Exhausted, stressed and need some coping strategies for hard times
February 20, 2014 12:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm exhausted and burned out from a work project that's been going on for the past six months and won't be done for another 2-4 weeks. A week and a half ago, my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and his prognosis is not good. I need some strategies for dealing with all of this when I already feel like I'm close to the breaking point. Details below.

1. My work. I've been doing litigation support for a trial. It's been tremendously stressful for a lot of reasons: The litigation team is really demands perfect work done in a ridiculously short time farm. My boss for this project is a terrible communicator. The hours I have to work are long and super-inconvenient (evening and weekend shifts mean that I miss out on the only time I have to spend with my husband, late hours mean that I don't have a consistent sleep schedule.). I feel like I have very little time to myself, that most of my non-work hours are spent exercising or doing the laundry or other mundane chores. This has been going on for more than six months now and will continue for at least a few weeks. I'm already burned out and exhausted and was looking forward to some downtime once the case is over. I've been told I can take as much time off as I need, but the team is small and if I take an extended amount of time off before the case is over, it will be extraordinarily difficult for my co-workers, many of whom have helped me a lot through the past months.

2. My dad's illness. My mom is not being super-detailed about this, but I understand from her that the prognosis for him is not good. I don't know what the time frame is for him. I'm starting to make plans to visit in mid-March (mom's suggestion).

I love my parents dearly, but I find interacting with them utterly exhausting. I'm an introvert and need quiet alone time to recharge, and they fundamentally do not get that. There is always enormous pressure for me to interact, not just with them, but with whatever random people they want to spend time with. They live in another state and if I visit, I have to stay with them at their house, or it will be A Thing. And the last thing I want is to create hurt feelings right now.

I feel particularly awful for feeling this way right now. I love my Dad and am devastated that he doesn't have much time left. I know this isn't the sort of thing that can wait until I'm emotionally ready to deal with it, and the only answer is to keep pushing through. It's just that I already feel like I've used up all of my emotional energy for work for the last few months, and am pretty close to falling apart. I'm terrified that I'll do or say something awful because I've just reached my limit of my self-control.

Since I got the news about my dad, I've had trouble sleeping, which of course doesn't help with the exhaustion.

If anyone has felt something similar to this, and has some coping strategies for getting through something like this when you're already stressed out and exhausted, I would greatly appreciate it.
posted by SockISalmon to Human Relations (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Take stock of who you can ask for support. These are the times when you need other people to help you, and there's no shame in asking.

For example, you mention your husband briefly. What is he doing to help you out? Can he pick up a couple of the chores? Can he try to adjust his own work schedule a little bit to be able to spend time with you when you can, if only once in a while? This is all part of the spouse thing, to help each other when times are tough.

When visiting your parents, do you have friends near them who you can visit to have some time away and not feel so stifled?

Do you have anybody you can just talk to about your problems, or simply your day with? This could be anybody, from an old friend, a therapist, or even a member of the clergy.

For that matter, are you religious? I don't mean to suggest that religion will fix your issues, but for spending time quietly reflecting and getting your emotions in order, being in a calm and often beautiful location, and giving yourself permission to spend time in that way, religion can be quite good. Perhaps there is a park or garden near your workplace that you could take advantage of, too, or a museum?

How are you eating? If the strange hours and stress have been causing you to eat poorly, this can really build up. Sacrifice something else (maybe a chore - ask a family member to pick up the slack, pay for laundry service, something) and make room for prioritizing your meals. Get lots of good things inside of you, as well as food that simply gives you pleasure. Try and enjoy some of the mundane things that you would do otherwise, like eating.

As for your worries about your parents, I think they're valid, but also something that you can't predict or assume will actually happen. There might be horrible drama, but there might not. Parental visits with illness can be very different from healthy parental visits. Do your best to put these concerns about saying the wrong thing out of your mind for now, while you wrap up your work. Basically, cross that bridge when you come to it. I know that probably sounds really flippant, but difficult things like this are like that. You won't know what you'll do until you actually have to do it, and you might be surprised at your own strength. Also, can your husband come with you and act as a bit of a social barrier and your support?

So yeah, I guess my coping strategies are: Lean on your friends and community; spend time in a calm and beautiful place; eat well; try to put aside your worry about the future and deal with the present.

I'm sorry this is happening to you and your family.
posted by Mizu at 1:22 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for your troubles. I think it worth addressing this as a short term fix and a long term solution.

Short term

Your project: If you were running a marathon, this would be the point that your muscles seize up, your blisters give you grief and you just want to stop and sit down by the side of the route. The entire project is 7 months, or 30 weeks long. You have done 26 of those weeks already. In one more week, you will be 9/10ths of the way to the finish. The week after that you will be 14/15ths of the way there. Do not lose track of how far you have come. Try not to focus on what you have left - it is a trivial amount compared to what you have done so far. Visualise it as a longish journey you are familiar with. When you are 9/10s of the way and you can see the signposts indicating your destination close by you feel a sense of completion and relief. Try to tap into that when you feel you can't do it.

