A version of this story was originally published on Nov. 16, 2020. It has been updated.
"I feel like the Hawaii dream is coming true."
"The Hawaii dream I had—remember? In the dream, you were going to Hawaii for two whole weeks to have a break, and meanwhile I had no idea how I was going to manage without you, while also feeling like I desperately needed a break, too, but felt too guilty to ask for it."
What inspired this conversation by the coffeemaker while doing dinner dishes? My husband was taking a day off from work because he needed a break. I had had the "Hawaii dream" only a couple of nights before, and the feelings of desperation, panic and guilt remained fresh.
"You can take a day off," he said to me. "You just don't."
I quietly process this, pushing down the automatic defensiveness, allowing the truth to sink in. "You are correct. You are absolutely correct."
It may sound harsh, but sometimes I need this level of bluntness. I could do a gender analysis of how women are socialized to sublimate our needs for the sake of others, while men are socialized to take what they need, no questions or guilt required. But I shrug off gender norms on a regular basis, so I need to accept some personal responsibility for this one—because that means I can also change it.
In not unrelated news, I'm really tired. I'm not alone—most adults paying any attention to the world right now also tell me they are exhausted. In my therapy practice, all ages share their angst about stress at the macro level (the world at large), while they also manage high stress on the micro level (their day-to-day life).
You don't need a mental health diagnosis to need extra support right now.
In fact, the longer I have offered therapy, the more I wish we could throw out mental health diagnostic categories as insurance-based justification for seeing a therapist, and sign everyone up.
You may not have the (enormous) benefit of a therapist in your life right now, yet you are feeling the weight of a thousand stress pounds bearing down on your shoulders. You most likely do not have time for therapy to learn how to manage anxiety, even if you wanted it.
I offer a bite-sized version of an expertise-based analysis to figure out why am I so tired?
1. You need sleep
I'll start with the most obvious—we are tired when we don't get enough sleep, or enough good sleep. All sleep is not treated equal, and even if the number fits the recommended 7 to 8 hours, if you're not hitting all the sleep cycles how you are supposed to, you can still feel exhausted even after your morning coffee.
Women notoriously struggle with sleep and insomnia, but now that we are extraordinarily stressed out, it's been reported as even worse for many. Parents are reporting higher stress levels than non-parents. And part of the function of sleep is to process our stress and emotions from the day, as well as prepare us to better regulate emotions when rested. Although each clearly makes the other worse, not getting this quality sleep while suffering high stress is not only a big problem, it's exhausting on every level.
As easy as it may be to pop a sleep aid before bed to know we won't lie there for hours, many prescription ones don't get us the sleep quality we truly need. So, it's worth prioritizing the hard work of dialing down stress levels and related worries and anxiety, and ensuring healthy sleep habits.
2. You are experiencing anxiety
Anxiety is a total energy suck. Think industrial vacuum strength suckage. This can happen in two primary ways: physiologically and mentally. Biologically, anxiety affects our systems from head to toe, like tense muscles everywhere and GI issues, and/or hyped up heart rate/blood pressure/breathing that can really do a number on us physically via dizziness, nausea and all-out panic sensations.
These physical symptoms of anxiety may be a more obvious energy drain than the mental features, but don't underestimate the energy-sapping powers of thoughts. So much thinking. Anxious thinking includes a hamster wheel of "what if" and "should be" as well as constant seeking of reassurance, which the internet is only happy to feed with a bottomless black hole of mixed results to keep us spinning. Although anxious thoughts often include the past, in our ongoing moment of communal anxiety, these thoughts are most likely focused on our highly uncertain futures.
It finally occurred to me well into middle age that not everyone's brains operated like mine. (I'm ALWAYS thinking, not necessarily anxious thinking, but my mind runs a constant stream of thoughts like a 24-hour news channel chyron).
I share my experience to convey that I get it; even as a mental health professional practicing what I preach to manage stress and worry, I have my own brain wiring that sets me up for an active, loud mind. So, when I share my tools for managing this anxiety, know that it comes not only from the textbooks about anxiety treatment, but right from my heart and my head. Literally.
Three ways to manage body anxiety
- Breathe. Deep breaths from your belly, not shallow chest breathing that may make you feel like you are hyperventilating. A close friend of mine went through a period of having "unexplained" dizzy spells; she recently discovered that those went away after she started a regular practice of stopping to breathe throughout the day. We hold our breath when we are stressed and often don't even realize it. The deep breaths circulate more oxygen throughout our blood to our muscles and organs, which helps everything operate and feel better.
