On a scale of one to ten how busy would you say you are? Up until last week, I reckon I ranked at 20. As peculiar as it sounds, I’ve always been secretly proud of the fact that I am a ‘doer’ with a million and one things on the go.
But while being busy has its advantages in terms of being productive and staying motivated, it can become problematic if we never switch off and – in the worst case scenario – lead to burnout.
“While some pressure can be good, it’s less so if you’ve no time or thinking space to develop, be creative or just feel like you’re on top of things,” Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at private health insurance provider AXA PPP Healthcare explains. “It’s one thing to be firing on all cylinders but quite another to be constantly firefighting – ask yourself which camp you fall into.”
Last year a poll of 2,000 people found that Brits feel stressed for an average of nine days a month. The research, conducted by healthcare tech startup Forth, ranked money as a top concern. Meanwhile, an HSE report published last October found that 15.4 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18.
“When we’re stressed our sympathetic nervous system is activated,” Dr Winwood explains.“That’s our fight or flight response which is a normal part of our physiology but now we are micro-dosing ourselves with sympathetic nervous system alerts all day. The alarm clock rings so we’re jolted awake. We put it on snooze and the same thing happens again. We look at the emails that come in overnight and think oh my God I’ve forgotten to do that…another dose of stress. We might be rushing to get the kids ready for school, find ourselves stuck in a traffic jam or the lift might be full when we get to work and we have to wait.”
So how do we counteract this culture of busyness and help calm down our central nervous system, the ‘hard-wiring’ in our body responsible for how we respond to stress?
The first step is to become aware of our habits and actions. If you’re too busy to enjoy life, unsure how to cope with the demands of your busy schedule or can’t remember the last time you were happy, now might be the time to sit up and take note.
“We’re never going to not have stress and our body is built to manage it,” Dr Winwood adds. “Let’s not be fearful of stress but proactive in managing it every single day by putting in the downtime needed to engage our parasympathetic nervous system.”
If you suspect you have too much on your plate or think it might be adversely affecting your health, relationships and mood, check out Dr Winwood’s advice below on the important signs to watch out for.
He also shares some practical advice on how to build relaxation and calm moments into busy schedules.
Too busy? 5 important signs you need to slow down.
SNAPPING AT PEOPLE
It might be in your nature to snap at people. If it isn’t, this could be a sign. It’s really important to think about the changes you have recognised in yourself but also the changes other people might have mentioned they’ve noticed in you. We get a lot of information and feedback from others.
AVOIDING YOUR FRIENDS/FAMILY
You stop making plans to see people, make plans and then cancel or avoid places that you have the opportunity to sometimes unwind in.
Sometimes we fill our day full of distraction when we’re unable to focus. This is because our brain is avoiding something we’re fearing. It might be fear of failure or the fear of not being able to do something to our perfect levels if we’re perfectionists. It might be fear of losing our status or it could be to do with things that we’re stressed about.
FEELING DESPONDENT AT WORK
You might become very unproductive even though you’re spending longer at your desk. Work may no longer be interesting to you, or perhaps you’re resentful of the amount of work you’ve got. Ask the questions, ‘how have I changed or what’s different for me?’ which might tell you why you’re struggling.
NOTICING CHANGES IN SLEEPING, EATING OR EXERCISE PATTERNS
Perhaps you were once thoughtful about what you put in your mouth but now you don’t really care. You’re out of control and eating lots more junk, fast or sugary food. When you’re stressed you have a whole physiological response to stress which means your hormonal production changes and you start to have inflammation in the body. You might begin to crave fatty or sugary foods, or you might notice that actually you’re avoiding or not making time to go to the gym, not walking anywhere or becoming more sedentary or reclusive.
BREAKING BUSY: 7 STEPS TO HELP YOU SLOW DOWN
I’m a big believer in spending a little bit of time on our mental wellbeing. It’s important to turn off the busyness of the day. Often you can rush around like a maniac, flop into bed and expect to go straight to sleep but it’s not going to happen. I’m not suggesting you sit on the floor and meditate for four hours but you could try the following:
- Build mindful moments into your day. Have an 11am coffee break with a friend or talk to someone face-to-face, not online. Tell them how you feel. Seeing friends that make you feel good and supported will help bring a bit of relief and a realisation that you’re not alone in your feelings.
- When you get home take the dog for an extended walk or get off the bus one stop earlier.
- Box breathing really calms our reactions and the production of stress hormones. Try breathing in for five seconds, hold for five, breathe out for five and hold for five or alternate this so that you’re out-breath is longer than your in-breath, which will engage your parasympathetic nervous system.
- Try a two-minute mindful shower where you really notice the water and the way it feels.
- Put your phone away during dinner and talk with your family
- Have a golden hour before going to bed, a wind-down routine or ‘reverse lie-in’. Dim all the lights in your house. Turn your work emails off. If you can’t, at least download filters to counteract the blue light. Reading or watch something relaxing or listen to music.
- Know that it’s okay to spend time ‘being’ instead of ‘doing’.Your central nervous system will thank you for it.
If you enjoyed this post you might like to read:
Review: The CBT Journal (how to avoid feeling stuck)
The Surprising thing I discovered when I tried flotation therapy
Can mindfulness save your relationship?
Chilston Park Hotel Wellness Retreat
What really happens in a group meditation class