Expert Q&A: Managing Stress Overload
Q: Help! How do I avoid having "mental meltdowns" from too much stress?
A: The term "nervous breakdown" doesn't technically exist as a mental health diagnosis, but who cares? You've probably heard it to describe why your favorite singer cancelled the performance at the last minute—and while you are already in your expensive seat. And you might even know it from your own reaction to life's stresses such as losing your job or getting divorced. Your heart races, your chest hurts, and you struggle to breathe, sleep, wake up, or even move. Like Mick Jagger belted out in his song "Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown," no matter what you do "nothing (you) do don't seem to work." And soon, "Here comes your nineteenth nervous breakdown."
You didn't see it coming. All at once, you want to scream, break something, cry, throw up, starve, eat the entire insides of the refrigerator, or hide under the covers. Uh-oh, you think: I'm losing it, going nuts. I'm certifiably crazy.
And, yes, you could be right. Some people who experience sudden, overwhelming changes in personality and inability to cope are having post-traumatic stress or major depressive or psychotic disorder. But for most people, the symptoms are a sign of hitting a wall in life.
That feeling of falling apart and thinking you are having a nervous breakdown are signs that your coping mechanisms have failed. You're burned out. It's the emotional and physical state that celebrity publicists call "nervous exhaustion." Oh, so that's why so-and-so cancelled the performance. But you don't have a publicist who handles your problems. So, what do you do?
Here is a brief guide to managing your own "Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown."
1. Recognize Your Symptoms
Everyone reacts differently to stress, but when you're overwhelmed, you usually experience something that impedes your ability to function. Common physical reactions are chest pains, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, dizziness, nausea, forgetfulness, agitation, and shaking hands or legs. You feel as though you are going to "jump out of your skin." You might also become angry, short-tempered, and set off by the littlest things. Or your arms and legs just won't move. You end up sleeping too much or too little. Your to-do list seems too big and you either run around like crazy to accomplish things or you procrastinate for what seems like forever. The overall feeling is that you've had enough, your circuits are burned out and you are not yourself. The feeling can be extremely overwhelming.
2. Identify the Source
Step back, take a breath, and ask yourself: What could be triggering these reactions? Your feelings of being at the end of your rope are a signal that life's events have tripped off either a sudden or gradual collapse in your coping skills. Sudden failures in coping can stem from experiences such as divorce, serious health diagnosis, death of a loved one, or a rape or robbery trauma.
In general, all these events are fundamentally a sense of loss of control over your life. You no longer feel in charge. You've been blindsided by that 4:00 p.m. meeting with the boss to learn that your department has been terminated. Or your physician calls you to come in to discuss your lab reports-and you know by the tone that this appointment isn't going to be routine. Or your spouse announces one night that the marriage is over. Or you have to face the fact that you are going to lose your home.
Regardless of your circumstances, you feel as though life is unfair, that it's cheated you and that you can't handle things right now. Ask yourself: What's going on in my life? What set me off? What major event might have started the breakdown in coping? Or, could I be experiencing the "last straw" effect where an accumulation of too many things has finally gotten to me and worn me down?
Sometimes, though, your reactions could be a signal of a major depression or psychotic episode. Ask yourself: Do I have a history of mental illness? Does it run in my family (there can be a genetic pre-disposition.)
3. Seek Professional Help
Don't minimize or second-guess your symptoms. And don't wait too long. One rule of thumb is to seek medical help if your symptoms last more than two weeks. But that's just a guide. Some symptoms can come on suddenly. Always err on the side of caution. You have too much to lose by not going for a professional opinion. Be kind to yourself. You deserve to get help.
4. Don't Compare Yourself to Others
Yes, some people manage divorce or death of a child without seeking outside help. They don't need medication or they can weather the event. They remain optimistic about improvement and sustain social connections to family, friends, or their religious organization. They may look a bit tired, but somehow they can tough out the hard times.
But they are not you. Everyone handles stress differently, and what stresses out one person may not stress out another. So, don't beat yourself up emotionally if you are having trouble coping. But also don't avoid taking responsibility for your mental and physical state by denying and minimizing your reactions.
5. Prioritize, Delegate, and Get Mindful
One way to take charge of your stress is to prioritize. Not every item on your to-do list has to get done now. Act on the ones that must get done and that have deadlines.
And don't think just because something is on your list that you are the only one who can accomplish the tasks. Stress loves martyrs! Now is not the time to feed your guilt or your need "to be in charge." Delegate—give other people assignments. However, you will have to give up the Perfectionist's Credo: Only I can do the job right. Don't fall into the trap of filling your weekends with errands and laundry. Distribute your chores throughout the week.
Finally, create a family calendar where everyone can check dates of events. Coordinate this main calendar with cell phones, too. Check your schedules the night before, for example, and remind others of their appointments.
6. Use Your Past Success Stress Strategies
You probably have been stressed and overwhelmed before. Write down how you managed the situation. What did you do? How did you feel? What techniques worked and which didn't? Who helped you? Many of my clients keep success journals of their efforts. In fact, the act of writing down your thoughts during hard times can be helpful. Writing things down has a way of calling up unexpected thoughts and ideas. As you write, you learn about yourself, face your fears, and often get stronger.
Stress recovery takes time. Don't give up.
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D, MSS, MA, is a nationally recognized psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in women's issues in love, life, work, and family. Sign up on her website, http://www.lovevictory.com, to receive free advice, blog, cartoon, and information about her two upcoming research-based, self-help books for women: The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie—a cartoon, self-help book and Smart Relationships. You can follow Dr. Wish on Twitter.
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