- Stretch. When we are tense and stressed, we don't only hold our breaths, we hold our muscles. This also drains our physical energy because it takes energy to tighten up and hold even when we don't realize we are doing it. So, our muscles need to breathe in order to release the tension. I love this strategy because it's short and sweet but packs a stress reduction punch. I have some favorite yoga moves (downward dog, child's pose) that I fit in between therapy sessions or even in the midst of refereeing sibling fights. As I'm in happy baby (feels so good!), my kids get distracted from their battle of wills, "Mom, what are you DOING?"
- Exercise. Research on the benefits of exercise abound, but in this context, regular exercise not only helps energy levels and sleep, but is a great way to expend anxiety OUT instead of keeping it in the body. I find myself going for more runs during stressful periods, like after a big move, or during a global pandemic. My body tells me in no uncertain terms that it needs to keep moving. I know the idea of launching a rigorous exercise routine can feel impossible, so it's good to be realistic. Instead of "run 5 miles every morning" (I have never done that), just move more. Add a few minutes to the daily dog walk, or take a lap around the house in between Zoom meetings.
Two ways to manage mind anxiety
- Meditate. I know many people are turned off by the idea, either because it has become so trendy, or because it sounds unattainable or simply not helpful. Although we know from brain research that even a 10-minute daily practice changes the brain for the good, it's not comfortable or natural for everyone. The purpose of meditation for anxiety, however, is to quiet the busy mind, and there may be other ways to achieve this through meditative experiences that are not traditional meditation. Think of an activity when you feel mentally absorbed in a way that thoughts become a tunnel of focus on one thing—maybe it's a puzzle, knitting, reading a novel, or playing tennis. Whatever it is, do more of that! Notice the increase in energy afterward, which will help you want to make time to do it again and again.
- Find joy. In the daily hustle we often forget about the simple benefit of joy. We may even think we do not have joy in our grind of work, parenting, and worrying about the world. It's easier to find if you start looking for it, and prioritize it. You will always have another task on your work to-do list or be staring down another load of laundry, but what if you let that wait while you did something joyful for 15 minutes? For me, that can be making a nice cup of tea in the afternoon when my brain starts to shut down, and reading a book. Even 10 minutes of this can be amazingly mind-clearing.
You may also find joy in the daily hustle if you look hard enough and make an effort to connect with it. All this time with my kids right now allows even more opportunities for those small moments of wonder and closeness throughout the day. Like when my gap-toothed 6-year-old wraps his bony arms around my neck, calls me "Mama," and gives me a spontaneous kiss. I wish I could freeze my connection to him in that moment, as I know his arms will only get longer, bonier and less huggy.
3. You're not getting true rest
We don't rest. Rest is not the same as sleep. Rest is not only a physical stopping, but also mental. Sitting on your couch to "rest" while you scroll through a landmine of social media threads that fire up indignation does not meet the criteria. On a couple of recent Friday afternoons, when I had an hour to myself in the house (and the angels sang), I laid down. To rest, not sleep.
In that delicious closed-eyes quiet, I realized I never do this, even though my mind and body are screaming at me in need. The guilt of all that remains undone stubbornly taunts me, even though I know logically guilt is totally useless.
Even though I know logically there's ALWAYS more, that the list is never done. Even though I would tell every patient, friend, loved one and stranger, "It's OK to rest—you need to take care of yourself!" True rest is an amazingly simple energizer. Try it, I promise.
4. You're not giving yourself the self-care of setting boundaries
Here's the clincher: Take care of yourself. In terms of exhaustion, a major energy vampire comes in the form of not having strong emotional and relationship boundaries. So, when I say take care of yourself to feel less tired, I mean REALLY take care of your needs. There are times in life we need to contract our social circles to include those who most genuinely and deeply reciprocate support, and take a break from the rest.
These boundaries also apply to work, especially in this era of remote working when home/work boundaries are especially porous. In my case, I have a hard time taking a day off because I think about the impact of my clients missing the week's session. When I slow down and challenge that, however, I can more clearly see that their livelihoods do not actually depend on my one hour of time with them, and I also will be better at being their therapist if I take a break.
The vicious loop of exhaustion and not thinking clearly can take a toll on how we see "reality." Using even small strategies throughout the day to break that loop can do wonders for adjustingour thoughts for a clearer, and healthier version of our current reality. No two weeks in Hawaii required, although a day off once in a while may just be what all of us truly need. For every other day, keep sleeping, calming the mind and body, resting and finding joy until one day you realize you're not so tired anymore.
This post first appeared on the author's website.