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How Being Overwhelmed Affects Your Health (And What To Do About It)

I-try-to-take-one-day-atBeing a GP isn’t easy, but there are some aspects of my job that are quite simple. Like asking a few well-placed questions about lifestyle with every patient that walks in the door. I am constantly surprised at how commonly lifestyle factors contribute to illness – and feeling overwhelmed is a major culprit when it comes to poor lifestyle habits. The way I see it, becoming overwhelmed is the result of expectations exceeding capacity -either the expectations have increased, or capacity to cope has decreased, or both.

I am not immune to becoming overwhelmed. When my son was a baby and my daughter a toddler, I would get the same comment whenever we were out and about (him in the baby carrier, her in the stroller) – “You’ve got your hands full!” You bet I still have my hands full even though they are older now. I juggle two careers (GP and academia) and a family and in between I must run (as in jogging, not running away!) or I will go bonkers. And yes, at times I do become terribly, desperately, crying-in-my-GP’s-office overwhelmed. It’s tough being an adult, no?I know only too well how this leads to a vicious cycle of poor habits that exacerbates the situation. Let’s have a close look at how being overwhelmed affects our health:

My really high-tech and fancy diagram of how being overwhelmed affects your health
My really high-tech and fancy diagram of how being overwhelmed affects your health

Is it sounding depressing? Don’t be discouraged! Life is dynamic, not static. It’s how we roll with the punches that defines  the outcome. When you’ve come off course, don’t beat yourself up about it. Realign yourself with your destination and get out of that vicious cycle. I’m not a counsellor, but I’ve counselled many patients about this, and I’ve learned a lot from them. Here are some of the lessons.

1. Ask yourself: Is this temporary?

Many situations are – a colleague is sick and you must pick up their shifts; a family member falls ill; you’re moving house. There are many “overwhelmed” periods in my life that were absolutely worth it, like passing final exams, having babies, or finishing a thesis. If it’s temporary, go into survival mode, and plan a recovery later. Try as much as you can to limit alcohol, take short breaks, and do some kind of exercise.

2. If it’s not temporary, is it worth it?

Diet and lifestyle are now considered the biggest threat to our health. Consider this: over time, and with genetic susceptibility, a poor diet and lack of exercise leads to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity – all risk factors for chronic illness and major causes of death such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer. This might be a wakeup call, a time to re-prioritise. And leads me to number 3:

3. Talk to someone about it.

The most powerful thing you can do is to say, out loud to someone else, what YOU need to do to improve things. This is when my job as a GP becomes dead easy. I sit back and ask a question like “Have you been exercising?” and a long monologue ensues which ends with my patient saying “I think what I need to do is…” And all I need to do is listen, and be witness to that. Amazing!

4. If it’s not temporary, can you change something?

Can you increase your capacity (learn a new skill, ask for more help? Can you resign from the PTO?) What isn’t necessary in your life, and what are you doing only to please others, or what can you reasonably say No to even if it’s a one-off or for a short time?

5. Connect with your body first. 

Yoga can be a quick, powerful way to reconnect with your body and listen to what it needs. I have a few favourite yoga poses (that don’t require athleticism…) when I need to remind myself of this. Breathe. Exist in your body for just one or two moments and not just in your mind. Aerobic exercise, of course, is a brilliant way of kickstarting wellbeing and motivation.

6. Practise mindfulness.

I find this really difficult when I feel overwhelmed, but I try very hard to stick to it as much as I can. However, it’s even more challenging when I haven’t attended to Number 5 above – connecting with the body first.

7. Practise positive psychology.

The negative spiral often includes a good dose of negative self-talk which is of course counter-productive. Be vigilant and consciously practise positivity. Start a gratitude journal. Start the day with positive affirmations. Challenge your negativity. But also be kind to yourself.

8. Take a mini-break. 

This might only be a couple of hours, or even half an hour if things are really dire. But take a break from what’s on your plate and get a different perspective. My children force me to do this every day and it does help, most of the time, to keep me balanced.

So here I am putting my money where my mouth is. Over the past few months, I’ve been the definition of overwhelmed. I’ve exercised less, eaten more junk, stayed up late, drunk way too much coffee. My skinny jeans have gotten a lot skinnier. I went through the steps above. Yes, it was temporary. It was worth it. I talked to someone about it. I changed things (I am about to take a sabbatical from clinical work for 6 months to finish my PhD). And I’m now exercising religiously at least every second day again. Diet, hmm let’s say Easter got in the way, but I’m getting there.

In fact, this makes me feel positively encouraged. It reminds me how much health and wellbeing is determined by what we do, and is in many ways within our control. Just as the negative spiral of poor lifestyle habits leads to the consequences of low concentration and mood etc that promote the feelings of being overwhelmed, so can a positive spiral lead us back to optimal health. I’m also grateful, in many ways, because these experiences of feeling overwhelmed allow me to completely emphathise with my patients. It makes me a better doctor. I’m on my way back to better habits – just as soon as I finish the kids’ Easter eggs. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to bed early.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s imperative that you talk to a health professional and be screened for depression and anxiety, which require more management than what I have described above. Don’t be afraid to tell your GP. It’s very therapeutic. 

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