We all know this feeling: we have so much to do and are constantly jumping from project to project, whether at home, at the office, or for most of us, a combination of both. We have all these projects at work going on, and then we leave work to take care of all the projects we have going on at home. It feels like we are always “on” and there is no time to recover or rest. Being overworked, whether it’s necessary tasks or just “fun stuff,” it takes a toll on us and sooner or later, we crash.
Life is not about cramming in as much as you can just because you can, nor is it about being constantly overloaded with tasks, whether they are ‘fun’ or not. This is something I have to keep telling myself on a pretty regular basis. Just because I have ’empty days’ on my calendar doesn’t meant that I can cram in another ‘activity.’ Normally I make a habit of spending one day home with my pets (usually a weekend or a holiday). Part of this is because I want to spend time with them (they are usually pretty fond of ‘lap time’) which means I need to be sitting down for a while, but part of this is so that I get a chance to rest and de-stress.
But, as so often happens, the best laid plans of mice and men……! Life makes its own plans and for better or worse, we usually get swept along. This is pretty much where we just have to ‘sit down, shut up and hold on,’ as the saying goes. My life has pretty much not been my own since about the middle of February (it is now May). Part of it was silly me, scheduling things when I thought I was in control of my own life, and part of it was events out of my control. In February, my sister’s in-laws had a death in the family and they had to fly out of state suddenly, so I got to pet & house-sit for a week. Kind of inconvenient, but not as inconvenient as losing a family member, and it put a minor crimp in my plans: I lost a weekend but not a big deal. A couple of weeks later, my sister and her family had booked an outing on the coast (prior to the death) and the friend who was supposed to house & pet-sit for the long weekend had something come up, so…. I got to do it again! Kind of inconvenient again, but it happens, and this time, I lost a a bigger weekend. [I take a vacation day the weekend after my birthday, and that was the weekend I lost that time.] Then, my sister lost her father in law, and was out of state again for a few days: more house & pet-sitting.
You might be asking, what’s the big deal staying at your sister’s house? My sister lives twenty minutes away from my job (on the other side) and I live an hour and a half from my job. This means, I have to take my dog with me, which means a two hour drive to my sister’s to drop him off and then drive back to work. The nice thing is it takes me 20 minutes to get to my sister’s after work while I’m there; the not so nice thing is they have 6 dogs of their own, 3 with health issues, of which 2 require medication twice daily and they all stay in the house. Then, going back to my home, I get to drive back to my sister’s, load up my dog and bag and drive two hours home. Not much of a weekend left by the time I get there, especially since no one has been at my house since I left and there are things that I need to take care of.
That was pretty much my March and April; also going on those months, silly me had signed up for two different classes (both of which were non-refundable) so there were some days I missed on those classes, and then there was just work stress: we had a couple of ’emergencies’ that required my working late (more missed workouts) and then when I decided to try my ‘birthday weekend’ again, my dad ended up in Urgent Care due to a bad reaction to his new medication. This ended up being 6 hours in Urgent Care, followed by driving him home (he lives an hour and half from me) and then I had to drive home myself, since his trailer has no room for guests (got home at 1:30 a.m.) but I had to get my mom so we could bring his truck home the next day, so another three plus hours of driving. That was my second ‘three day weekend’! Both weekends I had a total of one day off- the only good thing was that if I hadn’t taken 3 days, I’d’ve had NO days off. And on top of all this, I’m trying to keep up with my classes, workouts, job and just life in general. Saying I have been over-stressed is an understatement.
Since the last failed attempt at a three day weekend, my dad is doing much better (doc changed his meds back) and one of my classes ended. I was considering signing up for another one (apparently I was still under the delusion that my life was my own) and had not made up my mind when I went to bed last Saturday night. That night I dreamed that my sister, her family, my family and I were all living in one bed, which was already crowded and more and more people kept crowding in. It was so crowded no one could move or get comfortable. When I woke up Sunday morning, I realized that my subconscious had more sense than my waking brain: I’ve got too much going on in my life right now. Time to slow things down a little.
