Quick decompression because who has time to do it right.
December 3, 2019 11:22 AM   Subscribe

How would you decompress when it feels like what you need to properly decompress is time and the ability to talk about the stressful aspects of your life, and you have neither the time, nor people to really share it with? Details below the jump.

Please tell me how you would decompress, quickly, if you
A) Had a high pressure job with high security clearance wherein you cannot discuss the unique frustrations and issues with anyone outside the workplace
B) Have a workplace that's somehow both sterile and competitive and does a really great job of othering single women of a certain age (I suspect there's a cultural aspect to this that I cannot fully explain)
C) Have a terrible commute wherein work plus commute is more than 13-14 hours a day, meaning I'm mentally and physically exhausted pretty much all the time.
D) Work is imploding in various directions for various reasons, and would continue to be deeply terrible for the foreseeable future. This has, in effect, bled into my very limited non-work time where I'm constantly thinking/worrying/panicking about work stuff.
(It pays well, in case you were wondering why I persist with the job, and that's important for me right now. So toxic as it well may be, quitting or switching isn't an option for me. Yet.)
How do I quickly decompress/distract myself once the work stuff is over for the day, pitiful as the remaining hours might be? How do I stop worrying/panicking about every workplace issue? How do I substitute a good mentor/listener (I live alone, no pets, long distance family doesn't get it, partner thinks I'm too hard on myself and is endlessly patient but I'm beginning to feel terribly guilty)?
I'm already in therapy but thanks to my workplace and other life stuff, I've attended fewer sessions than I'd have liked and I'm struggling with the issues highlighted in my previous ask. I haven't considered anti-anxiety medication yet. I have wildly fluctuating blood pressure that my current GP is hesitant about putting me on medication for as on date, because I'm still quite young (32, F).
I'd be grateful for any and all advice, for one or more of the issues highlighted above. My very tired brain and body thank you in advance.
posted by Nieshka to Work & Money (22 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Get at least a night or three in a hotel near work? That'll literally buy you non-sleeping time to decompress without undone chores nagging at you.

In the absence of talking to actual people, writing things out helps sometimes. Morning pages, or before sleep, depending on which works better for you.

But you're not in your twenties anymore, and you need time to live your life. 14 hours of work+commute doesn't leave time for anything but hygiene. Something has to give, and you don't want it to be your body.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:52 AM on December 3, 2019 [27 favorites]

How do I substitute a good mentor/listener...?

This is what I use therapy for. Are the reasons in your last question why you haven't been having as many therapy sessions as you'd like? If so, would you consider trying someone else? Do you have any friends who have therapists that they like? Can your partner do some legwork to find some therapists for you to try?

When I was in a terrible situation at work, combined with an extremely high-stress family situation (there was a risk of my parents losing their retirement savings), I started getting a tight feeling in my chest that turned out to be a panic attack. My doctor put me on an as-needed anti-anxiety medicine which basically made me fall asleep, but stopped the panic attack cold.

I eventually quit the job during this period of stress, but what I wish I had done was find a way to take FMLA leave so that I could look after my own mental health. Situational mental health issues are just as serious and in need of healing as as chronic mental health issues.
posted by homodachi at 11:56 AM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

I love the idea of getting a hotel by work. Not only will that cut back your commute, but if you can disconnect from the home-half for a bit, hire a sitter or have parents help for a week, you can use the hotel hot tub and pool to relax after work.

In your situation I would talk to my manager and explain your need for a vacation for a week in the next two months to do your best work, so long as you think that wouldn't put a target on your head.
posted by bbqturtle at 11:59 AM on December 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

Ideas: Can you move to have a better commute? Can you take anti-anxiety meds? Are you getting your basic needs met: healthy food, enough sleep, and physical activity a few days a week?
posted by amaire at 12:00 PM on December 3, 2019

Vigorous exercise (assuming your blood pressure doesn't contraindicate it). It will give you half an hour of not thinking about work, will help with sleep, and is generally cathartic. You're giving your body something to do about all the stress hormones your job is pumping into you. Yes, you are tired, and yes, it will suck to start. Just put on the exercise clothes and go to the gym/sidewalk and do what you can.

