Dear Dr. Hwang:
“Every day, I have endless lists of what needs get done. I have a kid graduating, one going to college, major changes at work and I’m in charge of more events than humanly possible. I’m also overwhelmed by the demands of family responsibilities as well.”
It sounds like you enjoy getting involved in projects?
At the same time, doing too much and taking on too many responsibilities may take a task you normally enjoy and make it feel like a burden. Doing too much and over long periods of time can take a significant emotional and psychological toll anyone.
Each person has a biological, psychological and personality constitution that can endure different levels of ongoing stress. But, no one person has the stamina to manage ongoing stress, increasing in intensity, over long periods of time and beyond what’s humanly possible. This will always be impossible and unrealistic.
Even when engaged in activities that we typically enjoy, a lack of rest, self-care and healthy living compromises our enthusiasm to engage in activities we typically look forward to. Anytime we overtax ourselves, psychological stress increases, as well as anxiety and tension. Too many demands can lead to what psychologists refer to as Acute Stress.
Acute stress involves a high intensity of situational stress that can lead to negative health symptoms You may not be able to sleep well. You may start to feel tension throughout your body or some increased aches and pains. You may even experience increased blood pressure or experience an occasional tension headache.
If caught early, acute stress is treatable and typically easy to manage. Acute stress can be mediated by exercise, increased healthy foods and social time with friends. Most importantly, your body and brain need enough good sleep each night.
A reduction in tasks and activities is critical. Moving towards a reasonable schedule is a necessary and healthy first step. Too many people think they have to do it all and this is often not the case.
If acute stress is unaddressed, you risk an onset of Episodic Acute Stress.
Episodic acute stress stems from ongoing chaos. It’s a result of you having too many balls in the air, which creates unreasonable pressure and cognitive disorganization. You are not emotionally present to the event you are attending because you are always anticipating the next thing.
Too often, people undergoing episodic acute stress have formed self-imposed habits of being on a hamster wheel that never stops. The problem with this level of stress is that it often leads to a predictable disaster. There is a looming feeling that there is always something to do. You often feel anxious, impatient and a tension of urgency. Your lifestyle has become a habit and conscious intervention is necessary to break the frantic demands.
Symptoms related to episodic acute stress can range anywhere from headaches, a rise in blood pressure to chronic pain. Moreover, you rarely feel as though you have energy and experience a great deal of exhaustion. One danger of episodic acute stress is that you’ve come to believe that your distressful lifestyle is normal and continue on a very destructive cycle of overbooking your life.
As this cycle continues, you may move into the stage of stress called, Chronic Stress.
Chronic stress is a level of distress that you want to avoid. It is best to intervene at this point with counseling or lifestyle changes before the onset of chronic stress begins. Chronic stress is a state where most people begin to feel hopeless, completely worn down and miserable. Life feels insufferable. Chronic stress can be a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, poverty, marriage problems or other deep and ongoing situations. Chronic stress occurs when one’s overall life is stressful and trouble doesn’t subside. Some people adapt to symptoms of chronic stress, such as a lack of sleep. But, not getting enough sleep is maladaptive and unhealthy. Chronic stress needs to be treated in a variety of ways. Change is always possible with help.
If the events coming up in your life are situational, then you will likely be able to recover fully from the demands. However, if your life constantly depletes you, then it is time to look seriously at changing elements of your life that compromise your physical and psychological health. While you may be able to pretend that your schedule is reasonable, your body and mind are telling you differently.
The irony of trying to do it all is that eventually, you may become so run down that you have no desire to do anything. It’s an easy trap to fall victim to. But, negative health symptoms need immediate attention.
Do not ignore your body and brain. Pay attention to your emotional and physical health. When your alert to symptoms, you are more likely to regain a sense of meaning and purpose that you’ve lost because the stress is insurmountable.
Your question reveals that you are overwhelmed, have too many demands and that it’s not just acute stress, but more likely episodic acute stress or even chronic stress.
I hope that you begin a process of deconstructing you life that has you doing more than humanly possible. Doing more than humanly possible will always be impossible. Too much of anything will quickly move you into Chronic stress that will seriously decrease your overall quality of life.
Kim S. Hwang, PsyD has a doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology. She is an adjunct professor at the Minnesota School of Professional Psychology. Email questions to [email protected]
This column is to invite readers’ questions related to psychological and emotional healthcare issues. It is not intended to diagnose and is an informal platform to begin a dialogue with the readers that they would like to discuss. Readers are encouraged to submit questions. Their identity will be protected.
Kim Hwang, PsyD