Setting the bar too high and feeling constantly overwhelmed are two of the most common signs that you’re under a lot of stress.
Maybe you would deny: “I’m not stressed, I’m just super busy”. Or perhaps you think you can cope with enormous amounts of stress, although your frustration is exponentially growing (and you know it!).
But let me tell you a secret: if you’re working as a freelancer, you’re as prone to burnout as any other human being. Having the freedom to choose your clients, your working hours and your office doesn’t make you immune to burnout. Actually, it’s extremely easy to become obsessed with your job and stay focused on all the things you’re not doing right, enough, or on time.
As a freelancer, you most probably have the constant feeling that you’re always one step behind. Or even that you’re a failure. The lack of the (false) sense of security and stability, which a contract in the corporate world gives you, is a great stress factor. Therefore it’s easy to end up trapped in an overstressed state of mind.
As an attempt to help you sustainably approach your freelance career, I invited Irene Anggreeni, a dance movement psychotherapist with intercultural and corporate experience, as a guest author. She’s an ex-engineer and academic expat from Indonesia.
Irene is trying to break the taboo about mental health. She’s launched an integrative program based on the creative, embodied, and mindful values of the dance movement psychotherapy. It’s called Expat Wellbeing – you can read more about it in my article Dance if You Feel Lonely.
Today Irene Anggreeni will share a bit more about stress and burnout. I hope you find zen in the chaos of everyday life while reading this article. And remember, your work is important, but it’s not the most important thing in the world!
What is stress?
Stress is an unavoidable part of life. A stress-free life is not possible. In fact, a healthy level of stress is actually crucial for our growth.
When we hit the gym, we intentionally stress our body so that our organs and muscles become stronger. Just like the chilly plants which need to experience stress (draught) to produce real hot peppers!
We need that extra push to focus and give our best. If the green zone is you being completely chill and relaxed, then this kind of stress is more or less the yellow zone.
Our whole system becomes alert in the red zone when we’re in a position that we perceive as threatening to our life and integrity or just too much to cope with. There are a lot of situations that can trigger our stress response, such as:
- natural disaster
- experiencing or witnessing violence
- approaching deadlines
- job insecurity
No matter at which zone of stress you are, the physical signs of stress are quite universal:
- rapid heart rate
- fast and shallow breathing
- muscles tensing up
Whether you’re chased by a tiger, experiencing extreme cold, or about to give a public speech. By the way, the physical response when we feel excited is also similar.
Do you know that some substances we consume, like nicotine or caffeine, are natural stressors? Ever notice your heart beats faster and you become more alert after your shot of caffeine? These situations need not be cognitively appraised as threatening, yet they trigger our stress response physically.
How do I know when I’m overstressed?
Red alert! You may notice it in the way your mind feels cluttered and full! Having difficulties concentrating and feeling disconnected to your surroundings are big giveaways. This could lead to ruminating, not being able to ‘switch off’, constantly thinking “I should be doing more”, etc.
In interpersonal contacts, you may become easily angered, short-tempered, snapping at others at the slightest annoyance.
What we should not forget is that our body also suffers from stress. The hyperalertness means we may not be able to rest properly or get enough quality sleep. Constant activation of our stress response also affects our whole biological system including our hormonal and immune systems.
A few possible signs you’re overstressed are:
- frequent colds
- skin, digestion, respiratory problems
- irregular periods
- back pain
- tensed jaws, neck or shoulders
In case you experience any of these, it’s time for some self-reflection. Do you recognize any connection between the occurrence of the sign and your stress level?
If you feel like your life is about one survival to another, watch out. You might be chronically stressed!
What’s the “Fight Flight Freeze” response?
“Fight Flight Freeze” is our biological response to stress. It’s necessary for our survival in an actual life-threatening event.
In our modern life though, a typical stress-inducing situation like deadlines, commuting during rush hour or a demanding boss, also triggers this biological response. Our nervous system automatically increases our metabolism – the faster heart rate, breathing, and blood flow prepare our body to Fight in or Flight from the stressful situation. We are in a survival mode.
Ideally, after the stressful situation passes, our physiological system regulates itself, and we recover to our baseline. However, if the stressor continues to be present (or we perceive it that way), our nervous systems may become overwhelmed and a more drastic shutdown response – Freeze – can happen.
If we’re not able to recover from the Fight, Flight or Freeze response, this trapped unreleased high activation of our nervous systems becomes trauma. Chronic stress is a form of trauma.
Some geeky notes about our nervous system
Our nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cords, and the different branches, interact with our hormonal and immune systems.
The part of the nervous system that is responsible for our stress response is the Autonomic branch (ANS). It’s the branch that autonomously regulates our heart, lungs, blood pressure, digestion, and other organs.
There are two further branches of the ANS: the Sympathetic Nervous Systems (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems (PNS). The SNS is like the ‘gas’ if we compare ourselves to a car. It kicks in to prepare our body for Fight or Flight.
On the other hand, the PNS (the “brake”), calms us down and brings our system back to its baseline. The latter is also associated with Rest & Digest, a biological state of repair and recovery.
How to prevent or avoid burnout?
My top three ongoing practices, from my own experience:
1. Allow yourself to stop & slow down
Create this inner space for yourself and practice observing what’s going on inside. Sometimes we may tend to keep making ourselves busy and ignoring our inner voice.
Why is that? Ask yourself this question.
2. Stop the people pleasing
We’re social beings, and it’s natural that we want to maintain good relations with others. Be honest to yourself though. To what extent are you living your life according to what matters to you?
It’s okay to say ‘No!’ when you feel it. Even if you couldn’t find any logical explanation to it. Make yourself a priority.
3. Be selective with whom you spend your time
Reflect on the relationships you have. Who do you surround yourself with? It’s alright to choose relationships that nourish and give you support, especially if that’s what you need right now.
Be ready to let go of relationships that are dragging you into stress or unhealthy habits. Even if it’s hard to do. Remember, your first loyalty is to yourself!
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