This post is inspired by a patient I have, we’ll call her Jane. In reality the patient I met today is like so many that I have, and your doctor has, met before. It could easily be John, or Jenny, or Jeff.
Jane is in a cycle of trying to care for family members and hold everyone together, but the cracks are starting to show. The strain of being everything to everyone is leaving little time to tend to her own needs. Her stress levels are through the roof, she isn’t sleeping well at the moment, her appetite is a little off, she is struggling to focus at work and feels like she is on the verge of tears or anger most of the time. Sound familiar?
It’s not Jane’s fault, she is doing what she knows best. She is trying to support her family whilst being a productive colleague, a good friend, a good spouse… She’s trying to be Wonder Woman and she’s mad at herself because she is struggling. She berates herself for not being “strong enough” and that she “needs to snap out of it” but try as she might, she doesn’t see how she can.
I talked with Jane about imagining ourselves in a house. For any house you need a solid foundation, and that foundation is our sense of self. The walls of the house our are natural defences to protect us from the storms of life. Repeated adverse life events or stressors, just like a real storm, can chip away at the walls of the house, they might even break the windows.
If our house is built on solid foundations, and we have developed coping strategies that are effective for us then we can weather those storms. If our defences are low – perhaps we have lots of stressful things happening at the same time which are rocking the walls of our house, or our foundations are built on shallow ground, then our house is going to start tumbling down.
Without the house to protect us, we are exposed to the harsh realities in life.
This is where I found Jane today. Her walls are tumbling in, she is trying desperately to barricade the doors and windows but she cannot keep up with the demands that life is throwing at her. Simply put, she cannot be everything to everyone. She is not Wonder Woman.
Fortifying our proverbial houses is tough, especially as we often have to try and fight these fires whilst carrying on with our normal lives.
The first step is acceptance. Accept that you cannot do everything.
“Serenity is accepting the things we cannot change,
courage to change the things I can and
wisdom to know the difference”.
Acceptance does not mean berating yourself for weakness. It is not a flaw to accept that you need help or that you are struggling. It takes strength of character to stand up and say to someone you need some support.
Next comes rebuilding. For those in caring roles this can be especially challenging. As a carer your focus is inherently on those your care for. Shifting your focus back to you can be unsettling, upsetting and hard to do. However to care for another in the way you want to, you have to be able to care for yourself.
One of my favourite analogies (and I have plenty) relates to a broken leg. If you have a broken leg, society at large knows how to react. They can see the plaster cast and the crutches, they can mentally apportion the right amount of sympathy and understanding. Bones heal, the injury is visible, and it’s much easier for people to get their head around.
Stress, burn-out, depression and anxiety all have few outwards signs. Unfortunately a stigma can still exist around these problems and society can sometimes feel unsure about how to ‘handle’ someone who is suffering. But just because it isn’t visible, and just because it isn’t physical, doesn’t make the problem any less real or relevant.
To rebuild takes time. Patience. Support. Effort. It isn’t easy. Remember that a difficult path can sometimes lead to beautiful destinations.
Talking therapies such as counselling and CBT should never be overlooked or dismissed. Having someone else, impartial to your situation, help you to talk through your current troubles can be a real life saver – and can help to set you up for your future.
Some patients might need medication from their GP. I would always encourage anyone who is facing difficulties in their life that are starting to overwhelm them to speak with their doctor.
Part of rebuilding is learning about yourself. Really understanding yourself is the key to your success. What are your warning signs that things are getting too much? What can you do when those signs start to appear? What strategies to do have to protect that proverbial house?
Whatever it might be, find what re-centers you. It might be yoga or meditation, it might be catching up with an old friend, watching a favourite film, reading a book, going for a run or taking the dog for a walk. As long as its a positive action – that doesn’t mean opening a bottle of wine or similar.
Exercise can be an incredibly powerful tool at boosting how we’re feeling when we’re struggling. Physical activity is not only good for our physical health but for our mental health too. Not only does it increase endorphins that help promote good feelings, but it also can help with issues such as insomnia.
Being you is enough. You don’t need to be Super Man or Wonder Woman. Besides, they wore their pants over their clothes, and when you stop and think about it, what’s so great about that anyway?