It’s been a great year so far in terms of stress-related ‘injuries’. Until recently I never paid much attention to the effects of stress on my health. And that was out of pure naivety about my stamina as a young person in my 20s who should be able to handle it all EASILY. Even though stress has affected my physical health chronically a few times in the last decade, it took me ages to connect the dots.
We all lead busy lives, it’s almost a given, especially in western cultures. Not only do we have a job, we often have a family, social commitments, pressures to stay fit too, eat right and follow our dreams while we’re at it.
And somehow we learned to think of working hard as the key to success. We think the harder we struggle, the more we take on, the faster we’ll get wherever we need to get in our careers.
Last year was a particularly hard lesson for me to learn. I ended up in a career that no longer suited me or my long term goals and passions, and after quitting 3 jobs (two of which with the same employer, crazily enough!) I experienced a time of immense stress and pressure. Not only was I stressed doing jobs I didn’t enjoy anymore but in my spare time I was spending all my mental energy on figuring out what to do next. Oh, and managing my blog and Instagram account that started to take off and to require more and more of my time and energy.
During this time, my mental health suffered and spiralled into anxiety, while my body internalised the stress which ultimately made me ill. Every little cold I got turned into a massive infection which at one point left me bed ridden with conjunctivitis, tonsillitis and a respiratory infection. At the same time. That was my lowest point physically.
This gave me no choice other than to quit everything and take a break to recover. I let it get too far and was no longer able to manage the effects of stress.
A year later, I am the happiest I’ve ever been, working part-time as a digital marketer for a startup and dedicating the rest of my time to creating content as a wellness blogger.
You’d think I already have a bit too much on my plate but this has been, in fact, the perfect opportunity for me to learn to set healthy boundaries when it comes to work. Most importantly, when to prioritise my wellbeing.
So today I want to share my top tips on avoiding burn-out and on implementing some crucial habits to deal with the demands of your job, or other work-related commitments:
- Prioritise. There’s a lot of tasks on our modern jobs to-do lists. Some of which may not be directly linked to a big impact, value or results. My advice is to list all of these tasks on paper and realistically put them on a timeline. There is no way you can deliver it all at the same time and there are most definitely things that can wait. Review this list weekly and reprioritise accordingly. Be honest and learn to say no. If it’s not always possible to postpone or delegate tasks, talk to your manager or superior (if applicable) about your workload. Come prepared with the list of tasks, priority order and explain why you want to focus on certain things rather than others. If you can show any data, research or supporting arguments as to why some things deserve your attention more than others, that will make an even better case. This will take the pressure off, as you’ll feel better about opening up and standing up for yourself. But it also shows you have thought about a realistic solution and have a timeline. From experience, I know people respond very well to a rational, well-organised discussion and are likely to agree to a more realistic workload and timeline. In fact, you’ll often get a lot of respect for speaking up and taking the initiative to propose a different route.
- Pause. The tendency when we have a lot of work on is to work harder, stay in the office later, stress more, etc. Whilst this can’t be avoided sometimes, it is very important to take breaks. Whether it’s your lunch break or sticking to a reasonable hour for leaving the office, anything you can add to your ‘me time’ is more valuable and will give you more benefits than pushing harder. Very closely linked to this point is learning to meditate or practice mindfulness. This is simply a way of giving your mind a break. We can get overwhelmed in our work and it is SO hard to switch off. I remember going home and still replaying conversations in my mind about emails and meetings. It was non-stop. I recommend phone apps like Calm or Headspace and trying to adopt the habit of making space, even for 5 minutes a day to sit down, breath and listen to a guided meditation.
- Nourish. The way we fuel our bodies during times of stress makes a lot of difference to our ability to sustain mental effort. Instead of reaching for another caffeinated drink, try a ginger based tea or lemonade. Or a green smoothie. Your brain will need a lot of calories to maintain effort, but make sure you make those calories count. Make sure they come from whole foods, nutritious and healthy options (as much as possible) – fruit or dates instead of processed sweets, raw vegan desserts if you fancy cake, lots of veggies with your favourite protein, good carbs. Of course a treat now and then is ok. Life’s too short!
- Soothe. This relates to soothing through self-care and self-awareness of the simple things you need to feel happy and comfortable. It can be as simple as a home cooked meal, a bubble bath, yoga or exercise, a massage, a catch-up with dear friends, a cup of your favourite hot drink, your favourite show, book, music or podcast. I have a whole ritual made up of a mix of the above that I apply when I feel stress is getting to me.
- Sleep. This bit is crucial. Sleeping is the best thing you can do for your overwhelmed mind. It’s a chance for your system to reboot (if you can fall and stay asleep, I know it is difficult at times). Stick to a nighttime routine – no technology, a good book, a comfortable and cool environment, herbal tea, sleep meditation. If you can’t sleep, don’t beat yourself up. Just rest the body. Don’t panic about not being able to go to fall asleep straight away.
I hope you find these useful, and to make it easier for you to remember, think:
Prioritise, pause, nourish, soothe and rest.
There’s nothing you can’t tackle if you remember to apply these tips.
Let me know your thoughts on the above.