Prescriptions for Life

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Overwhelmed? 8 Tips to Avoid Burnout and Balance Your Life

These simple life basics will keep you sane and smiling in the midst of chaos.

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For so many people these days, our life is like a house of cards. We teeter along shakily, just barely managing to hold up our sky-high pile of commitments and stressors. Sometimes it feels (accurately) that if you try to put just one more card on top, the whole mess will come crashing down. It’s not a good feeling. It’s not a fun way to live. Yet it’s normal for most of us. And we’re exhausted.

One of the things I remember most from the psychology courses I took in university is the classic Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. These researchers examined medical records to determine the relationship between life events and the likelihood of getting sick. They ranked the 43 most stressful life events, assigning points to each based on the potential negative impact on health.

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Some of the stressors are thankfully rare, such as death of a spouse (#1) and imprisonment (#4). But others are much more common, such as divorce (#2), marriage (# 7 – positive life events can be stressful!), change in health of a family member (#11), business readjustment (#15), change in financial state (#16) and even things we dream of, such as outstanding personal achievement (#25).

I recently went through a series of life shifts, some really wonderful and some more challenging. I held up pretty well for a while, but eventually started to feel a lot more moody, tired, and just plain overwhelmed. Whenever I go through a transitional season like this I’m always grateful for those early psych courses and my awareness of "The Life Events Scale".  Too much change, too many demands, and eventually the human mind and body will cave in under all the pressure.

This has happened enough times now that I know what to do to get myself, my health, and my sanity back. If you’ve got too much change (or just too much, period) going on in your life, here are some tips to get yourself and your life back, ASAP:

1) Get the best sleep you can

If you’re stressed out, getting enough sleep should be your number one priority. Give yourself time to wind down before going to bed, and create the quietest, darkest sleeping space possible (my husband and I use black-out curtains, ear plugs, and white noise from the bathroom fan to block out street sounds). The more stressed out we are, the earlier we try to get to bed.

2) Meditate or pray in the morning

I normally spend quiet time in meditation every morning, but the numerous recent changes in my life had made it hard to maintain my old routine. I felt unhinged, and quickly felt so much better when I forced myself to find a few quiet minutes every morning again. Sitting for just five minutes, breathing deeply in and out, has been shown to create a sense of calm (and even lower blood pressure!) that lasts throughout the day.

3) Make yourself eat, no matter how crazy things are

The more stressed I am, the more I try to do before breakfast (and breakfast often ends up eaten at lunchtime). Skipping meals and snacks leads to low blood sugar, fatigue and brain fog, making you feel unable to cope. Discipline yourself to get some real food into your mouth as soon as you get up - you’ll feel much calmer, clearer and more focused. Make sure you eat throughout the day and don’t let yourself ever get too hungry. Don’t ignore your body’s cues for needing food and water, no matter how busy you are.

4) Load up on greens the easy way

I get a physical and psychological boost from superfoods, as I know how much my body appreciates them when stressed. I try not to go a day without the simple green smoothie I make in my blender (click here for the recipe), it takes less than five minutes to make and less than a minute to drink.

5) Get through one day at a time

As the ancient saying goes: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” When life is particularly stressful, it really helps to just focus on getting through each day. I use my morning quiet time to get centered and ready to face the day, and that day alone. Life feels so much easier when you face it one day at a time.

6) Make no your default answer

I read a great blog post from Paul Angone the other day called “Stop Trying to Balance Your Life”. His thesis was that our fundamental problem isn’t our inability to balance it all, it’s overcommitment. I totally agree. I’ve written about this before: when you say yes to something new, you say no to something else. (see my previous post on Saying No) There isn’t an infinite amount of time available to you. When you say that yes it will mean something really important will be squeezed out: that time alone you desperately need, or that extra hour of sleep that would make all the difference, or the precious time with your spouse or kids that you all long for.

7) Take sanity breaks

Lose the go-go-go mentality, it will kill you. Take breaks whenever your body or mind start to feel tired. Have a snack. Get up and do some stretches. Rest your brain. Take your lunch outside and sit by a fountain with the sun on your face (I did that the other day, it felt so good). You need breaks, don’t tell yourself that you’re better off just plowing through.

8) Give yourself a Sabbath day every week

In this 24-7 world we live in, it’s easy to treat every day as another opportunity to tick off to-do list items. For a long time now I’ve saved my sanity by taking Sundays off, no matter how busy my life is. Whenever I’m tempted to work because I’m feeling panicked about some upcoming deadline, I remind myself that in the past I’ve somehow always gotten done what needed to be done, even if I’ve taken a day off.

One day a week, try to avoid doing anything that feels like work. Turn off your phone. Don’t go online. Take a nap. Read a good book. Spend some time with your family and friends. Go for a walk together. This day of rest and rejuvenation will refresh you and give you the energy you need to face the trenches yet again for another week. And you will still somehow get everything done.

Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, health and happiness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer, and the author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You, dedicated to helping people worldwide get healthy, find happiness and enjoy more meaningful lives that they love. Dr. Biali is available for keynote presentations, workshops/retreats, media commentary, and private life and health coaching—contact susan@susanbiali.com or visit www.susanbiali.com for more details.

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Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 2013

Susan Biali, M.D., researches health and happiness. She is also a professional flamenco dancer and author.

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