When do you know you're under too much stress? When do you decide to call in sick and take a mental health day? When do you put you at the top of your to-do list?
Not often enough, I say. When we do, it is usually because our body has given us no choice in the matter.
Perhaps we need to read our body symptoms and warning signs so that we can recognize when our body is saying "slow down!"
Ask yourself the following questions and identify if anything is "new" for you... Is this a new symptom (as opposed to being just the person you are)?
- Do you wake up many times during the night unable to get back to sleep? Are you trying to solve the world's problems at 3 a.m.?
- Do you sleep better on the weekend?
- Are you working in your sleep? Do you dream about work, about what you have to do, about what is outstanding, about upcoming meetings?
- Do you need to go regularly to the chiropractor or massage therapist because you don't feel aligned? If this is a new feeling, does the massage therapist tell you that your muscles are tight?
- Are you gaining weight around the middle at a faster rate than normal?
- Do you find that you can't relax in the evenings? That nothing on television entertains you, that you can't focus on anything once you arrive at home?
- Are the kids/dog/spouse getting on your nerves more than usual?
- Are you avoiding family gatherings, parties, social events because it is too much bother?
Each of the above are symptoms of stress and burnout. Your body is telling you that it is unable to handle the current stress load you are putting on it. Do you listen?
Typically the answer is no, we don't.
Do you remember Susan Boyle, the final runner-up in Britain's Got Talent? A wonderfully talented singer from Scotland, who was thrust into the limelight, overnight. She was hounded by the British media (who are notoriously difficult), had incredible expectations placed on her, and she couldn't handle it. Were there symptoms that she was going to fall apart? Yes! Was anything done about it? No. It could have been either avoided or at the very least minimized if someone had paid attention. And where is Susan now?
We hear all the time about people who can't handle the pressure. You've probably wondered about yourself from time to time.
You should be proactive and take care of your needs before you have to. Make sure that every once in a while the first thing on your to-do list is you. That is not to the exclusion of everyone else at work or home, but take care of others only after you do what you need to do for you first. It is not selfish to occasionally put yourself first.
Here are some ideas that you should apply over the next month to take care of you first:
Get as much rest as you need
Take one morning to sleep in as long as your body needs to sleep in. If you have children, arrange for someone else to take them for the night, for someone else to get up with them in the morning, or for them to take care of themselves until you get enough sleep. You're right; some of you will sleep until noon (most of us will want to!). If you are sleeping, the body is healing itself, and that is necessary to deal with the stress. If you weren't so exhausted, you wouldn't sleep that long.
When I'm taking care of my needs, I sleep until about 8 a.m., which is a long cry from the noon that I think I'm going to sleep in until. If my body isn't too stressed, it doesn't need that long term shut down. 8 a.m. is still sleeping in, it is still keeping me healthy and repairing my stress damage, so even if you sleep until 8 am it is still good for you.
If sleeping in isn't your thing, a better option is to go to bed very early one evening. If the kids go down at 7:30 p.m., go with them. If you are alone, go to bed even if the sun is still shining. So what if you wake up at 4 a.m. -- you'll feel better in the morning (remember that healing effect that sleeping has on stress).
Make yourself smile
Surround yourself with the things that make you happy. Maybe that is a photograph, a scented candle, a small fountain. Put something beside your bed, on your bathroom counter, on your kitchen table, on your desk, in your car and even in a closet. Something small that makes you smile every time you see it.
I have a fuzzy heart that I hang on my rear-view mirror in my car. It annoys everyone who is travelling with me, so when others are in the car, I take it down. When I'm alone, I hang it up to remind me that somebody loves me.
Make yourself feel better by helping others feel better
When I used to make my kids a lunch (or for my dad when I was a teen), I would sometimes put a little note inside just for them to let them know I loved them or was thinking about them. Make cookies (if baking relaxes you) and bring them into the office, with a note that says "I made these to make your day brighter" or something equally as corny (if baking isn't your thing, buy donuts or flowers,). If you have the ability, tell a co-worker to leave a half hour earlier, and you will cover the phones (and don't make it part of the deal that she will do that for you next week). When you see a homeless person, give them $10 or buy them lunch.
Allow yourself time to do something you enjoy
Play a round of golf on Saturday, even when you have the grass to cut. Walk around the mall (don't bring your wallet if you are trying to save money). Soak in the bathtub, enjoy a glass of wine (or two), or visit someone you haven't seen in a while. Give yourself permission to make time to do something you haven't had a chance to do in a long while.
Tell yourself that you are happy
Create a sign for your desk/computer that says "I'm very happy" and put one of those bright yellow happy faces on it. We have too many notes and reminders in our office about how busy we are, and we need to be reminded that we are happy (even when we don't always believe it to be true).
It takes an effort not to capitulate to stress. It takes planning to make sure we aren't slipping into burnout.
We all have stresses, we all have too much work to do, and we all have only 24 hours in a day. The difference between those that are successful and those that are not is how they use those 24 hours. To me, part of success is the balance.
Take care of you so you will be in a position to take care of others.
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One of the major indicators of job burnout is a cynical view on your job, so changing that can make all the difference. Keep in mind the things you love to do in your role, and deliberately seek out the positives in your co-workers. It can change your whole perspective.
Studies have shown that there's a direct correlation between exercising in the middle of the day and feeling less stressed about your job (not to mention, of course, all the other benefits of working out).
Don't just talk about putting down the smartphone or stepping away from the computer -- actually set aside time each day to do so. At the office, that can mean taking a walk around the block or chatting with a co-worker, but make sure at least an hour of your evening is also technology-free to avoid job exhaustion. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/billaday)
Follow Rhonda Scharf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RhondaScharf