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Keep From Reaching Your Breaking Point

Stopping a stress-fueled crash before it starts

Source: Shutterstock/KieferPix

By Carla Naumburg, PhD

There's a scene in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery featuring the comedic spy (played by Mike Meyers) trying to escape the bad guys by driving away on a steamroller. A security guard yells for him to stop, but Powers keeps coming, motioning frantically for the guard to move, even as he keeps his foot on the gas pedal. Powers ends up flattening the guard completely.

I can't tell you how many times I have replayed that scene in my head over the past several years. Except in my version, I'm both characters. I'm driving the steamroller, and I'm also standing frozen, screaming for everything to stop. But I don't stop. I keep barreling through, until I just run myself right over.

It's a surprisingly apt metaphor for life. Tension and stress often build over time—a few hours of lost sleep one night, a stressful work meeting the next day, a new phase of parenting that totally defeats us. These daily challenges mount, the fatigue grows, and yet we stay the course, pushing through each day even as some part of our body or mind is telling us to stop and change direction.

Sometimes we know we need to slow down, but we choose not to. But most times, we just don't see what's happening until we find ourselves flattened. Sometimes I end up in bed with a terrible cold, or my back goes out and I spend days lying on the floor with my legs up on the couch. Other times we just lose our composure and end up fighting with our spouse, yelling at our children, bailing on deadlines, and drinking, eating, or spending in ways that just aren't healthy.

So how do we stop the steamroller? Try this:

Acknowledge that there is a steamroller, and that you are driving it

Certainly, there are times when it feels like life is running us over, and we're getting knocked down by circumstances beyond our control. But we can choose how to respond and take care of ourselves (or not) in the face of life's challenges. The first step is acknowledging that we can make choices on a daily basis that make it a lot less likely we'll end up flat out.

Learn to read the warning signs

With practice, you can notice the signs that daily life is chipping away at you. Are you having trouble sleeping? Have you been increasingly irritable or down lately? Are you snapping at friends or family members? Are you having a hard time concentrating or enjoying yourself? Any of these might be warning signs that you're headed for a fall.

Check in with your body

We often hold a tremendous amount of tension, frustration, fear, anger, and sadness in our bodies without ever realizing it until we get sick or injured. Whenever you find yourself with a couple free moments, practice a little CALM. Check in with your Chest, Arms, Legs, and Mind. You don't have to relax or fix anything, just notice—do your chest, shoulders, or calves feel tight? Are your thoughts racing or making you anxious? Becoming aware of what is going on in your body is an important first step toward realizing just how close you are to getting rundown.

When you notice the signs of tension building, take these actions:

Make sleep a priority. Every other step you take to get back on track will be infinitely harder and less successful if you're exhausted. Cut down on afternoon coffee, keep your smartphone out of the bedroom, and (at least for couple of nights a week), skip that last TV show. Instead, head to bed and read or breathe deeply to prepare yourself for a good sleep. If you consistently have trouble sleeping, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Take time for transitions. Between meetings, on the way to get the kids at school, or as you race to your workout, give yourself a moment to shift from one activity to the other. Take several deep breaths, and then let your breathing settle and just breathe regularly. Try not to think, plan, or worry. When you do, just come back to your breath. This helps you notice how you're feeling and what you're thinking.

Slow everything down, at least for a few days. Cancel extra meetings if you can. Let your kids skip an extracurricular activity. Make easy meals. Let the nonessentials on your task list wait a little longer, or make a future to do list and set it aside until you are better rested. Take a mental health day (or even just a mental health afternoon) then pick one activity that you find restorative and do it.

Ask for help. It's easy to become stuck in the belief that your challenges are yours alone to tackle. But we are communal animals meant to work together. There are so many ways to integrate support into your daily life, including reaching out to a family member or friend for help, finding a spiritual or religious community, creating connections at a regular fitness class, or seeing a doctor or therapist. It isn't always easy to share your stories and struggles, even with those who care about you and your family, but it will help you feel more grounded and less stressed.

Try not to beat yourself up if (and when) you do get flattened. There may be times when you do everything right—like get yourself to yoga class, take time to journal, eat your fruits and veggies—and it's still not enough. Don't let it get you down. It happens to all of us, and the sooner you can start taking care of yourself in the aftermath, the sooner you’ll get back on track.