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Is Busy a Four-Letter Word?

How staying busy helps PTSD survivors cope, but may thwart honesty.

Key points

  • Healing from PTSD requires taking an honest look at what’s fueling one’s actions and words.
  • When triggered, PTSD survivors may lie by claiming they are too busy to avoid overwhelm, distrust, self-care, and confrontation.
  • Balancing time, priorities and self-care start by first speaking directly and authentically to others.
  • Neurofeedback, EMDR, exercise, meditation and personal development help trauma victims learn how to cope and heal.

Have you ever said, “No, I can’t do that. I’m simply too busy.” When you heard the words coming out of your mouth, you knew you weren’t really too busy. You said it because you didn’t want to talk further to that person, do that task, or participate in that meeting?

As a PTSD survivor myself, I realized my incessant need to tell others “I’m too busy for that” had more to say about my path to healing trauma than about the people, tasks, or meetings I chose to bypass. It might have been more authentic to use a shocking four-letter word and tell people how I really felt about their requests, situations, meetings, and tasks. Alas, I was born and raised in the South, and I’ve learned to leave straight talk like that for my business trips to New York.

Once I found the courage, to tell the truth about being too busy, I was better able to manage situations, people, and requests from others that might trigger my PTSD. In this article, I share the tell-tale signs “too busy” is a crutch, not the truth. I also share questions to ask yourself to discern how to choose people, situations, and projects that trigger PTSD less often.

Let me start with recent examples from my own life to illustrate the signs you’re avoiding others versus really taking care of yourself. In the past year, I united thousands of rural neighbors in my hometown to fight an asphalt plant trying to rezone property 1100 feet from my Smoky Mountain homestead. In a pandemic and politically divisive year, I received lots of practice choosing situations, people, and tasks that worked and didn’t work. Many times I felt unsafe, attacked, and vulnerable for my body and my home. It caused me to pause and reflect on what really works, balancing time, priorities, and self-care. I'll share what I learned with you.

Once you utter the words, “Sorry, I’m too busy,” ask yourself these questions:

1) Did I say I’m too busy to avoid being with this person?

Reflection: Please note that if your answer is yes, you should keep in mind that it is okay not to spend time with another person. Many trauma victims feel a lack of control, and sometimes it takes practice to say “No, thank you.” I have often found myself in unbalanced relationships, so I started to say “I’m too busy” when really what I wanted to say was “I don’t trust you, and as a result of you not earning my trust, I don’t wish to spend time with you.” It takes practice. Be gentle with yourself if you do choose to say “I’m too busy” instead of the truth, which is “You are untrustworthy.”

2) Did I say I’m too busy because I’m feeling overwhelmed, not taking care of myself, and spread too thin?

Reflection: Trauma survivors’ brains become rewired to allow for the overwhelming experience that first caused the PTSD. I call it my “Spidey sense.” (As in Spider-Man–maybe the way the brain rewires is a little bit of a superpower?) Other people may be completely comfortable in a situation, but I become overwhelmed by sensing danger. Other people may walk casually away from the danger. Those of us who get triggered may overreact, especially if we’re feeling depleted regarding self-care.

When I was sexually abused, I was eight years old. I didn’t bring my neighborhood pedophile to justice until I was 17 years old. So my brain wired itself during my formative years to cope with experiences that overwhelmed my senses, body, and emotions. It was challenging to help my brain allow for self-care and balance. (It can be done!) Whether your PTSD comes from war, assault, or abuse, your brain changes to provide what you need to survive. (This is good news!) Just like our digestive systems adapt to available nutrition, so do our brains adapt to their environment.

If I answer yes to this question, I’ve learned to say no to extra requests and immediately schedule more time in my calendar for self-care. This may include massages, acupuncture, vacations, nature adventures, a date night with my husband, or extra exercise like mountain biking or whitewater kayaking with friends. In particular, I want to mention I have found neurofeedback, EMDR, exercise, meditation, and ontology courses (like those at quite powerful in my healing journey.

3) Did I say I was too busy because I’ve over-scheduled my commitments?

Reflection: To avoid internal pain, many PTSD survivors excessively clean, join clubs, serve on boards, or volunteer to help so that they can avoid being quiet and still. I have to admit. I did this for most of my 52 years of life. It wasn’t until I recently served on a local community board and was yelled at that I realized I was volunteering my time to avoid facing the truth about what I was feeling internally. When I’d come home from Board of Director meetings, I’d relay to my husband the latest drama. He’d look at me and say, “Does this service give you joy? Quit and go mountain biking with me instead, babe.”

After two years of serving on that board with no change in how I was treated at meetings, I finally took my husband up on his offer. Upon reflection, I couldn’t be happier with that choice. It ultimately freed up my schedule to lead my neighbors in the fight of our lives against that asphalt plant.

When I find my schedule is over-committed, I will schedule what I call PJ days. Literally, I keep on my pajamas and do nothing all day. I listen to our birds chirping in our backyard, nap, or swing in a hammock. I become still and listen to myself by journaling or making a collage of images I find interesting from a magazine. These moments alone and quiet are the most important piece of self-care any trauma survivor can gift oneself.

4) Did I say I was too busy because I’m feeling inadequate and needing my ego stroked?

Reflection: This is a hard one for successful people to admit. As an international publicist for the past three decades, I literally teach people how to brag about themselves to the press for a living. As a result, I have interacted with many different types of egos. I won’t call out any specific client, but let me say that all humans can be driven by ego if left unexamined. Suffice it to say, we all preach and teach what we need to learn. (Yes, even me.)

I, too, have been driven by my own ego and have used the words “Oh, I’m too busy” to feel superior in the moment. The biggest question for yourself when this happens is, “Why do I feel the need to impress this person?” In other words, “What’s in it for you?” This relationship–for some reason–means something to you, and you’re bragging for a reason. Perhaps fueled by insecurity, this utterance reveals commitment. So when you find yourself bragging, stop and ask yourself, “What is my true commitment in this relationship?” I illustrated my point with my two-year Board of Director service earlier in this post. Let me share a true story about that experience to illustrate ego, the power of direct talk, and self-care.

The board president (a retired therapist) stopped me one day and said, “Michelle, another board director asked me to ask you to stop bragging so much in meetings.”

After repeating his request, I first invited him to ask the other board director to sit down with me for coffee to discuss how my actions might be rubbing them the wrong way. Then I said,

I decline your request to stop bragging because that’s what I bring to the party. This organization needs to brag about itself in the community to be known and to grow steadily. As a publicist, I make a lucrative living teaching people how to brag. This organization needs exactly what I teach my clients. I’m volunteering my gifts and talents because that is what we need on the board.

Later, after thinking about our conversation, the board president called me to apologize. He said he felt I was right. He also said later he felt the other person was simply insecure.

Speaking the truth in the moment takes courage many people refuse to muster. That is okay. However, healing from PTSD requires taking an honest look at fueling one’s actions and words. It’s not always easy, but the rewards are sweet because you are returned to joy, intimacy, and truth.

Today, I won’t tell you I’m too busy to do something. Instead, I’ll tell the truth and say, “No, thank you.” No explanation is necessary.