Our society is so exhausting. It's getting harder and harder for anyone to stop, even for just a little while. I'm seeing this in so many of the women who I coach. Often the only reason we finally do stop is because our bodies start to give up and won't let us push anymore.
As I've gotten older I've been much more aware about pushing my body excessively. I started reading about and taking courses on midlife health and hormones (for an excellent book on this subject, check out Dr. Sara Gottfried's The Hormone Cure).
Last year was a particularly stressful one and I could feel that my body was having a harder time, not bouncing back as easily as usual. I decided to go see a friend who is a specialist in women's health and integrative medicine and, sure enough, the news was not good. My adrenal glands (which drive the stress response by producing stress hormones) haven't completely conked out but are showing signs of strain, and various other hormones were lower than they should be. Looking at those numbers was sobering. It felt like my battle-worn body was weakly waving a white flag in front of me, trying to get my attention with the last reserves of energy it still had.
My doctor friend had apparently stared down similar numbers in her own lab results, and I'm pretty sure the advice she shared with me about how she recovered from being run down will echo in my head for the rest of my life:
"More than anything," she said, "pay attention to how you do things."
As an example, she told me how she changed her attitude to exercising.
"I used to hike up the mountain with a heavy pack filled with things I didn't even need, because that way I'd exert myself and burn more calories. It was like I was my own drill sergeant, constantly whipping my body to push harder, be stronger, be better. These days, I wear lightweight clothing and sneakers when I go on a hike, and don't carry anything but water. I feel light as air, and it feels fun rather than feeling like boot camp. It's how you do things that makes the difference."
What if so many people, women in particular, are run down because of how we do things?
Here are some ways that I'm trying to change how I do things, that might make an equally big impact for you:
1) Stop pushing
Now that I'm paying attention, I notice that when I work on almost anything I push. I try to type as fast as I can (I'm even doing it right now) and I'll often go from one task to another without taking a break. I try to do everything as quickly and as well as possible. If I make myself slow down just a bit, and remind myself to breathe, it's remarkable how different I feel.
2) Stop digging deep
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown writes about the "dig-deep" button.
"The dig-deep button is a secret level of pushing through when we're exhausted and overwhelmed, and when there's too much to do and too little time for self-care."
Can you notice when you push this button? I know it well, I usually do it at the end of the day when my body and mind are screaming to stop but I just. need. to. do. one. last. thing. How about just not doing it? Outlaw the use of the button and only reserve it for emergencies. Your adrenal glands will be oh so grateful.
3) Leave space in your schedule for rest
You must give yourself breathing room. If your calendar is looking really full in a particular week, don't cram anything else in and try to free up any space around the busy-ness that you can so you can rest. For example, next week I'm very busy and normally I have flamenco classes on Sunday afternoons. Dancing is fun, but getting to and from my teacher's house involves two hours of driving and the dancing itself is physically demanding. Given how busy my next week is, I decided not to go to class this Sunday and plan to just sit around relaxing instead.
4) Stop rushing
I waste so much precious cortisol and adrenaline (the key stress hormones) by rushing. You may know this well: You habitually leave just a few minutes too late, so that every time you're going somewhere you're constantly watching the clock and trying to beat time, weaving through traffic, trying to make every light, wound tight as a spring the whole time. Lately I have actually been leaving early to go places, which is a miracle. It hasn't even been that hard! What a difference to not be in a rush, to be completely relaxed while driving or walking somewhere. You give your body a huge gift by doing this and it really doesn't take much extra time. Just giving yourself five extra minutes can totally change your experience. Save your stress hormones for real stress, not unnecessary stress that you create for yourself.
5) Don't withdraw your account to the last cent
"As you get more rest and start to rebuild your reserves," my colleague told me, "you're going to have more and more energy. Now listen to me on this one: just because you have more energy doesn't mean you need to spend it all." She likened it to not spending all the money in your bank account just because it's there (something I also have a problem with, surely there is some sort of link!). Do you have a habit of going and going until you're forced to stop by exhaustion? How about eliminating exhaustion entirely? Just because you have energy doesn't mean you have to use it all up.
Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, health and wellness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer, and author. She is dedicated to helping people get healthy, reduce stress and enjoy more meaningful lives. Dr. Biali is available for keynote presentations, workshops/retreats, media commentary, and private life and health coaching—visit www.susanbiali.com for more details.
Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 2014