Smart, beautiful and driven. Owner of a thriving business, mother of a young child. I’ll call her Annabel.
With a life as full as hers, Annabel is no stranger to stress, and clearly she is resilient. But as she began to speak, the cracks became apparent.
I was humbled to witness this high-achieving woman disclose her struggles. This was all the more powerful because she was neither a client in my consulting room, nor an old friend in a quiet corner of a cafe.
Here we were in a business meetin
g. Annabel spoke in a shaky voice and yet demonstrated amazing strength and composure. You have to be strong and courageous to permit yourself to be vulnerable in this way.
It had me reflect on the way stressed people do and don’t fall apart.
What falling looks like
Firstly I must clarify that I’m not talking here about extremes. I’m thinking about the majority of us who are lucky enough that our lives haven’t gone off the rails. I’m referring to those of us who haven’t fallen victim to intractable addictions or severe psychological disorders.
Nonetheless I am talking about you, if you have suffered stress, possibly overwhelming stress, that put you at risk of falling apart.
While the impact of stress is unique to the individual, there are many common factors, and over the years I’ve observed two typical patterns.
The invincible self-denier type
This may be you if you are highly committed to your work or role. Your identity and your life are closely intertwined with what you do. You do a good job always.
It probably suits you that you’re too busy to reflect or worry, or notice niggling concerns or regrets.
But something suffers – perhaps it’s sleep, your blood pressure or your relationships. And you’re left with no buffer against life’s inevitable mishaps. Running on pure adrenalin, if you trip, you will come to grief. Probably someone close to you worries about you.
Over time as pressure builds or you are simply worn down, you are at greater risk of collapse. A glass of wine with dinner eventually becomes a bottle. Or occasional flashes of anger or tears become perpetual simmering rage or weepiness.
The catalyst for falling apart could be something big or small – conflict or the loss of a contract at work, or a family member falling ill. When self-denial is significant, collapse can be dramatic. You may experience a severe panic attack that you think is a heart attack and you wind up in the emergency room. Or you end up so fatigued, on edge or zombie-like that you have a car accident.
Somewhat less dramatically, you may simply wake one morning unable to drag yourself out of bed, and hopefully you make it to your GP or a counsellor instead.
The soldiering-on type
I imagine you know somebody who fits the ‘type’ described above. But if you’re reading this article, chances are self-awareness (rather than self-denial) is more your style, and you will better relate to the following description.
I’ll run with a workplace version here, but this pattern of stress build-up could equally apply to a relationship or even an illness, that little by little wears you down and undermines your confidence.
The workplace scenario is staggeringly common. It is insidious in that it can creep up on anyone, and in fact, this brand of stress often fells the most confident and competent of us.
You have a strong work ethic and take pride in your work. Because you are reliable and get results, you are asked to sit on this task force and to contribute to that project. You are offered this opportunity, or are appointed to act in that senior role.
In any workplace that is under resourced, lacking positive leadership and/or dysfunctional, things inevitably go bad. But it’s like the proverbial frog in the pot of water slowly edging towards boiling point. The temperature increases gradually so the frog doesn’t notice it burning. It doesn’t leap out.
You soldier on in the face of mounting pressure, unrealistic expectations and a crazy workload. Sadly, as you begin to fall, the stress impairs your perspective. Instead of questioning your circumstances, you question your own capacity to cope.
“What’s wrong with me, why aren’t I coping?” you wonder, instead of seeing that you are buckling, as anyone would, under the sheer weight of what’s going on at work (or in your relationship, or with your illness).
How NOT to fall apart
You are lucky if something breaks your fall – perhaps a concerned and supportive colleague or loved-one who insistently says, “enough is enough!” Or you get severe flu or your back gives out and forces a reality check.
No doubt you know others (perhaps you yourself) who were not so lucky at one point: who suffered burnout; developed depression; or experienced deterioration of their physical or mental health, or home life.
But there is another way. And maybe you have witnessed it in someone like Annabel.
Annabel, in that brave moment, turned her situation around – her problems were by no means suddenly solved, but things became clearer. Instead of continuing to pedal hard and get nowhere, she stopped to survey her path, her efforts and her obstacles.
With anguish and fatigue she saw that things were not sustainable the way they were. The others of us in the meeting meekly offered comfort and ideas, but she herself began to plot a way forward. She planned to:
- suspend one project
- do the bare minimum on another
- take a few days off to catch her breath
Yes it would set her back, yes it would come at a cost, but it would allow her to keep going. It would stop her from falling apart.
She adeptly manoeuvred herself off a definite course to collapse.
It is no mean feat to stop what you’re doing when stress and adrenaline are driving you. It probably means facing up to the mess around you, seeing the damage, feeling the pain. But if you can find the courage to do it, you can begin to recover.
Check your stress risk regularly (to avert collapse)
Stress isn’t always a bad thing. But to continue to tolerate it without looking after yourself is dangerous. Check your level of stress risk by answering the following questions:
- Do you get healthy sleep most nights (eight hours, without pills, wine or your phone)?
- How do you feel physically?
- How do you feel about yourself at present?
- What about nutrition and exercise?
- How much do you use unhealthy stimulants (e.g. coffee) and online distractions (e.g. social media)?
- How’s your health?
- How’s your mood?
- How’s your alcohol consumption?
- How are your relationships?
- How in control of things do you feel right now?
- What if things continue this way next week? Next month? Next year?
- How would those who are close to you answer each of these questions about you?
Keep an eye on these questions. Be brave and honest and responsive – take steps, even small ones, to make positive changes. Talk to a friend or colleague, see your GP and get help when you need and deserve it.
We all fall at times but you don’t have to fall apart.