20 June 2012

Sometimes You Just Need to Flop

My cat Callie, like all felines, is an expert in relaxation. Many times each day, Kevin or I will walk into a room to discover Callie flopped down, stretched out on her back, paws flailing into space, in a state of deep relaxation. We call it "a puddle of silliness" and will warn each other "Watch out! There's a puddle of silliness on the bathroom floor." At which point, the other will tiptoe around the corner to catch a glimpse of a being in a state of complete and utter rest. 

Callie in a deep state of silliness

There's something to consider here: how often do we allow ourselves the opportunity to just flop down and rest? Maybe it's not silliness at all. Maybe it's a super-important state of being. I know I don't take the time to rest--not nearly as often as I should. And I just recently had to relearn that lesson again.

In January, I changed my way of eating to one of whole foods: meats, veggies, a little cheese, berries, and nuts. I stopped eating wheat and sugar and anything that came from a can, bottle, or box or had more than five ingredients. The improvements to my health and well-being were amazing: my rosacea cleared up, leaving my complexion smoother than it had been in years and my blood sugar stabilized, meaning that I didn't have to eat every three hours to prevent headaches. But the stable, sustained energy I gained was even more amazing.

Before I changed my eating habits, I would come home from work, cook dinner, and crash on the couch until bedtime because I just didn't have the energy to do much else. But after I started feeding my body the nutrients it needs, I noticed prolonged energy that would last from morning until night.

My skyrocketing energy levels enabled to take on new projects and new responsibilities. I said “yes” to commitments that I would normally eschew as taking too much out of me. Numerous index cards with project lists are lined up on my kitchen island, helping to keep me on track. From morning to night, I have been working and making progress on projects for home, work, and art. This extended period of productivity has been amazing to me because—although I always work hard, I’ve never been able to sustain that level for months on end without physical collapse. I attribute the change to my new diet and no longer feeding poison to my body. The past five months have been a period of creative bliss, growth, and expansion.

Last week I started to feel a collapse of my mental, rather than physical, energy. I felt intimidated by my to-do lists, rather than energized and encouraged. I wondered why I added yet another exciting, yet time-consuming, commitment onto my already burdened list. I became afraid of failure and anxious about not completing my responsibilities. Everyday problems that are normally manageable, like running out of cat food or forgetting to register the car, started adding to my stress level.

I was feeling overwhelmed and burdened. I was able to recognize some negative thinking that can lead down a dark path. That became my deepest fear—that my feeling of overwhelm would encompass me and spiral me down.

So instead of helplessly watching myself disappear into the dark, I reached out. In talking with friends and family, I came to realize that I was on the edge of burn out and that I really needed to step back and rest. It was a revelation to have them say “Hey, you are under a lot of stress right now. Take it easy on yourself,” because I’m so used to handling things that I forget sometimes I can let things go. I reached out to an online support system that I recently joined. I put my fears out into the world and was inundated with messages of support. I did something formerly unthinkable and asked for help on a project that seemed particularly unmanageable. 

With Cynthia’s help, we shifted the schedule so that I could take four straight days off from work.
The first day, I just sat on on the couch and watched the European Championships and some truly horrible television. Then the next day I read a book for fun and knitted on a shawl for fun—my only goal was enjoyment. Saturday I spent enjoying a street festival and coffee shop with my husband. And on the fourth day, I began to feel strong enough and my mind was clear enough to begin tackling my list and responsibilities again. 

I re-learned the same lesson about balance. I need to take breaks. I need to plan time “off” when I am not being productive and not even thinking about being productive. In the past, my body has served as a natural regulator for overwork. I would break down with illness that required me to do nothing but rest. Now that I have straightened out health problems, my body can keep going, but sometimes I need to just stop and flop. 

How to Find Ways to Flop

1) Talk with friends or loved ones. Often they can provide you a different perspective that can remind you that "Yeah, you do have a lot on your plate and you are not taking the time you need for yourself." We can get so caught up in doing that we don't see the larger picture. Other people can give us a broader view of what's going on and help us know when we need to take a break.

2) Ask for help. This can be a difficult one because we are so used to doing it on our own. It can be hard to say, "Hey, I would love a little help here," because that would be an admission that we can't do it all. But there's a little secret: we can't do it all. Not even if we want to very, very badly. So it's more than okay to ask for help. Think of it this way: if someone you cared about asked for help, wouldn't you be more than willing to help them? That's how your people will feel when you ask them. 

3) Reach out. If your real-life support system is less than supportive, you can find a like-minded online group that will serve to provide virtual support. Sometimes it is helpful just to admit that you are feeling overwhelmed. Being heard and acknowledged is very powerful.

3) Find time for yourself. I'm incredibly lucky in that my work is flexible enough to allow me to take the time I needed. But even if your work isn't as flexible, try to carve out a free hour, free afternoon, free day, or even free weekend when you can rest and recharge. It's paradoxical, but taking time away from your list will help you get through it.

4) Just stop working. Draw an imaginary line on the clock past which you will no longer work. In my case, I just stop working after 9:00 p.m. at which point I'll pick up my knitting and watch a movie or settle in with a good book. Let yourself wind down before bed and turn off that need to be productive around the clock.

5) Know that this will pass. Life can throw some really nasty curve balls and sometimes, no matter what strategies we use, it's all we can do to manage them. In these instances, the best thing we can do is keep breathing and taking it one step at a time. Focus on the present moment, rather than what you need to do in the future or what happened in the past. Taking things one breath at a time makes it more manageable.

6) If all else fails, get yourself a cat and flop when they flop.

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