I get a lot of clients who come to counselling with a goal of “achieving balance” in their lives. After some discussion, this can usually be interpreted as: “I want to have enough stress in my life to make me feel like a meaningful, worthy human being, but not so much that I lose my shit, quit and sell everything, and move to a place where shoes and haircuts are foreign.” So, at least in this article, when I say “balance,” I’m referring to “a pleasurable amount of stress” (Read here about “eustress” and “distress” if interested). The Psych 101 cycle of stress is as follows: Alarm, Resistance, Exhaustion (think Mariah Carey post-Glitter). We want to avoid the Exhaustion/Nervous Breakdown phase that occurs when prolonged stress > coping, so to do that, we gots to manage stress and increase positive coping to keep our locks (also, if you’re interested, check out this awesome infographic on how stress affects the body).
The thing is, it seems a lot of us are under the impression that if we add a dash of exercise and social interaction, and remove a pinch of stress, we’ll have baked a perfect balance cake and won’t have to revisit the issue ever again. The teeter-totter of life will be suspended parallel to the ground, reminiscent of those rare (and exciting) moments where you had someone roughly the same weight as you to see-saw with on the playground (do playgrounds still have teeter-totters–and I’m not sure if that’s the technical term. I could see them being one of first to go in the whole designing safe playgrounds movement of the 90s…). There are a few problems with this logic, though:
- Our stressors are constantly changing depending on our environments, relationships, responsibilities, etc.
- We risk ignoring warning signs of imbalance because we think we’ve devised a fail-safe plan
- We feel frustrated and confused when we find ourselves breaking down again.
If you’ve read any of my other articles, it’s no great surprise that I’ve experienced being out of balance a fair bit in my life (as have most!). Imbalance physically, mentally, and emotionally has contributed to breakdowns and breakups, illness and injury, impulsive decisions (hey, they seemed brilliant at the time), unhealthy coping strategies, and behaviours for which I’ve felt remorseful or ashamed.
Sometimes, I’ll recognize these symptoms are a result of being out of balance (e.g. When I hate everyone). Other times, it’ll take something more psychosomatic to turn my attention towards “Stresservention” Thanks, I made that word up myself. Just building credibility. That’s what I do. For example, the time I went to the dentist and he told me I have the gum-line of someone twice my age due to nighttime grinding…Or the time my boyfriend at the time woke me up from my 3rd nocturnal panic attack that week (yeah, I’m a real treat to sleep with)…Or the time tests revealed part of the reason for my year-long amenorrhea was because my estrogen production had taken a backseat to cortisol production. And then I get frustrated, and I feel like a hypocrite, and I wonder how I can expect my clients to implement measures into their lives to “find balance” when I can’t do it myself.
But here’s what I’ve learned. Balance is not something to be achieved or discovered. “Being in balance” is a dynamic, active process–one where your “teeter-totter” is rarely parallel to the ground. I’m going to quote Ice Cube, here, and remind you that “Life ain’t a track meet; it’s a marathon.” If you’re sprinting, you’re just focused on givin’er. You’re not checking in to see whether or not you should be conserving energy or opening one of those creepy gel-packs. You’re gonna be done in 15-ish seconds (what’s realistic time for a person to finish a 100 meter-dash?), so there’s no need to check in with your body or your thoughts or whether or not you’ve set yourself up for some serious chafing. But, refer back to Ice Cube: Marathon. Uh, for pleasure… (because in this marathon, finishing really sucks). So! What are you gonna do? Conserve energy, refuel and take breaks as needed, switch up your pace, avoid cotton. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling exhausted. Just take it as a sign you need to slow down to avoid passing out and needing some serious rehab before you get moving again.
So, how to create the most potential for a “balanced” existence the majority of the time? Sorry, Ice Cube…Putting your back (or ass) into it is probably not going to solve much. Here are a few tips:
1) Check in with yourself: Yeah, yeah, self-awareness, self-awareness. But seriously, explore what “Balance” means to you, and if it has a priority in your life. Make a habit of assessing if and how you’re coping with daily stressors. Remember, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, stress>coping. This means you need to lower stress or increase coping (or both). Put weekly (or daily) “check-ins” in your calendar.What’s working for keeping you from getting “bumped” off the teeter-totter or never getting off the ground? Or, if you’ve broken down before, how did you get there? How did you get back?
2) Know YOUR signs: Not “the” signs. Yours. For me? Anxiety. Poor sleep. Skipping the gym because I’m tired. A steady diet of Timbits. Getting sick. Resenting my clients. Instead of doing what your instincts tell you (avoid), take these as warning signs from your body telling you to dial back. This is a stellar book on the psychosomatic effects of stress.
3) Whatever you do, don’t “Put Your Back into it.“ In other words, when those warning signs show up, acknowledge that something needs to change. Slow down the pace. Quit what you can, ask for help, call your therapist.
4) Say No: Here are few ideas how.
5) Take a Mental Health Day: The National Post even endorses it! Guilt=gone.
6) Whole-foods Diet, Exercise, Blah Blah: I know, I know, you’ve heard this all before, but it’s a good one to be reminded of. I reiterate: Vicious Cycle. Good summary of relationship between stress and nutrition right here. And exercise–same thing.
7) Schedule “Blank” days/nights on your Google Calendar: Or whatever calendar you use. OK, maybe you can’t schedule two days a week where you don’t go to work, but plan to have a couple nights a week where you can choose how you want to spend your time that day based on how you’re feeling. This also gives you time to better manage the unexpected events (because, surprise!!! We can’t plan for those!)
8) Adjust expectations: Go back to the marathon example. Some kms you’re going to pick up the pace, others you’re going to slow down, walk, or rest. Take into account the circumstances, your mood, your energy level, etc. as you create your expectations. Chances are, if you keep pushing yourself at the same pace, you’re gonna go Britney Spears circa 2007 (but seriously, who wouldn’t break down under that kind of stress?). You may have noticed I haven’t written anything in a while. This is partially due to being booked for the next month and a half with clients (understandably) falling apart under stress (hey!), and the Weather Network forecast of “depressing with a chance of suicidal ideation” (Still love you, Vancouver!). Anyway, if I expected myself to churn out more posts, it would just increase my anxiety and feelings of guilt and defeat. So, expectations adjusted. Anxiety alleviated. 🙂 (I can model some things, right?).
9) Find out what recharges you: This won’t be just one prescriptive thing for all people all the time. It depends on the person and will vary given the circumstances. Sometimes social connection will recharge you. Other times it’ll be nature. Or yoga. Or music (particularly this song. Or this one. Or this one). Or 10 hours of field observation of a group of socialites doing…stuff? (like I said, different strokes…). If you don’t know what does this for you, pay attention and take note. And don’t just say, “sleep” then move on.
10) Give up on the idea of “Finding the Perfect Formula”: The formula/plan/schedule you design might work for a week or a month, but it needs constant revision. Accept that “balance” is not the runners you do up and ignore for the next 42kms. It’s the awareness that there’s strategy involved in enjoying your run (for the most part), preventing injury, and feeling motivated and able to keep moving. See point #1.
Finally, know that when you’re feeling “out of balance,” it’s because you care. Sure, it might feel like it would be nice if we were all like Em and could “Not Give a #@&%,” but no meaning or will in life is no fun, either (I speak to a lot of people who feel that way, too). And…that didn’t work so well for him anyway. As always, practise self-compassion throughout the process. And, hey, worst case scenario? There are some really good wigs out there…