As one busy week comes to an end and I reflect on all of the deadlines met and tasks completed, I find my thoughts immediately turning toward the week to come.
With orders to fill, restocking to be completed, shows to prep for, contracts to be negotiated, assignments to be written, and exams to be studied for, there’s a seemingly never-ending list of items on my to-do list. With so many things weighing on my mind, it’s easy for me to move from one thing to the next without giving it much thought. There are days when my mind seems to be running non-stop, always trying to stay one step ahead of wherever I’m at, and I’m forever asking myself, “What’s next?”
While this may seem to represent a healthy and motivated work ethic, it comes at a price.
Stress is a normal byproduct of being busy. We all experience stress from time to time, but when the sources of this stress seem to be never-ending, how do we deal with it?
Ignoring it has been my go-to strategy.
As I would feel the stress building, I would just push it down and deny its existence.
I mean, how bad could the stress ever really get to be?
It’s not as though I would be spending every waking moment being busy with work and school, so there wasn’t much to be bothered about, right?
It didn’t help that I would look around and determine that everyone else seemed to be managing just fine, leading me to wonder what it was that wrong with me that caused me to struggle.
For a long time, I was convinced that this stress and struggle was just a normal part of being a grown-up – that, when things got overwhelming, I just needed to just suck it up and push through.
And it’s only been recently that I’ve started to challenge this belief.
Looking back, I can recognize a pattern. A cycle, if you will, starting with high productivity that would eventually peak and fall until I reached burnout.
As far as I can tell, these cycles are pretty common in just about every aspect of life, thus the objective is not to necessarily “break” the cycle, but to regulate the ups and downs in order to maintain an optimal level of functioning.
It’s taken me a while to get here. I’ve gone through the cycle many a time before, but now I think I’m starting to understand it.
The key is to allow yourself to rest.
I think most are familiar with the imagery used for this one – the empty bucket.
You cannot draw from an empty bucket, so you must make a conscious effort toward filling the bucket back up.
We all have different needs and preferences, so what might work to fill one’s bucket, might not be the key to filling another’s.
For some, it may be as simple as a good night’s sleep.
For others, like me, it may take a little more than that.
My anxiously, curious and introverted mind wants many things, and learning to understand what these things are, and how my body communicates this to me, has been a huge part of learning to self-regulate.
Sometimes my body buzzes – I feel this energy build up in my chest and shoulders, my muscles become tense, and by body becomes jittery.
Sometimes my mind goes foggy and I can’t hold a train of thought or remember what it is that I need to do.
Sometimes I get agitated and angsty and become easily frustrated or overwhelmed by every little thing around me. And sometimes I just can’t seem to find my motivation.
When I experience any of these states, it makes it difficult to continue or be productive in my work. Errors occur more frequently, I lose track of what I’m supposed to be doing, and, ultimately, my time ends up being less productive than what it could be.
And this feeling of not being productive only makes me feel worse.
For a long time, I would experience these periods of struggle and get frustrated with myself. I couldn’t understand why I was struggling and I would push myself harder to try to make up for whatever it was that I was lacking. My anxiety and frustration would battle against each other in this vicious cycle until I would reach a sort of breaking point or burnout.
At which point I would, once again, end up in my therapist’s office complaining about my low functioning and lack of productivity, and she would ask me when the last time was that I had taken a day or an afternoon to relax and take care of myself.
Then, sure enough, after following her advice and taking a day to chill out, I would feel refreshed and rejuvenated returning to my work and studies.
Every. Single. Time.
Unfortunately, it took me a while to catch on, and this cycle repeated itself many times before I managed to initiate this relaxation intervention on my own.
But, I’m starting to get there.
While I still struggle sometimes, I now know and understand that pushing myself while experiencing these difficulties doesn’t help me, instead it acts as a form of self-judgment and punishment that I don’t deserve.
Instead, I try to remember to recognize these signs and respond with compassion. Instead of getting frustrated with myself for not being productive, for getting distracted, or for making mistakes, I stop.
I stop and step away from my work, and I tune into my body and my thoughts.
When my body is buzzing, it’s telling me that there’s an energy that needs to be released, so I’ll go for a run or a bike ride, or some other form of physical activity what will channel and release this energy.
When my mind is foggy, I grab my journal and try to work through whatever it is that has my mind feeling overwhelmed or preoccupied.
When I’m feeling agitated, overwhelmed or unmotivated, I try to calm my mind and body through acts of self-care, like going outside or some sort of activity that sooths or entertains me (reading, crochet, video games, puzzles, music, etc.).
A large part of why it has taken me so long to get to this point, is because it all seems so counter intuitive at first. When I have loads of work to get done, of course I’m not thinking that taking a break will help me to get the work done more quickly or more easily, but that is exactly what it does.
No one is at their best when their bucket is empty, so we need to remember to fill it up every now and then, or better yet, we need to work to constantly be filling our buckets as we draw from them.
Most importantly, we need to remember to always be patient and compassionate with ourselves.
A huge part of my healing has come as a result of learning to stop being so hard on myself. Instead of judging myself when I’m struggling, I’ve learned to be more understanding. Not only do I feel better when I make an effort to relax and take care of myself, but I also perform better too.
Do you struggle with performance frustrations and burnout?
What’s your favourite way to relax and practice self-care?
For a personal account on a day when I pushed myself too hard, but then remembered to slow down and tune in, check out this Instagram post.