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Stress, Running on Empty

Stress, Running on Empty

The following is an excerpt from the book: “Obese From The Heart: A Fat Psychiatrist Discloses”; in this heartwarming and gut-wrenching memoir on obesity, a fat psychiatrist tells

Stress is society’s greatest modern affliction.  We have completely lost control of our workdays.  A workday used to be dawn to dusk.  It used to be from the time you arrived at your workplace until you went home.  It used to be 5 days a week.  Not anymore.  We work constantly, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  We work at our jobs, in our homes, at school, in traffic, at the grocery store.  We work shopping on the Internet.

When we are resting, we are working: making lists, setting goals, reviewing today, and planning for tomorrow.  We are not resting.

We continually increase our workload because work is addicting.  We physically experience an increase in adrenalin, and energy and focus that expands our productivity.  It’s a rewarding feeling to do a good job at something.

We add more work so we can feel even better.  We start multi-tasking: the dishes, and the laundry, and the homework and the science project.

We add more forms of communication: television, radio, email, Internet, regular mail, newspapers, magazines, cell phones, voicemail, text messaging.

More lives to keep track of, including people we don’t even know.  Pretty soon, there is no time and we are multi-tasking every task, including some that should be enjoyable.

We read while we eat, we talk while we drive, we work on three things at once.  Simple pleasures are eroded by a sense of urgency and the need for more adrenalin to keep us going.  No time to say, “Hello”, “Goodbye”.

Not only is productivity addicting, but so is the feeling of contributing – you know what you are doing and you are doing a good job, you can help someone else do a good job; you can right a wrong or save the world.  “No one else can do as good a job as I”, quickly morphs into everyone asking you for your input and assistance all the time.  More work for you, you just took on their work.

We work this hard because our society sets up overwork as a model of success.  “Supermoms”, mandatory overtime, full-time students with full-time jobs.

One day I saw a 40-ish single mom who was working two jobs, going to school full-time and raising her children.  She was exhausted, stressed, depressed, gaining weight and forgetting things.

“Why are you doing all of this”, I asked.

“For my kids, so I can get a better job.”

I looked at her without any humor, and replied, “If you live long enough”.

We are operating at a level of INTENSITY that causes DISEASE.

We have lost our ability to play, and live and love.  We have lost our ability to experience emotion because we are so busy working.  We have lost the ability to relax, and think and be alone with ourselves.  We have lost the ability to feel content with our circumstances. We have forgotten how to look at the sky and wonder about the stars.

We have lost the ability to experience emotion when we are under severe chronic stress.

Hard at work and numbed out to everything and everybody.

Here’s the problem: If you don’t allow your brain a chance to process your life experiences as they happen, the emotions will leak out anyway.  You will be angry, and irritable, and depressed, and stressed and anxious, even when you don’t want to be that way.

Which leads you directly to what I like to call “The Last Job”.  The job of suppressing your emotions so you can keep working an insane pace.

The reason that stress is so deadly is because the last job you take on is an impossible task. You may be able to do the laundry and your homework at the same time, you may be able to work all day, make dinner for the kids and go to school at night, but you cannot suppress normal emotion.

In order to keep up your pace, you must suppress the emotion or you will “break down”. My office is filled with people who start the appointment by saying “I think I’m having a breakdown”. “I feel like I’m losing my mind”.

People are often sent to the psychiatrist for treatment of Depression when in fact they are shutting down due to overwhelming stress. They may be diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder because they cannot sleep from their minds working all night. They may be diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder because they have lost the ability to prioritize and organize because of overload.

The effects of stress can mimic psychiatric disorders, but they are not the same. Stress is a condition of overwork. Anxiety is a condition of fear. Depression is a condition of suffering. It is possible to have one or all of these simultaneously. The treatments may overlap, or may be different for each condition.

If you WORK to suppress unwanted emotions, you develop disease.  You simply added more work and increased your stress level. I am addicted to stress.  Everywhere I look I see work that needs to be done, whether it’s a book that needs writing or a counter that needs wiping.  I cannot pet the dog without noticing a mat that needs combing.  There will never be an end to this manuscript because I am forever editing.  I can answer your questions, and their questions and everybody’s questions no matter what I am doing and how exhausted I feel.

When it’s time for me to relax and have fun, I often cannot.  Unless I eat.  Then I relax. The food pours out dopamine and GABA and serotonin and acetylcholine into my parched brain until I am positively serene. Am I relaxing because I’m healthy?  Or am I relaxing because the food just drugged me into forgetting what I was doing.

For the five or ten minutes that you are stress-eating, your brain is transported to a lower-stress zone. You give your body, your brain, and everyone else in your life a break from the jagged energy you are projecting.

If you are eating all the time in response to stress, “all the time” is simply a reflection of HOW STRESSED YOU ARE!

Stress-eating can also become your most effective DO NOT DISTURB sign, temporarily insulating you from further bombardment. Most people, even bosses and kids, will leave you alone while you are eating, even if it’s just the amount of time it takes to eat a candy bar from a vending machine.  The only other place to get this kind of peace is in the bathroom.

You can turn off your soul’s request for learning and creativity with television or food.  But you will not remove the drive to think and learn.  You are born that way.  Tomorrow if you are bored, you will go through the same struggle again.

Boredom is also a type of stress. Your brain asks you to feed yourself all the time.  Sometimes it is asking for nutrients, real food, physical exercise, or love. Sometimes it is calling for brain exercise – YOUR BRAIN WANTS TO THINK!!!  If you are bored silly, you will become stressed.

You can turn off your soul’s request for learning and creativity with television or food.  But you will not remove the drive to think and learn.  You are born that way.  Tomorrow if you are bored, you will go through the same struggle again.

Just in case you thought this was only about your own personal stress, there’s more.  You can also absorb other people’s stress, particularly if they are close to you.  Stressed people have a tendency to pour out their problems in rapid-fire succession, one after another, with great energy and emotion.

Your best friend comes over to tell you about all of her problems, and when she leaves you feel like you’re on a trampoline, bouncing endlessly.  You have now added your friend’s stress to yours!  It’s like compounding interest on a loan; the balance due keeps going up!

One easy secret to prevent you from absorbing someone else’s stress is to simply cross your arms in front of you while they are talking.  By putting your arms over your heart, you have blocked their flow of stress from entering your body.

If you are overloaded with work, be honest with yourself.  Decide if some of your deadlines are too grueling and can be extended or maybe even cancelled.  Look around and see who can help you.  Beware of using lack of money or time as an excuse to grind your health into illness.

Decide if some of the work you are doing is not really yours to do, have you taken on someone else’s job?

Relief from stress is about learning to say no:  no to demands, no to internal goals, no to family expectations, no to overzealous work projects. Saying no does not mean quitting your job in a bad economy, nor does it mean walking away from a difficult supervisor and getting fired. Saying no means acknowledging your physical and emotional limits and respecting them.

Relief from stress is about recognizing your body’s signals.  When you cannot sleep, and you cannot relax, and you cannot stop thinking about work, you are overworked.

The solution to stress and overwork lies in learning and practicing proper endings.  To be able to say this is my workday and I am now off.  This is my homework time and it is now over.  The day’s work has ended and this is my sleep time.  This is my stress, and this is yours and I cannot accept it. These are boundaries, yours, mine, and ours.

The solution for stress is to recognize that for your body, rest is as essential as exercise.

For your brain, quiet is as vital as thinking.

For your spirit, solitude is as healing as company.

The solution to stress is to accept your humanity and all its limitations.

The above excerpt is from the book “Obese From The Heart: A Fat Psychiatrist Discloses”; ©Sara L. Stein, M.D 2009;