I am stressed.
You probably would be too if you had to juggle a 10 month old baby, work commitments, and getting ready to move towns. Feeling stress is a natural reaction to my circumstances.
Yesterday it hit me that the stress I’m experiencing is why I’ve been in Blahland. I’m fatigued, irritable, weepy, having trouble sleeping and needing lots more sleep than usual, along with having little motivation at the moment. I haven’t run in over a week. Not good, folks.
There is little I can do about my external circumstances right now. Eloise can’t magically grow into a self-sufficient ‘schoolie’ overnight, nor can I avoid the palaver that naturally occurs when you move house. Life is like that. I know that once we have moved and are settled in our new town, my stress levels will go back down. I simply hate moving. It never gets any easier, and I’ve moved 28 times in my life…
I do however, need to manage this stress EXTREMELY CAREFULLY. And I mean treat myself with kid gloves, big time. I’ve had to kick my self-help up several notches. I am a burnout survivor and the unfortunate result of having had burnout is that my body undergoes a huge overreaction to even the smallest stress.
It’s difficult to describe what burnout is like as it varies between people. There seems to be a stereotype that it only happens to type-A workaholics. This is just not true. Burnout (also known as adrenal burnout syndrome) can happen to anyone, at any time of their life, regardless of occupation. If you check that link out, you’ll see that even children can get burnout.
In my case it had nothing to do with my work. Not a damn thing. It was my life outside of work that reached epically busy proportions. When I lived in London I spent two years being out almost every night, and pretty much every weekend as well. I wasn’t a raging party-goer by any means, just wanting to make the most of every opportunity to go sight-seeing/flit over to Europe/visit museums and art galleries/go to concerts and lectures/volunteer/study/grow spiritually/help my church/hang out with my amazing friends/etc. I had FOMO at its worst. I also had a sick mother back home in New Zealand to worry about, and her being in and out of hospital while I was on the other side of the world almost sent me gaga.
I caught myself on the edge of a nervous breakdown. You can read about how I recovered here. It took me about a year and a half to recover.
I don’t drink coffee but I can only describe the feeling of burnout as akin to drinking 10 cups of coffee. I felt wired all the time. I couldn’t relax. I had trouble falling asleep and trouble staying asleep. My chest felt tight, like it had forgotten how to exhale. I was exhausted all the time. I simply cannot convey how weary in my bones I felt. At the end of each day my body would ache as if I had just completed a day of hard, physical labour (I had a desk job). Sleeping Beauty’s trick of sleeping for 100 years sounded not long quite long enough to me. I lost my sense of fun. I couldn’t concentrate. I had no energy to do the things I previously loved. I adore reading books and watching movies, but for a whole six months the only thing I could concentrate on without feeling exhausted afterwards was episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as they required little thought and made me laugh. My faith in God got me through this very dark time.
I got help from a counsellor who diagnosed me with severe adrenal burnout syndrome. I got help because my ‘wiredness’ eventually turned into an anxiety disorder that required medication, and I was acting out in very un-Angela ways. Lots of burnout sufferers turn to drugs and alcohol to cope, so I’m lucky I got help in time otherwise I may have gone down that path, who knows? Now, I look back and it was like I was a completely different person. But I didn’t go down that path. I recovered, got off medication and have been (mostly) okay for four years.
However, recovery from burnout is not straightforward. Many people never recover, and most people never return to the energy levels they had prior to burnout. I myself operate on 80%. And that’s on a good day. The only way I can explain it is that it’s like your body has run in this state of extreme stress for so long (and it does it for ages after the original cause of the stress has gone) that it becomes your body’s default setting. Like when you lose data on your computer and you have to reset it to a particular date to recover what you’ve lost. When I experience even just a small amount of stress, my body reverts to how it was during burnout. Yeah, believe me, it’s a pain in the *ss.
So when stress strikes, it’s action stations, all hands on deck to help me manage it. I start by invoking my first principles. I saw a psychologist talk about these principles years ago on Oprah (so it must be true, right?). I was only a teenager at the time, a world away from marriage and children, but what he said resonated with me at the time, and still does.
1. You need to look after yourself first.
2. Then your significant relationship.
3. Then your children.
Now before you horrified parents out there berate me, hear me out.
Soooo many people – especially women I reckon – put everyone else first. ‘My kids are my life’ or ‘He really needs me, I have to help him. I’ll stop what I am doing immediately’ are things that I hear people say quite often. This sort of thinking is bulls**t. YOU ARE NO GOOD ANYONE ELSE IF YOU AREN’T TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF FIRST. If you are running on empty, you can’t give to others. It’s that simple. I love my child so much it hurts. But she’s not my life. She is a wonderful part of my full life. When I am tired and run down, I am a mediocre mother and wife. I want better than mediocre for D and Eloise.
In my own case I’m talking about taking care of my physical health, but this principle applies to all aspects of life. If you aren’t feeling fulfilled in your marriage or your job, or have put your hopes and dreams on hold to take care of others, any feelings of resentfulness spill over into your life. If you are stressed out and exhausted, you’re probably going to struggle to be the best partner, parent, friend or workmate that you can be.
When you take care of yourself first (whether it’s something like taking the time to rest, or starting that French class you always wanted to take) and are feeling okay with life, this positively affects the relationships you have with others. When I take care of myself by doing things that I find life-giving, then I bring that into my relationship with D. When D and I are doing great, that spills into how we care for Eloise (who is a very happy and contented bubba, I must add), and into my work, my friendships, serving others – you get the picture.
Right now I need lots of rest. I am not going to beat myself up for not running, although I hope to go tomorrow. If I find it totally exhausts my body – as vigorous exercise can when you have burnout – I will take a break for a few days more. I am fortunate enough to be in a position where I can potter about slowly with my work at the moment. I’m also blessed to have lots of family around to help with Eloise. I’ve scheduled in a couple of chat-fests with my friends. Housework can get stuffed. And I will ease up on my blogging for a bit.
If you are feeling a bit burnt out, lose the guilt and indulge in some ME time. Sometimes being selfish is the best thing you can do for others.