Super busy, overwhelmed and tired all the time? Put down your to-do list and read this
Do you ever feel like your brain is like a computer with too many tabs open? From checking your email as soon as you wake up, going shopping for last-minute birthday presents on your lunch break, and keeping up with countless Whatsapp group chats, there never seem to be enough hours in the day.
It’s a familiar story – you’re tired, but wired, and, just like an over-loaded internet browser, it puts you at risk of a total meltdown. “Our modern lives mean we’re micro-dosing on stress from the minute our alarm shakes us out of sleep,” says Dr Mark Winwood, a psychologist and director of psychological services at AXA PPP healthcare. “We’re not very good at giving ourselves time out from these constant stresses. Over time, this can lead to us feeling completely overwhelmed – and this can lead to burnout.”
Burnout is not just a buzzword, and it doesn’t mean you need a bit of a lie-in. Burnout is the result of chronic stress and over-work, described by the World Health Organisation as “a state of vital exhaustion”. As well as physical and mental exhaustion, it causes prolonged low mood, anxiety, feelings of detachment from day-to-day life. And experts believe it’s on the rise – a report by the Mental Health Foundation last year suggested that at least half a million people in the UK are affected by work-related stress 1 and 74 per cent of us have at some point been so stressed we felt unable to cope 2 .
“If you’re truly burnt-out you simply wouldn’t able to get out of bed,” says Dr Winwood. “So what we really need to be alerting people to are the changes they could recognise in themselves before they get to that point. There are often subtle signs that, really, someone’s got too much going on.” The signs to watch out for include someone displaying symptoms of stress such as irritability, being hard on themselves, not making time for friends and family, and always imagining the worst-case scenario, or catastrophising. Other tell-tale signs are craving salty, stodgy food and not prioritising time for themselves.
But thankfully there are preventative measures you can take. “If you’re overwhelmed, the key is to talk about it,” says Dr Winwood. “Try approaching a trusted friend. Sometimes this can be enough to improve how you feel – just talking about why you’re stressed and how you’re managing it automatically helps you to approach it in a different way.”
If you repeatedly take time off work recently because you feel overwhlemed, it’s time to talk to your GP about getting some help, says Dr Winwood. “It may be that a bit of a life over- haul is in order.” It’s important we don’t brush it off as ‘just’ stress, he adds. “If we’re chronically overwhelmed by stress, then it can lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.
“Make sure you do something every day to protect your mental wellbeing. It doesn’t have to take long – just small changes that give you a chance to step off the hamster wheel, such as having lunch away from your desk or making time for an actual conversation rather than messaging.” Dr Winwood adds that while a lot of stresses come from outside pressures that we can’t change (such as deadlines or difficult relationships with bosses and family) a lot of pressure can come from our own expectations – but this is a kind of stress we really can change. “It might mean saying no a bit more, or lowering your own standards a little – not everything has to be done perfectly,” he says.
According to Dr Winwood, the aim isn’t to avoid stress altogether, says Dr Winwood. “A certain amount of pressure and is stress is actually helpful to us – it can make us perform better and be more productive than when there’s zero pressure. Our bodies are designed to deal with a little stress, just not all the time.” It’s about monitoring when we feel overloaded. “Be alert to times when you convince yourself you haven’t got time to keep up your good habits,” advises Dr Winwood. “If you notice yourself deciding that you haven’t got time to get to the gym or to see your best friend, have a think about what’s changed. Opportunities for downtime are really important, so rather than asking have I got time to go and meet a mate, ask can you really afford not to?”