Soldiering on is not productive
I thought I had been processing everything that had happened, trusted my ability to manage stress. I hadn’t realised how depleted I was. I hadn’t given my mind and body the time and space, the opportunity to heal or at least recharge the multiple physical, mental and emotional stressors and traumata that had challenged me on every level over an extended period of time.
Although I had taken an occasional isolated day off from work, I rarely had two days in a row to rest. And like too many people, my idea of ‘not working’ didn’t necessarily mean taking time off from the work of being busy. Spending the ‘day off’ meant taking care of household chores or repairs or preparing for the week ahead. Fact is, it takes much longer than a day of not doing any kind of work to de-stress. We need several days of doing nothing for those days of rest to be emotionally productive.
Let’s change the meaning of doing
A study in the late 80’s talked about the fact that we were accomplishing in a month what people a hundred years earlier had taken a year to achieve. At that time, brick-sized mobiles and faxing were the fastest methods of communication. Since then, smart phones, email and technological advances have accelerated efficiency and the speed of communication even more, and my guess is that we have probably accelerated to accomplishing more in a week than what the decades-old study had set for a month. We have changed the meaning of productivity. We ‘go, go, go’. All the time. We are constantly busy and don’t allow ourselves to do nothing and digest and reflect on what has happened because there is always something else to do.
Social media adds to the pressure of constantly being in action. It generates a need to demonstrate constantly how we successfully handle life without allowing for failure and weakness. How many celebrities or influencers do you know who get up at 4 am, put in a 14-hour day and then report on their professional achievements as well as their fulfilling family and active social life?
Our biology is not made for constant activity. Our nervous system is still same as that of the Neanderthal whose life was punctuated by an occasional adrenalin spike, not the many daily ones we experience today. Moreover, we have separated ourselves from nature, no longer in synch with the seasons, with cycles and rhythms.
Healing the mind and emotions is crucial
We no longer wait for things to grow. And neither do give ourselves time to grieve. It used to be common for people who had lost someone to wear black for six months or more. It was an indication to those around to give them space and drop any expectation of ‘normal’ functionality. Today? We lose a loved one, a parent or a spouse, take a few days off to make funeral arrangements and then get back to work. We transition seamlessly between life-impacting events, quitting a job on a Friday and starting the next on the following Monday. We make no allowance for the transition that accompanies every change. We don’t give ourselves time to feel loss, which is an important aspect of the transition process.
While we do take time out when we break a leg or have surgery, it is only as much as is needed for the body to physically heal. In some countries, like Germany, it is a mandatory health insurance requirement to send someone who has undergone major surgery or suffered severe mental health challenges to a health resort for a few weeks. Taking time off to heal the body as well as mind and spirit is an accepted part of life. In most cultures, however, processing stress and trauma doesn’t qualify as a reason for stopping work.
Most of us keep going until we can’t go anymore. The consequences of suppressing the need for rest and recharge often only become obvious much later in life. Medical research estimates that approximately 90% of illness originates in stress. Unprocessed emotional trauma expresses itself through other coping mechanisms: medicating with alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, or other mood-altering addictive substances or processes. They can also be found in domestic violence, road rage or risky behaviours, depression and increasingly, suicide.
We are not ‘human doings’
While COVID-19 has created many challenging conditions, it has also made it possible for us to work from home. Suddenly, we have an opportunity to get things done without the need to demonstrate ‘busyness’. Potentially we can create a work-life integration that supersedes the generally elusive work-life balance. That, of course, is only possible when we change the expectation that working from home needs to replicate office conditions. It’s not an easy transition to make between family closeness or sudden aloneness and the upsetting adjustments to business structures, processes, and routines. Still, even accounting for Zoom fatigue, it’s a change from how we have been living and working on automatic, creating a new perspective for conditions that don’t serve our overall wellbeing.
What is normal anyway?
The number of people experiencing mental health issues has skyrocketed in 2020 and we are not prepared for what will happen in 2021 as we lurch from lockdown to lockdown. We keep hoping that we will get back to ‘normal’ when it is already clear that our notion of ‘normal’ is a thing of the past. And that the ‘normal’ of the past isn’t necessarily the best yardstick for healthy future behaviour. There is a ‘new normal’ emerging that we haven’t even seen yet.
Pushing through stress, pain, and trauma for the sake of getting work done and being ‘busy’ doesn’t serve anyone. Toughing it out and not talking about how we are affected by loss creates many problems. The coronavirus has catalysed so many unforeseen changes that they overload our biology, proving that our belief of mind over matter is not valid when it comes to mental health. There is only so much willpower to go around.
