Drowning and not coping: Three steps to saving yourself from breakdown

The worst part about struggling with your workload is that you spend a lot of time and energy denying the fact you’re overloaded. We have been conditioned since birth to work harder, faster, longer – which of course has its benefits in productivity, but there are times where we have taken on far too much and the boat starts to sink.

It’s a deflating feeling, one that can be really depressing and engulfing – and even then it is hard to recognise that we have a problem and need to take some steps to correct the course of action.

1. Recognise the problem. How do you know that you’re not coping?

You need to listen and recognise those thoughts that continually bounce around your head. Often we can have a mind that is so full of noise and confusion that it is difficult to take a big picture overview and analyse what is going on.

When you find yourself saying any of the following, it is time to stop for a moment and think of ways to help yourself:

I can’t do this anymore
I am falling apart
It’s all too much
I am a wreck
I feel sick
I can’t cope

These are all perfectly natural ‘scripts’ that can play out in our heads. They are common thoughts that go through the minds of even the most brilliant and accomplished workplace performers. I regularly talk to people about stress and anxiety and nearly everyone I speak to has a story of overload and downward spiral where they took on too much, too soon and didn’t allow themselves an outlet.

2. Take the first step

The difference, though, between getting out of this state and entering into a period of poor mental health and needing professional psychological services comes in taking the control that you probably didn’t realise you had.

It is understandable that so many people find themselves in this situation, but often it’s accompanied by thoughts of not being able to address it. This is when the downward spiral takes hold. You need to realise that you can direct your thoughts as much as you can direct your own behaviour, and these thoughts have a dramatic impact on how we feel. Take your non-coping stressful thoughts and replace with less damaging alternatives:

I feel shocking – but this won’t last
I am not coping – but I will get through this
I am a wreck – but this is the worst I am going to feel
I feel sick – but I will recover
I am falling apart – it’s OK for a limited time, but I won’t let this go on and on forever
I can’t do this anymore – no I won’t keep feeling bad hour after hour, day after day – I will create an end in sight

It takes some practice. Many develop a habit of feeling despair when stress kicks in, and breaking that habit can be difficult – so even if you don’t feel better immediately (although most people do) it will add a lot to your resilience and determination.

It is all about making the feeling of drowning a transitional feeling – not one that is never ending. Change your scripts (self talk) to transitional messages, i.e. don’t give them no end in sight; add a timeline with an end frame for recovery. Almost as simple as tomorrow is a new day.

3. Take the actions required to reduce stress

Something has to change. You need action steps small enough to achieve that changes your perspective.

Some productive and positive self-talk is a good thing – it makes us less vulnerable to stress, but this alone won’t stave off breakdown. It needs to be accompanied by actions. Considering the ‘better, faster, more’ approach to work is what gets most people into this mess, the challenge is taking control of reducing stress that goes against this learned instinct.

The ways to reduce stress include reducing the expectation on yourself, or boosting the pleasurable, fun time you have when you are not working. Taking a realistic approach to what you can achieve in the time you have available is probably the most effective method of stress reduction.

However, creating enjoyable headspace when you do things that really make you laugh and smile counteract stress and breakdown in dramatic ways. Sadly, stress usually pushes us into isolation. The working day or week ends and we don’t have the energy to see friends or do anything that would actively make us happy.

If you see yourself as drowning, find a ladder to climb out of the water; consider one person in your life who is accessible, cares for you and is in a good state of mind.

Know who your lifeline people are – those with stamina, positive outlook, great listeners – people who care about you. Choose one person you can talk to when stressed and talk about it and how you plan to get over it. Share your strategies for recovery.

Talk to them! Tell them you need to talk your way back into a better place – start with that as the goal. Tell them you know this is probably a transition, or a temporary glitch but right now you feel swamped and you need to talk.

Ask for a time to chat BUT go in with the aim to walk away feeling better having been listened to rather than going in simply to cry on someone’s shoulder.

Put a time limit around it – don’t go on and on over several sessions of sobbing. And if that is what you need – seek professional help.

It is time that stress became recognised for the debilitating disease that it is. Luckily, there are things within our control to counteract its effects. It requires a shift in our priorities to include our own enjoyment and satisfaction, rather than top priority being productivity and career.

Eve Ash has written two great books that have helped many people take control of their thinking habits, Rewrite Your Life and Rewrite Your Relationships.

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