Managing post stress emotions
October 22, 2016 10:03 AM   Subscribe

Things are finally better at work, but I think I'm finally letting myself have the meltdown I should have had before. How do I keep it from impacting my work and life? Strategies, tips?

I was in a work environment that was going through a lot of growing pains. There have been a lot of reorganizations in the past two years. For most of the previous year, I was the only engineer in a department that made a lot of big promises. I was also new to most of the technologies that we made big promises in, which meant that I could not effectively negotiate deadlines with the people who had made the promises. So I had to accept them, even if I didn't feel like I could do it. I made it work and shipped solutions on time, but at the cost of my nights and weekends. It was very stressful, because I was agreeing to do something I felt unqualified to do. It was ultimately confidence building, as well as being an energizing learning experience. I feel a lot more passionate about my field than I previously did. I also did a lot of work in terms of helping staff up the team, interviewing candidates, etc, as well as spending time on initiatives to improve documentation and onboarding process, socializing with other departments and increasing my skills with the technologies we use. As a result, I'm significantly more senior than I was a year ago, and the department is in a much better place than it was. I'm now the lead developer on a new team on a project I really enjoy, with the resources to accomplish our goals, and we recently restructured in a way that means that we have a leader with the expertise to help us better negotiate deadlines. During this time, I made myself have "work life balance", which in practice meant I made myself go to most social events I was invited to, exercised daily, have date night with my partner, and went to night classes for my hobbies. I've taken several short trips during the year with friends. It was also stressful trying to maintain this balance, because it meant I couldn't just relax after work; I was also planning how I would do the next thing.

So, things are better. I have shorter hours. I guess because things are better, and I feel safe, I'm starting to break down. I'm a mess. I cry randomly, I'm irritable, I'm excited and bubbly one minute and the next I'm thinking about how awesome it would be to sleep forever. I don't want to talk to people, most of the time, and struggle to pay attention in conversations where the other person talks for longer than thirty seconds. I forget names constantly, which is something I used to be good at. I go on extended rants and get frustrated and give up in the middle because it's all stuff I've said before that even I'm tired of hearing. I'm getting weirdly paranoid that people dislike me, despite having no evidence for it. I'm having a hard time getting up and going to work in the morning. I'm also having difficulty filtering myself in front of people, even coworkers.

Anyway, I feel like I've worked hard to get to where I am, and I don't want to lose what I've gotten through saying or doing something stupid, flaking out on responsibilities, etc. But I also don't know how to get my emotions under control and take better care of myself. I have a therapist, who listens, and keeps telling me to meditate. So, I will be meditating. I don't have vacation time left, but I have some free weekends that I will keep free. What else can I, should I do?
posted by sockomatic to Health & Fitness (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
first, congratulations. it sounds like you did really well.

second, when i was in a similar position, i found another job. you're more qualified now, so you can aim higher and won't "lose" what you've gained. the new employer was way less exploitative.

it felt great to walk out of that place.
posted by andrewcooke at 10:07 AM on October 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been where you are. What you are experiencing is kind of like the letdown effect, where after a long period of stress finally lets up, your body gets sick because your immune system finally takes a break. It sounds like in this case, your brain needs a break. You need to get back your joie de vivre. Ceaselessly throwing yourself at exercise and hobbies and hangout time isn't necessarily the best way of going about doing that. I would recommend picking up a copy of The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt and reading the essay "Quitting Guilt."

The one thing I'm not seeing here is you taking time off to just be, like a staycation where you just do whatever you want to do and practice total self-care; or a vacation that's not with friends, but is just you or is just you and your partner; or vowing to do nothing work-related after hours for a week; or going out and doing something that doesn't require much human interaction, like a movie or like thrift-store shopping or like working on your hobby solo. Whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, you need that sort of space to recharge, and you're not getting it.

I see that you are out of vacation time, but you can get the space you need in small ways through the end of the year. Take time to curl up and read something you've wanted to read for a while. If you don't have anything like that, take time to walk through a bookstore and pick up something. Hunker down at home and work on hobbies. Work on your living space—is it comfortable? Are things where you want them? Do you have all the things you need to do what you want to do in your own space? Take walks, or just hang out in your yard if you have one. If you don't have one, go to a park. I'm not sure how you're exercising, but if you've been going to a gym or you've been on a treadmill at home, try going outside. If you live in a house and can control your yard space, set up a bird feeder where you can watch the birds come and go. If you don't have or can't have pets, volunteer to hang out with some at a shelter. Don't go to post about it on social media; go because hanging out with cuddly fluffy animals is relaxing. Get a video game, if you have a computer or a game system, and just lose yourself in it for a while. Not every hour has to be "productive." Oh, and listen to music! Find a series on Netflix and watch the hell out of it!