Refocus your worrying to what you're going to do when you're ready to quit. Plan when and how to quit. Is there a monetary goal you're trying to meet? Mental health symptom that's a hard boundary? Want new job to have a particular characteristic? Start mentally disconnecting from this job.
posted by momus_window at 12:34 PM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

A) When I find myself writing out a frustrated response in an email during a stressful time I often get out of my seat and walk around (outside if possible) and not look at the phone for 15 minutes and it kind of quickly recalibrates me.
B) Sounds like the only way to change this is to change jobs. I've been at companies with this "othering" culture and it added way more misery to my daily life than I realized.
C) I drive about 2+ hours a day and actually found listening to very long podcasts makes my frustrations of the day melt and I enjoy a good story. For example, My Favorite Murder is about 1.5 hrs per episode, very chatty, interesting true crime conversations, and kinda reels me back from "I had a bad day at work" when listening to these types of things.
D) Oh man do I know how that is... I guess some small things to do - don't check emails over the weekend or after a certain time at night, do a brisk nightly / morning walk to distract you from it OR talk out your frustrations in your head. Watch a good Netflix series to distract your mind. Distraction distraction distraction to get through the short period. I think you need to consider if this is the life you want in the long term though. Doesn't sounds ideal at all.
posted by hillabeans at 12:39 PM on December 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

How do you use your lengthy commute time? Storytelling podcasts are great for checking out mentally and redirecting the day's energy, and they work whether you're driving or using transit. If you're solo in your car, turn it up to 11 and sing! Similarly, in the morning you could listen to guided meditations, educational podcasts, comedy, etc. Anything that uses a different part of your brain will make good bookends to your workday, so you don't carry the work worries in with you when you finally get home.

It sounds like some of the items on your list are intractable, so getting aggressive about treating your anxiety is probably the best thing you can do. Get more consistent with therapy and open your mind to anxiety meds - personally, I find having xanax in my pocket is all I need to take the edge off; I rarely ever actually take even half of one.

But you might have some wiggle room with other items on your list. I'd get a new GP - leaving BP issues untreated at any age seems nuts to me. I'd also be looking for other opportunities. Even if you don't want to leave your current position, it is empowering to know what your options are on any given day.
posted by headnsouth at 12:40 PM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

This all sounds very stressful and you have my sympathies! Folks above have already pointed out that it's not a sustainable situation long term. Here's how I would get some short-term relief, if I had a bunch of money to throw at this:

-Outsource everything that can be outsourced. Order meals, get laundry delivery and housekeeping services.
-Have an easy, pleasurable routine at home.

How do I quickly decompress/distract myself once the work stuff is over for the day, pitiful as the remaining hours might be?

Let's say that when you get home, you have somewhere between 60 minutes to two hours to do everything before you need to crash again.

1. Unless you are officially paid to be on call, turn off email notifications on your phone as soon as you leave the office. You have money and food prep takes time, so let's outsource that by ordering food during your commute home. Try to time it so it will arrive about 15 minutes after you get in.
2. (10-20 minutes) As soon as you arrive, CHANGE into PJs or loungewear, wash your face, and do something small and soothing, like making a cup of tea, watering the plants or putting on some nice hand lotion. Make sure your lighting is soft and relaxing. Like Mr. Rogers getting into his cardigan, give your body a physical sign that you have transitioned into at home time. As you change, think about taking work off of yourself. Your work anxiety and worries are external and got stuck to your suit or skirt or whatever. Taking them off, you are taking off all of your work anxieties (To avoid making your mornings suck by feeling like you are putting ON all your work anxieties, you can instead envision that they got stuck to your dirty clothes but haven't adhered to your fresh ones! When you get dressed, you put on armor!)
3. (30-60) Food is here! Give your delivery person a really nice tip. If you have a dishwasher, put the food in real dishes. Light a candle. Take your time and enjoy every bite. Try to avoid too much alcohol, but a small glass of wine is nice. Stay off your phone! If you are not with your partner, read a book, listen to a podcast, or watch a TV episode.
4. (15-30) As soon as you are done, brush your teeth/do the rest of your evening bed-time routine.
5. (15-30) Before bed, wind down with one more brief nice NONSCREEN thing, depending on your time, inclination and energy levels. Could be almost anything: sex, read something in print, game of cards or solitaire with an actual card deck, do a tarot spread, journal, knit, plan your fantasy football bracket, whatever. Just try to keep it to a finite chunk of time so you don't stay up too late at it.
6. Bedtime. As you try to sleep, you might (definitely) get intrusive work thoughts. Keep replaying in your mind: "the next twelve hours are mine. I don't have to answer to anyone right now. I will sink into my wonderful soft bed." Imagine a force-field around your bed, expanding bigger and bigger until it encompasses your whole block. No one can get in through this shield!