The United Nations already announced way back in May that the pandemic was having a significant impact on mental health. It pointed out that substantial investments are needed to avert a mental health crisis on top of the coronavirus crisis.
Too much change can be traumatic
These are unprecedented times, and I know I am not unique in the number of the challenges I have been facing. I am also aware that we don’t seem to acknowledge how much we have lost and are continuing to lose. And even when we have compassion and empathy for others dealing with challenges, we rarely extend this to include ourselves. I am not the only one who thought she had to have it all handled and carry on.
Grief is about all kinds of loss, not just death. It’s a natural part of the healing process. We need to mourn what was lost, even if there is something new to look forward to. Grieving is the process of letting go, which is not nearly as straightforward as it sounds. There is no end date, no easily identifiable sequence of steps. This makes it so much more difficult to grapple with. And when the future is uncertain and wide open, grief often expresses itself as anxiety.
Fact is, we are all stressed out to the max. The Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale, which was established in the 1960’s, identifies 43 stressful life events and predicts the likelihood of illness. The problem is this: With everything we have had to deal with this year, common stresses are already registered on this scale before we have even added those based on individual experience.
Most of us have experienced the following stressful changes as part of the coronavirus crisis:
- Business readjustment (39 points)
- Change in financial state (38 points)
- Change in living conditions (25 points)
- Change in working hours or conditions (20 points)
- Revision of personal habits (24 points)
- Change in recreation (19 points)
- Change in social activities (18 points)
- Change in sleeping habits (16 points)
- Change in number of family get-togethers (15 points)
- Change in eating habits (15 points)
These bring the score to 229 points. When we have scores between 150 and 300, the likelihood of illness is medium to high. Add to that other potential stressors like being fired at work (47 points) and increased arguments with spouse (35 points) and you have 311 points. Suddenly, the risk of becoming ill in the near future is high to extremely high. Include your own personal or swap them for other ones on top of these and it is possible that, like me, you come up with a score of 467 points, or more.
Stress on top of stress
None of these events include conditions that we really ought to add extra points for: The current socio-political situation with worldwide demonstrations; elections that put the democratic system into question; weather changes, the implications of climate change, and the eco-anxiety many feel about the state of our planet.
We often ignore the fact that we are not islands, that we are all connected. The fact that we impact on each other is a scientific reality. It’s called emotional contagion. It’s fuelled by social media and fake media that amplifies drama, creates controversy and division, contributing to depression and anxiety that is often medicated with both prescription and recreational drugs and alcohol. And we haven’t even addressed the rising number of suicides.
Time to rethink the paradigm
I can’t offer a simple solution to a complex issue. What I can do here is share some of my thoughts and perspectives that hopefully inspire you to make new health-affirming choices that work for you. That allow you to take shorter breaks resets on a regular basis.
I recently had a chat with someone who said: “I really need some time off now. But it’s only eleven weeks until Christmas. I’ll wait until then.” Hanging in there for almost three months means compounding already noticeable stress for almost a quarter of a year. This may well result in a different kind of break: a break down and illness at the start of a highly anticipated vacation because the body decides to take charge.
And since we are on the topic: Please do something daily to fill your jug. Take some time out to have lunch outside, connect with people in your social bubble, or go for a walk. If you work from home, put on the washing machine so you don’t have to do it on the weekend. I am very aware that not everyone can create a work environment that caters to all of their needs. We do, however, often have more choice than we think we do when we start thinking outside the box, or when the box is at least expanded to include ways of ensuring breaks resets.
While our current work culture mostly doesn’t allow for self-paced work schedules or extensive breaks recharges, organisations increasingly are taking mental health into consideration and are becoming more flexible when it comes to working hours and time out. So speak up. Negotiate to support your mental, emotional, and physical health and lead by example where you can. Dare to show imperfection and authentic vulnerability. Take care of yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Listen to your body. Check in with your soul. And take time to grieve loss and change when you need to.
Can one person make a difference?
I have used this metaphor, which was originally created by systems theorist Richard Buckminster-Fuller before. Here it is again: The rudder of the Titanic weighed 101 tons. No manual effort would have moved it quickly enough to stop the ship from colliding with the iceberg. Since then, we have been building tiny rudders called trim tabs into the gigantic ones on ships and planes. Moving them first allows the big rudder to swing around quickly.
Please be a trim tab.
Most importantly, please reach out to someone who knows how to listen and talk about what matters to you when you are struggling, be it a friend or a psychological support service. Talk openly about how you feel. This too is part of being a trim tab.Read Part 1