Sometimes we all experience that day when everything is just too much and our brain shuts down in protest. I had one of those days last week. I work part-time (.5 load), study full-time (which has me working across three different places for my PhD), plus my extra-curricular activities and responsibilities, and providing enough physical activity to tire my 13yo ADHD terrier. It can be full-on. My work and study has my brain engaging in all different areas and subjects as well as learning new things constantly. So when I allocated a ‘thesis writing day’ last Thursday – I failed miserably. I can pinpoint why. I have been studying and entering data after work at night, going to dancing (trying to learn two routines), juggling a menagerie of senior citizen animals (yup – we have ‘pill time’) plus a variety of other things, and really there was no ME time. At night when I usually read or crochet I wasn’t enjoying it. I felt like I HAD to do it because THIS is what I DO to relax. So basically I was in a routine-rut with no enjoyment, my stress levels had been building up, I was tired and emotional and I needed a break.
I needed a good old Aussie mental health day.
And by the way I’m not saying that I am more or less busy than anyone else – everyone is busy in their own right regardless of how much they work/study/breathe, etc and we all have our individual stress levels, some with a higher tolerance than others.
So Thursday when I sat in front of the computer surrounded by my piles of work I felt like bawling. It had all become too much at that moment. So I procrastinated – which I believe is not a true form of relaxation or a break because you end up feeling guilty about what you are supposed to be doing. After watching some Honey Boo Boo clips on YouTube, I flicked back to my word document and still felt that unnerving shame (that I had procrastinated) as well as self-doubt (I just can’t do this, I’m stupid and dumb and I just can’t do it).
This was when my brain thought ‘f**k it’. It went on holidays and I was left feeling like a zombie drooling in front of a laptop screen. What should I do? Sitting here not doing anything is going to drive me crazy and make my stress levels worse. I then found myself flicking over to the local cinema’s session page and oh look a new movie had started today. I surreptitiously texted my dad (who had also been studying away on a certificate for his work) and somehow at 11am in the morning we found ourselves stuffing ourselves silly on popcorn, magnum ice creams and maltesers and watching Pompeii. I felt saintly drinking water but dad had a diet coke (he hates the taste of the ‘real’ stuff). It was great. It was also great that the only other person in the cinema seemed to be having a mental health day as well – no one dresses in a business suit to scoff like crazy at the cinemas.
Now from my line of work I would NEVER suggest stress eating as a welcome coping strategy – it is bad bad bad and should not be relied upon. However, there is something freeing about being able to scoff down movie goodies in the dark for a whole hour and a half with no judgement. At the end when the lights come on, everyone shyly brushes down the front of their shirt, stands up and leaves and NO ONE discusses how much one ate – it’s like a law or something. What happens at the cinema stays at the cinema.
The movie was fantastic – it was action, doom and gloom (suiting my mood at the time), people died, lots of blood, pretty cool actors – it had it all. After my brief escape from the real world, I sat back in front of my laptop. I felt that I could now deal with the important do-now items and then I needed a break for the rest of the day. I think I worked for possibly two hours and that was it. By 3pm I was in bed with my good pals Walter White and Jesse Pinkman – I did a Breaking Bad marathon cuddled up with my dog. Whilst I felt a little guilty about ditching a work day, I also felt a sense of achievement of being a rebel and skiving off the work I had to do (I live dangerously, you know!). But I also congratulated myself on recognising when enough is enough. Also, when Friday came around I worked solidly and ploughed through the work (again congratulating myself).
So how do we recognise a brain fart day (as I like to call them)? They can differ for each person, but it’s about recognising when your stress threshold has been reached. For me it was:
- Feeling overwhelmed and almost incapable of doing anything more. I literally felt I couldn’t cope with even just sitting there going through the motions
- I didn’t want to be around people – because that added more layers and feeling like I HAD to perform in some way
- I couldn’t do any work
- I was scanning my body in the morning for signs of illness so I could call in sick for work (which I didn’t do because I didn’t feel sick and felt guilty about having a sick day for ‘no reason’)
- I couldn’t concentrate and had difficulties remembering things
- I actually felt sick by the end of each day (headaches, upset stomach) which led to sleepless nights, and
- I felt that it didn’t matter how hard I worked it was never going to be good enough or even make a dent in my pile of work
So we probably all have felt this way before – it’s called STRESS. We all handle stress in good and bad ways, not all coping methods are the same for all people. But some things work:
- Regular exercise (making sure I do go for those walks and dance classes)
- A good diet (yup don’t scoff your body weight in movie goodies every day)
- Sleep (no staying up awake at night worrying about what you need to do)
- Relax (who would have thought, hey?)
- Be with friends and family
- Avoid unnecessary stress (for me this was not applying for a new job, because I came to the decision that the process was too stressful and not beneficial for me at this stage)
- Alter the situation – what do you need to avoid/change, what do you need help with and even what can go in the ‘do now’ and the ‘do later’ piles (prioritise)
- Adapt – focus on the positive things and the aspects you do enjoy. Does THIS (whatever it is) matter in the bigger picture? and finally
- ACCEPT THE THINGS YOU CANNOT CHANGE. I cannot change my workload (unless I lose money to live on) – it’s going to be there regardless but I could ACCEPT the challenge, review it from a positive perspective, prioritise more efficiently, and look after myself.
- Also, I think drinking water and staying hydrated is important (I had actually been forgetting to drink all day over the past weeks and would end up at night thirsty and headachy).
I needed a day off where I could gain perspective and just breathe. Where I felt that I could do something I enjoy and actually enjoy it (that it didn’t feel like a chore). I felt like being lazy and being around someone without it being too much work (my dad is one of those people who just make you feel calmer in their silent presence). A day skiving off at the movies followed by a Breaking Bad marathon was exactly what the doctor ordered. Just that one day allowed me to gain some breathing space and freedom and to feel normal. I was able to return to my routine but also knowing I needed more BALANCE in my day. And I am slowly changing this. So when I finished work today, instead of coming home to more work I cooked some new dishes for this week’s meals (curried sausages and a beef and potato stovie – both revised for a healthy option), a chai latte, a big cuddle and play with my dog, writing this and watching Catching Fire. Oh and I might just finish my book I’ve been reading. It feels great to be tired out in a good way.
Lesson learned for a more balanced life as well as ensuring I enjoy the simple things (like my crazy dog on a walk).
P.S. The best thing about my Thursday was that the weight-loss Gods smiled upon me and I didn’t put on any weight from my movie session boo-yah! (Seriously, I scoffed like there was no tomorrow).