During a session with a client yesterday, I helped her understand that her feelings were typical of anxiety. A combination of physical symptoms (jaw pain), psychological, ‘I’m useless’, and emotional, feeling tearful and agitated, they were becoming crippling. For many people, these tell-tale signs are ignored or misinterpreted. The myth that anxiety only happens to certain people, usually the weak type who can’t cope with too much, really needs to be challenged.
My client is ‘successful’. She is clever in terms of her academic history, qualifications and career success, she has an aspirational home, two equally successful children…. it all appears picture perfect. Yet when she pauses juggling the balls, or takes a break from staying on top of the next crisis at work or organising schedules, and she dares to take a breath, she crumbles. Why is that, she wanted to know?
Her brain has become so accustomed to functioning with a high level of emotional arousal driving the fight-flight response, using adrenalin to keep her energy levels up and her focus sharp, that this has become her norm. And it’s only when, after a period of time, this became unsustainable, that she started to feel the effect of burn out.
There are some common signs to look out for that can easily be misjudged as ‘being busy’:
- a sense of dread
- feeling constantly “on edge”
- difficulty concentrating
- a noticeably strong, fast or irregular heartbeat
- muscle aches and tension
- trembling or shaking
- dry mouth
- excessive sweating
- shortness of breath
- stomach ache
- feeling sick
- difficulty falling or staying asleep
For general strategies to reduce anxiety, take a look at an earlier article I wrote about Anxiety: Revealing the Truth.
For my client, we had to focus a little more specifically on how to rewire her anxious brain by using what is familiar – planning and the illusion of being in control:
PLAN the day ahead, from waking up, to include the specific roles you have (for example, being a mum, running a business, looking after the house, ‘me’ time/ exercise). The latter is what frequently falls off the radar yet it is so important to reduce emotional overwhelm. Learning to relax is vital – whether that’s a walk, watching a programme of choice on TV, reading a book – it’s about calming the brain and learning just to ‘be’.
Within the periods planned throughout the day, identify a couple of ‘jobs’ you specifically need to complete in order to feel better. Tick them off to release a hit of dopamine that helps you feel good. And take time to reflect on what felt good, how you were successful, how you managed a sense of control and how positive it feels now.
FOCUS OUTWARDS to drive your attention away from your emotional brain and your amygdala stealing the show. Instead, really focus your attention on what you’re engaged with, particularly when you’re ‘relaxing’ or at least taking the pace a bit slower. My client struggles just ‘to be’ with her child because her emotional brain continues to shout about the fact there is so much to do. Focusing on her daughter’s movements, voice, facial expression, and actively engaging with the activity diverts the focus from a sense of threat that the amygdala is clinging onto and replaces it with calm.
Allow TRANSITION time from one task to another. The lack of commuting means people don’t have the same time to unwind and switch roles. It’s challenging trying to provide thoughtful responses to a child within minutes of a tricky meeting. A quick walk, coffee, 5 minutes in the garden… they all provide a break for your brain to change gear.
Set BOUNDARIES around time spent on tasks so that the absorption in them does not become all encompassing. It’s very easy to reach for the laptop in the evenings because you know what’s expected of you and you can feel a sense of achievement ‘getting on top of’ work. In reality, more work will appear tomorrow and you don’t give your brain the necessary time and space to de-arouse.
Be KIND to yourself. After working 10-days flat without a day off, my client wondered why she was exhausted, tearful and felt that she couldn’t cope, which culminated in an overall sense of being a failure. What she couldn’t see at the time, because her emotional arousal was hijacking her emotional brain, was that she had achieved a huge amount, had dealt with the crisis that had arisen and that, without being super-human, it was completely normal to feel completely drained. With the current pandemic, most of us are under more pressure. We need to acknowledge that, accept it will have an impact, and give ourselves permission to ‘perform’ less well and feel exhausted.
Self-awareness and awareness of others is critical if we are to lower the emotional temperature becoming our new norm.