Imagine going to an event where everyone is completely focused.
That happened to me recently.
There were no cell phones being used, no random scrolling through Instagram feeds or checking emails.
Everyone there was completely present and focused on the collective feelings in the room.
In this instance, the mood was a celebration of a life well lived, a mixture of grief for a much loved grandmother and mother, but also joy at the happiness she had brought to my friend and his family.
There was a sense of meaningful connection amongst the people in the room.
Everyone was present and in the moment, lost in thought and quiet contemplation.
It got me thinking about how rare these moments are.
Do you often have moments of feeling present and calm?
Or are you more likely to feel ‘super busy’ to the point of being overwhelmed, rushing from one commitment to another?
A recent survey of more than 10,000 Australian women aged 18 to 89 suggests many of us fall into the ‘overwhelmed’, ‘super busy’ category.
Women were asked “what’s the number one thing you would like to do to improve your health?”
The most popular response was to exercise more (getting more sleep and having work life balance among the other popular responses).
When asked why they weren’t physically active, close to half of those who did the survey said it was because they did not have enough time and were too tired.
Studies of men have reported similar results.
It’s not just that many of us struggle to fit in our work and family commitments, there’s all the mental work that goes into organising and coordinating everything that goes with those commitments.
You might have seen or heard comment pieces talking about this idea of overload or the ‘mental load’.
All this leaves me wondering … why?
Why are we stuck in a loop of a relentless pursuit of filling our calendar with more and more commitments?
Why am I saying yes to this request for my time or my family’s time?
Is it something that aligns with what’s really important and meaningful to me?
Or am I saying yes out of a deep seated fear of not pleasing those around me?
We feel we are doing the best by those around us when we say ‘yes’ when we are asked to help out at home, work, school, college and our neighbourhoods.
But being under constant pressure and feeling overwhelmed comes at a significant cost.
Why does it matter if we are super busy?
What stress does to us
What science shows is that being constantly ‘wired’ has a devastating effect on our physical and mental health.
Our brains and bodies are designed to react and respond to what it perceives as threats.
When you encounter a potential threat, a small part of your brain known as the hypothalamus, goes off like an alarm system in your body.
Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located on top of your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies.
Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
But it’s designed to be a short-term response.
You see a tiger in the bushes, you feel scared, then the tiger runs away and you can relax and feel ok.
Your body’s hormone levels can then return to normal.
Adrenaline and cortisol levels come down, your heart rate and blood pressure go back to normal levels, and your body starts working again.
But when you are under prolonged stress and you feel constantly under attack, the ‘fight-or-flight’ response stays turned on.
“The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes,” experts at the Mayo Clinic said.
Stress experts say this “puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, memory and concentration impairment”.
So what’s the answer?
Start with ‘why’. Think about why you are saying yes to a request or commitment.
I have written about before: often we feel more anxious and disconnected when our actions don’t match with our own core beliefs and what really matters to us.
She talks about “minding the gap”.
The gap is the disconnection between values that are important to you and how you are living your actual life, day to day.
“Mind the gap is a daring strategy. We have to pay attention to the space between where we’re actually standing and where we want to be,” she writes.
“We don’t have to be perfect, just engaged and committed to aligning values with actions.”
Take steps to calm your tired and stressed nervous system. Cutting down on stimulants such as caffeine and adding in measures to replenish your nervous system like relaxation breathing, gentle exercise and meditation can really help.
Finish these sentences:
- The last time I felt a quiet calmness was….
- How did it make you feel …
- The last time I said ‘no’ to a commitment to make room for something I really wanted to do was …
- How did making that decision make you feel …
And ultimately, if we seek to be a good role model to those around us, think about this: what kind of message does it send to those we love if we are so over-committed, overwhelmed and tired that we are putting our own physical and mental health at risk?
This piece by Sophie Scott was first seen on ‘ABC News’ Septembr 25, 2017.