Home' Rotary Down Under : August 2014 (NZ Pacific) Contents LIFE & LEISURE
ou’re busy, I know. Maybe you can’t
recall when you last went on holiday,
nor when you’re likely to take a break
again. Maybe if you just started earlier,
worked a little harder and stayed a little
later at the office you could finally get
on top of that to-do list. Then you’d be able to look after
yourself and reconnect with your loved ones.
Maybe not: you’ve been trying this strategy for a while,
but the to-do list keeps growing, the email inbox constantly
refills. New projects keep emerging. Nothing is happening
fast enough; and yet the important people in your life
aren’t suitably grateful about the effort you’re putting in.
They complain that you don’t spend enough time with
them, and when you do, you’re not really present anyway.
Your body is complaining too, signalling that all isn’t well
through some niggling health problems. How do you get
off this hamster wheel and start enjoying life again?
As life has become more demanding burnout has
become a significant problem for us in the 21st century.
There seems to be more we can do, more we’re expected to
do, and in less time. Life can become overwhelmingly busy
and yet unrewarding.
Subtle Signs of Burnout
Your body will let you know when you’re overstretched for
too long in subtle ways like digestive problems, hormone
imbalances and high blood pressure. We developed a
physiological stress response in early human evolution that
served us well then, providing we got regular respite to
switch off the stress response. It works like this: when your
body senses a threat blood pressure rises, blood glucose
levels soar and your heart rate and breathing increase.
Cortisol and adrenalin surge through your system. Digestion
and reproduction are switched off, because who needs to
worry about digesting food or creating the next generation
when your life is in danger? Once the threat passes all body
functions return to normal.
But in the 21st century you’ll only get regular respite
from stress if you deliberately make it happen. Mobile
communication devices make it possible to be available 24
hours a day. There is always lots you can do, which makes
it tempting to constantly be working just to feel like you
might be able to stay ahead of the game.
Alas, you’re not likely to identify the symptoms of burnout
until it’s actually happening; and you might actively, but
unconsciously, speed up the burnout process. What people
tend to do when they get busier is stop the practices that
helped them cope: meditative activities are often dropped
first, because they might not supply an immediate return
on your investment of time. Next you miss fitness training
just once, then twice, then you realise it has actually been
weeks since you exercised (perhaps you’ll notice this when
your waistband shrinks).
Also, making time to stop, prepare food and enjoy it with
the significant people in your life is neglected in favour of
bolting down any fuel that will keep you going. Worse,
sleep deprivation creeps up when you keep going to bed
later and setting your alarm clock earlier just so you can
squeeze more out of the day.
Get Your Life Back
Just how do you step back from the brink of burnout?
Although this is a gradual process, and frustrating for an
impatient person, you can start to feel better pretty fast.
The key is to develop a strong support base of good food,
effective fitness training and emotional wellbeing. Generally
speaking, the more demanding your life is and the more
people you look after, the stronger and wider your support
base needs to be.
The first step is to get back into fitness training, because
exercise helps burn off the uncontrolled stress hormones
that cause damage in the long term. Ideally, engage a
professional fitness trainer and schedule your sessions with
the same resolve that you would schedule an important
meeting. Your trainer will help devise the best training
for you at a pace fast enough to make a difference and
slow enough to avoid over-training. Physical exercise
literally burns off some of that excess cortisol from your
stress response. It also boosts your brain’s production of
endogenous opioids, feel-good neurotransmitters that lift
your resilience to the effects of stress.
Next, meditation is essential to enable your body to switch
off that stress response, at least temporarily. Although it
can feel more like a discipline than respite, utilising the
meditative process every day will reduce cortisol and other
stress hormones. Mindfulness meditation can take as little
as five minutes a day, and like fitness training can be done
as part of a scheduled activity in a group or in listening to
a guided meditation.
Last, improving your nutrition helps your body cope
with the extra demand. This can be one of the most
challenging areas for busy people, particularly when your
weekly schedule includes travelling and eating out. The
first step, and an important one, is to be aware of what
you’re eating. That means enjoying your meal without the
distraction of TV or internet. Instead, you can use this time
as an opportunity to reconnect with the important people
in your life. Then, focus on better nutrition. Engaging a
health practitioner, nutritionist or health coach may help
you structure the most effective diet for you.
Stepping off the hamster wheel of constant busy-ness
takes effort, and probably more time than you’d prefer, but
you’ll be repaid handsomely with a much greater enjoyment
of life, because you’ll feel better.
Olwen Anderson is a naturopathic nutritionist.
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