-reconfigure-relax. Shrug your shoulders, stop trying so hard and just kind of let life work out for itself, then choose to chill for just a moment. I don't get the whole meditation, mindfulness thing myself, but what does help is to have a lovely hot bath each day, to sing at the top of my voice into my microphone, put in some music, listen to something interesting on audible, go for a cycle, a run, rake the leaves off the drive, clean the car, mow the lawn or whatever it is YOU enjoy. You'll work things out, just choose to do that, to adapt and don't let the world get you down. Be the master of your own universe and hold your power close. Then for some inexplicable reason, life has a habit of somehow starting to work itself out.
I wish you well.