We’ve all heard that stress sabotages your weight loss and health in general but most of us don’t realize the extent to which it jams us up. Most of us think of the obvious: missing workouts and exercise. That’s just the scratching the surface. If we’re lucky, we can reschedule a workout or two, but then there’s the mental and emotional exhaustion. We’re just drained, walking around with our shoulders all tightly hunched up. (I started using my Fitbit’s reminders to move as reminders to relax my shoulders!) Being so drained is bad: we’re too tired to make good food choices (“I don’t have time/ want to deal with this now! That’s close enough to healthy!”) or we give in to temptation (“I’ve been so stressed and this will be a nice treat!”) The other thing is that our body is getting the ‘danger’ signal, so our cortisol is elevated. This means that our body is hanging on to whatever fuel it can in case we need to run for our lives or prepare to wait out a prolonged famine. Either way, we’re storing more than we’re burning, and since we aren’t making great food choices, we’re probably over eating, eating the wrong things or (like me!) doing both! None of those is good for health, fitness or weight loss! On top of all that bad eating and high cortisol, we are probably not getting enough sleep either and the sleep we are getting isn’t quality sleep. We all know what it’s like lying in bed thinking of everything that’s going on and what are you going to do if XYZ doesn’t work out and blah blah blah- it’s two A.M. and I have to get up in four hours and I haven’t slept at all! Ironically, realizing you need to get up shortly just adds to the stress of the moment, so you are less likely to get any quality sleep!
Sleep is when your body and brain restore themselves. It gives your body a chance to adjust the hormones and make its repairs and it gives your brain a chance to process what’s going on and recuperate from the day. There is more to sleep than just ‘feeling rested’ when you get up the next day: the less sleep you have, both quality and quantity, the more stress your body feels. Not sleeping equals more stress to the body. Not only are you continuing to add to the stress but you are taking away the down-time your body needs to recover from the stress it’s already under. Think of it like the oil in your car: you need to change it, but you keep putting it off and in addition, you keep driving more and more. Eventually, either the oil burns out and degrades to the point where it’s useless, and you have engine damage; it dries out (you have NO oil left!) and your engine overheats; or eventually you change it. Ironically, most of take better care of our cars (which can be replaced) than we do our bodies (we get only ONE).
I know what happens when you live under constant stress: it happened to me almost three years ago. I had become so overweight, so physically damaged from stress and poor health choices, I had to quit my job or die. Not being dramatic here: the constant stress and all its accompanying ills left me barely able to function. My nerves were so frayed I was having anxiety attacks; I was eating junk because I was so physically exhausted, but sleep was nearly impossible due to the anxiety attacks and stress. When I did sleep, it was more like passing out than anything close to restorative.
I wish I could say that burnout doesn’t happen to us or there is always a way to avoid it. Sometimes, things just happen, and when they do, we can only do our best to maintain our healthy routine as much as possible. While I was staying at my sister’s, although I did miss a few workout classes, I was able to still make healthy food choices and get some quality sleep. My stress escalated with the prolonged disruption of my routine and it got harder and harder to keep to it. That’s called real life and it’s not an excuse to throw away healthy choices or habits: I owe it to myself to make the best choices I can in the situation presented to me. Sometimes it means not doing something I would otherwise consider a healthy choice, like choosing to forgo another exercise class than cramming another one into my already hectic schedule. Sometimes it means going home and going to bed rather than running another errand, or staying home to rest (or sleep) rather than going out with friends. Sometimes it means that a treat I might otherwise allow myself is not really a treat, because it’s really just one more bad choice on top of other bad choices already eaten. In other words, “leave the garlic bread alone because you’ve had too much bread and sugar already this week!” Sometimes, it also means that adding more exercise to a busy week is not healthy, especially if you are having pain in your joints. I admit, I did keep my workout despite having pain in the joints with the hardware installed (pins & plates) even though it probably wasn’t the best idea, but I modified some of the harder exercises. It made me feel a little more in control just keeping the appointment.
When burnout happens, we need to recognize that we are under stress and need to make recuperation a priority. Even though it may not feel like the best use of our time, we need to take a step back, take a few deep breaths and decompress. If that means turning off the phone, tv, computer, then we need to do it. If it means telling family members no, then as hard as it is, we need to do it. We cannot help anyone else if we are not in good shape ourselves, mentally or physically. Burnout is like a physical wound: we take care of an injury or a sprain, but we often let the less obvious wounds from stress fester and grow worse. Burnout is as much an injury as a sprain or a cut: we need to give ourselves the opportunity to heal rather than letting the wound grow worse.