And yeah, on the other hand, set limits on social media, if that's part of your life. I have to kick myself off of Facebook after a while, and friends of mine do the same, because it can be just an endless, depressing stream of people you vaguely know who want you to believe their lives are more exciting than yours or who don't share your politics or whatever. For me, Twitter and Instagram are much more positive spaces, but even those, I have to have limits or I sometimes don't do anything but scroll for an entire evening or weekend day.

The other thing is, you need to let the pressure off of yourself. You don't always have to be making the most of the available time. It's completely OK to have entire months where you don't accomplish anything "productive" outside of work. You have put a ton of effort into making your work life better; you have to let up on yourself outside of that for a while. Even if you're not sick, spoon theory applies. As a living human being, you only have so much energy—so many spoons—to spend on things every day. Your workplace is less stressful now because you shaped it to be that way, but that still took an intense effort, and recovering from that takes time. You have to relax, even if that means boundary-setting.

Also, if you're in the northern hemisphere, the days are getting shorter. Get a light box, and start using it in the morning. Take a vitamin D supplement. Get some fluffy things for your office or living space. Start proactively doing things to help you get through the chillier months. Some of what you describe sounds like me last year, and I had to take vitamin D supplements for like six months to even get into a low-normal range. Go to the doctor and just get a blood panel—see if your vitamin D is low or if there's anything else that could be making you feel imbalanced.

I hope you can make the space in your life you need to feel better!
posted by limeonaire at 11:07 AM on October 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

Take care of yourself in every way possible. Get plenty of sleep. Eat good food. Exercise. Meditate. Let the feelings happen and know that they won't last forever.
posted by bunderful at 11:53 AM on October 22, 2016

I agree with everything limeonaire said, but I specifically want to draw attention to Go to the doctor and just get a blood panel. For me, an iron deficiency crept in over time and made me feel exhausted all the time, physically and mentally. I'm a heavily menstruating lady, so YMMobviouslyV, but there could be something else going on - low Vitamin D, or B12, or whatever. When your body feels icky for some reason, it's hard to feel good emotionally and mentally too.

All the other advice for self-care and just letting yourself have time to be instead of always doing is good too. But if there's something that could easily be fixed by taking some supplements, it'd be awesome to get started on that first.

Good luck! And congrats for doing an awesome job with such a stressful situation at work.
posted by bananacabana at 12:06 PM on October 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Perhaps less hanging out and hobbies and more doing nothing where nothing can include meditation, walks and reading a book but not playing on the internet. Whilst generally considered to be beneficial it is all stuff that is scheduled and have to do. So less things you have to do would probably be good.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:45 PM on October 22, 2016

I felt, and have been feeling, exactly that same way after completing 3 years of finishing my degree while working FT at a job that ranged from very busy to downright grueling. Even though I learned a ton, enjoyed my classes very much, performed well and came up with at least one legitimately brilliant idea, the last 8 months or so were easily among the most stressful I have ever been through. (And I definitely was terrible at self-care during that time. I ate like shit, slept like shit, and didn't exercise worth a damn.)

Then, as of late August, I was done! My division at work re-orged and the new arrangement alleviated my murderous workload to one where I had to actually look for more things to do, I had no homework to do anymore, I had all the free time I wanted...and I felt like shit. Everything you're having trouble with, I've been experiencing the same thing.

I think it's a physiological reaction to such a sudden change. It seems like it should be a relief to have all those burdens lightened, and it is, but at the same time, it feels like all the sense of accomplishment went away too. Now what to do with all that time?

I've been trying to a) give myself a break because it's a big adjustment, b) take up activities that let me be in the moment (taking walks, and I downloaded the "Headspace" app), and generally just do things that aren't commitments per se. Like, don't make plans, just say "On Saturday I will do whatever I feel like." It sounds like your "work-life balance" was more like work-work balance, since you were doing a lot of emotional labor and relationship-building after your job, which is good, but it came at the expense of your YOU time. So it sounds to me like you need some good solid YOU time where it's just about you, and nobody is making any demands on you.

If you feel Iike you don't have enough to keep you busy for an entire day of YOU time, then just make it a few hours or a half day. Think of it as being similar to cooling down from a race--you don't just *stop* on a dime from an all-out effort, you give yourself a minute or two to reduce your pace until you're comfortable. Reduce your commitments--several trips with friends, night classes and date night are a lot. You could cut a couple trips and maybe not take a night class, and use that time to relax instead. Or, to view it another way, put that "you night" and "you weekends" on the calendar in their place.
posted by Autumnheart at 4:20 PM on October 22, 2016

All of the problems you're having are also symptoms of sleep deprivation. Did you have a chance to make up your sleep debt after things settled down? Are you sleeping well now, or has ongoing stress disrupted your sleep?
posted by metasarah at 11:36 AM on October 24, 2016

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