Stressed, overwhelmed and barrelling towards burnout

Meet Marvin.  Marvin is an orthopaedic surgeon who consults with clients and operates with an air of mastery that his education and talent have bestowed upon him over years of practice.  He glides through the hospital corridors seemingly without a care in the world until the resounding ‘skwelt skwelt’ sound of his car unlocking signals it’s time to go home.  Home just now is populated by his wife who is not sure she wants to be married anymore and a son who was recently caught driving without a licence.

Meet Samantha. Samantha has just started a new job as a project manager.  She’s thrilled to have this job as several months between this and her last job depleted her savings account and credit card limits.  Her new boss is great, but it turns out he has just handed in his notice.  He is so absorbed with tying up loose ends, Samantha isn’t being trained properly, will soon be without a mentor and feels too insecure to show how badly she needs guidance.

Two very different people.  Two very different situations.  Both highly successful recipes for heart-throbbing stress.

Their flavours of coping differ greatly as well.  Marvin is fond of taking the long way home – never has a husband been so intent on tracking down just the right bottle of wine from a specialty shop 20 miles out of the way, or been so eager to run errands.  Once home, it’s a quick whiskey or three.  All behaviours that seems to dance around avoiding the actual problem.

Samantha gets snappy.  It’s not a great way to build connections or encourage collaboration – but when she’s feeling overwhelmed, that certain tone of voice makes people back off.  In that fleeting moment between figuring out the new computer system and reaching for her power bar lunch at the desk again – the self-recriminations and flagellations begin.

How does stress show up for you?

Think of the last time you were angry.  How much was it down to the actions of the other person, and how much was down to the piqued emotional state you were in already?  What does it look like when you feel stressed?   What do you do, how do you eat?  How would I know you were stressed?  Do you tend to meet stress with avoidance?  Do you numb it down?  Do you exercise it out?  Breathe?  Meditate?   Yell?  Call a friend?  Drive too fast? 

How does your body react?

For many, stress causes tight muscles, fluttering stomach, raised shoulders, sweat, heart palpitations, difficulty breathing and inability to focus.

We all have personal styles of reaction – but what happens inside the body is very similar.  The adrenal glands on top of the kidneys release the chemical cortisol which gets the body ready to fight or flee.  When the threat has passed a different cocktail of biochemicals are released to calm your body and restore balance.  Home sweet homeostasis.

However, if the stress remains for too long or is continually awakened the cortisol levels in your bloodstream become destructive.  As if the discomfort and frustration weren’t enough, clarity and creativity nosedive along with productivity.  Chronic stress results in impaired cognitive performance, suppressed thyroid function, blood sugar imbalances, decreased bone density, decrease in muscle tissue, high blood pressure, lowered immunity, increased abdominal fat, lowered sexual response, higher likelihood of stroke, heart attack… the list goes on.

Marvin tended to compound these physical effects of stress by adding a fair amount of alcohol to the mix, and worsened the emotional effects by cutting off and ignoring the source of the stress.  Rather than engaging and thus evolving the problem, in this case his relationships with wife and son, it became a catch-22.  The angrier his wife became, the more he stayed away from home and drank.  Eventually his wife filed for divorce.

In working with Marvin, several things became clear.  While he rocked the surgery, his skills at negotiating the murky depths of intimate relationships were lacking.  He tended to alternate between agreeing with everything his wife said (afterwards feeling resentful and unheard) or becoming defensive and nasty.

It took very little time for Marvin to learn and integrate better communication skills which allowed him to both hear and be heard at home.  These skills afforded him a bit of wiggle room for rewriting their future together, but it was slow going and left a big, unruly, and frankly frightening glut of uncertainty.  Would his wife carry through with the divorce despite the effort he was making to change?  What was going to happen with his son who seemed increasingly belligerent and sullen rather than repentant and grateful after his brush with the law?  What would starting all over look like if his marriage was over?    There were plenty of horror stories playing in his mind based on various colleagues’ marital breakdowns.

Uncertainty is a huge form of stress for just about everyone these days.  Jobs, marriages, investments – they all seem more precarious than in years past.  Health concerns loom heavy too.  Helping Marvin to ground his fears and stories about the future became top priority so he could build his future from a place of strength rather than the rubble of anxiety and chaos.

For Samantha, absenting herself was not the problem as it was with Marvin.  Prying her away from her desk was.  Somewhere along the line, Samantha shelved all sense of herself as a human being and went into ‘I Will Now Be a Machine’ mode.  If this tactic ever resulted in an efficient or productive solution, we might halve the human population overnight.

Inevitably despite because she was relentlessly embroiled in the minutiae as well as the overview of the project, nothing was getting resolved.  Deadlines were repeatedly missed.  The people Samantha was managing were bickering and as she was beginning to believe – plotting.  She hadn’t been able to make strong alliances within the team and fractures were becoming huge falling chunks.

The first thing that helped Samantha to get this under control was scheduling a self summit each morning and evening.  This was completely on her own in quiet to allow her to see the big picture and plan accordingly.  In this oasis of calm she could decide whether to bag, barter (delegate in her case) or better each item on her enormous to do list.  Also to prioritise so she knew what needed to be done first and could clearly see who would be best to assist.  There were compulsory break times as well.  If she worked through lunch she needed to take two 10-minute breaks to walk around the block or have a coffee sitting at a cafe around the corner.  Something OUTSIDE the office.

These breaks in action managed to create more productivity.  Bringing her human side back into the picture brought the woman who had been hired back into the project and the workplace.  Not only did getting back in touch with her strengths make for a better job, but an easier job.  She entered a flow that began strengthening ties amongst her co-workers, employers and herself.

The bottom line – there are a myriad of ways stress shows up, and a myriad of categories of mayhem it causes.  One thing is sure though – there is always a way to handle it, tame it and even grow from it.

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