Your parents: You need a release valve when you are there, which probably needs to be out of the house. Think about what these can be. Book them in to your schedule and do them religiously. That way the things you're talking about, which all have a common theme - pressure, emotional exhaustion, loss of self control - can be managed before you cannot manage them. It is important to you to see your parents but that does not mean you need to spend time with them 24/7. If this makes you feel guilty, remember you need to be in good shape before you can support others. You don't mention your husband - can he not accompany you and provide the support *you* need?

Finally, on sleep: These things will all help you sleep better: diet, hydration, exercise (even a modest 20 minute walk each day), limited or no use of electronic items at home short term, making a clear distinction between home and work: when you cross the threshold at work, make a conscious effort to not think about work at all.

Long term

Your work environment sounds extremely attritional. It also sounds as if it is not going to get better. A solution that involves you taking time off but screwing over your colleagues is not a solution.

It is also impacting on important aspects of your life - your wellbeing, your marriage and your quality of life. It is a your call as to whether the sacrifice is worth it, and it's cheap talk on the internet to blithely tell you to pack it in. I presume the thought has crossed your mind frequently.

I would suggest that what you really, really, lack at the moment is time, space and the energy/means to think through what you want and how you get it. At the moment you are too tired and too busy to do this and so it is a vicious cycle. Take some time off. Decompress. Then devote some time to plan next steps. You need a strategy to dig yourself out of what feels to you like insoluble dilemmas and pressures. You need to pursue this actively, even though it seems like an almighty effort and you would prefer to stick your head under the covers, go to sleep and wish it away. The act of discussing these problems will be extremely beneficial. Done correctly, the process will sort your issues into priority and give you options for dealing with them. It should also give you s set of coping strategies.

Talk through with a therapist, friend, life coach or your husband what *you* want. Then discuss *how* you get there. Challenge yourself to be honest about this, and to not write off ideas as impossible or unsuitable before you explore them. Engage your husband in this - a healthy marriage needs you discuss important issues and choices in your respective lives.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:19 AM on February 20, 2014 [11 favorites]

I'm so sorry about your Dad.

It sounds like this project is wrapping up, so keep that in mind. As a fellow introvert, I say find the pockets in your day where you can hole yourself up and be quiet for a little while. Don't bring your phone or your computer or anything with which someone else can communicate with you and take at least 15 minutes (an hour would be ideal) just decompressing. It can help for the short period of time you have left before this project is done.
posted by xingcat at 6:05 AM on February 20, 2014

I am so sorry you're going through this. It's good that you're going to see your father. If possible, try not to worry about what will happen until you get there; you don't know the whole picture yet and it's better to hear it in person anyway.

As far as taking time off to the disadvantage of your co-workers-- they will understand. As MuffinMan points out, if it's going to founder because of one team member's family illness, it's not a sustainable system long term. It doesn't sound like you are looking at extensive time off over the next few weeks, at any rate. The year before last, I got bad news about my father's health and had this big talk with my boss about all the eventualities. It was reassuring in the sense that taking time off didn't mean losing the job, but I didn't feel I could drop everything either. I was discussing all this with my sister and she said, "We need to have jobs when this is all over." It feels absolutely awful to think about it on that level, but there it is. (Yes, people do give up work to be a caretaker. If you are doing that, though, it's a whole different decision and you'll deal with it when it comes up.)

I really like xincat's advice about taking a little time just for yourself to unwind. Remember to breathe!
posted by BibiRose at 7:15 AM on February 20, 2014

Great answers above.

Additionally -- Does your employer offer EAP coverage through their health insurance, and are you enrolled? EAP is designed for short-term therapy visits to help out with stress, grief, or other such temporary tough times as you seem to be going through. Most small employers don't offer it, though.
posted by tckma at 3:09 PM on February 20, 2014

Thanks to everyone who replied. There are a lot of helpful suggestions for me to process.

A couple of clarifications / additional details:

My husband: he's been very supportive and is always willing to help in any way he can, handling most of the chores, and giving me space when I need it, or running interference with other people when I just can't deal with other people. I didn't write much about it because I didn't want to create a wall of text in the question, and it's not a situation that I think needs to be changed or improved. One of the things that worries me is that I'm already stressed out when I have someone who supports me unconditionally--I'm scared of what will happen when i have to deal with people who can't/won't give me the space I need. He'll be with me when I visit my parents.

Sleep hygiene: I hadn't thought of this, but separation of work and home has gotten very blurred because I work from home when I'm working late. It would be a pretty difficult commute home at 11pm or later, so I think I have 2-4 more weeks before I can keep work and home completely separate.

EAP program: I spoke to one of the administrators of my group, and she mentioned that the firm has an EAP program. I'll check it out and see if I'm eligible and if they have something that looks helpful.
posted by SockISalmon at 7:43 PM on February 20, 2014

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