A couple-three times a week, switch it up by ordering your food a little later and when you get home, do some exercise first thing after changing. I would have a high-energy mini dance party, picking 3 or 4 upbeat or angry songs and flail around. Shorten the before-bed activity accordingly.

How do I stop worrying/panicking about every workplace issue?

-At work, block out your time and tell yourself kindly that each work worry must wait its turn. Work worry B comes up while you are wrestling with work issue A? Sorry B, your turn isn't till 2PM.
-When you are not at work, tell the worry "you are not my problem." Don't add "right now" - this problem literally doesn't exist for you until it gets its turn tomorrow at 9:30 or whenever.

How do I substitute a good mentor/listener (I live alone, no pets, long distance family doesn't get it, partner thinks I'm too hard on myself and is endlessly patient but I'm beginning to feel terribly guilty)?

-Any former colleagues who might make a good mentor? Reach out on LinkedIn or with a friendly email.
-Any friends who might also hate their job, and might be up for a rousing Sunday afternoon work-vent coffee meetup?
-You could join an online forums to vent and get support. The Captain Awkward forums have a place for this.
-When I've had a really hard time with life and couldn't share with anyone for various reasons, I have literally recorded myself with a phone app, just letting it all spill out. If you drive, you could do this on your commute. You can be as raw as you want.

Remind yourself this is painful, but temporary. Good luck!
posted by prewar lemonade at 1:31 PM on December 3, 2019 [30 favorites]

Oh man, I can relate so hard. I feel like a hypocrite giving answers here because I certainly dont have it under control, but my coping mechanisms so far are:

* talking to myself in the shower and car. I have very enthusiastic conversations with myself where i say all the things i wish I could say but cant to other people in the safe solitary cocoon of my morning shower and car during my commute.
* lunch time walks. Just 10 minutes in the fresh air really does help.
* don't feel guilty about take out / delivery. Feeding ourselves manually is such a pain in the butt and takes more time than it's worth
* have an escape life plan. Figure out what your life would look like, realistically, if you just quit. Just knowing I could just rage quit if I needed to, that there really is an escape hatch, helps me get through a lot of crap.
* get your BP sorted out! I've been dealing with wonky BP for various reasons since I was younger than you, and the medication itself in terms of side effects, etc has had zero effect on my like. On the other hand I absolutely can tell in how my anxiety behaves when i've got it under control vs when I let it slide. Find a new GP if you need to (I know, I know, easier said that done!!
posted by cgg at 1:56 PM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

This really sounds like a one-way trip to Burnout Town. It sounds like you are asking the equivalent of "I'm standing in a burning house, and I have made some plans to one day leave the burning house, but it's getting real hot in here and I need to know how I can stay in the burning house longer."

I've been there. The one concrete piece of advice I can give you is that when you leave work, train yourself not to think about work. As soon as you start thinking about it, notice it, say to yourself firmly "I'm not thinking about work," and very pointedly think about something else. Believe it or not, you can do it, at least to some degree. if someone asks you about work (who's not your therapist), redirect: "I don't want to talk about work. How are your kitties doing?" or the like.

Now that I work somewhere less toxic, this still helps me not worry about work when I'm not there. It's been a good skill to have. It took some practice but eventually it'll be habit.
posted by fiercecupcake at 2:03 PM on December 3, 2019

Agree with many of the above suggestions, and also: is your commute by car? Can you crank up some loud music that you can sing along with and get some of your feelings out?
posted by capricorn at 4:07 PM on December 3, 2019

Is your commute by car or by public transit? If you’re in the car, talk to yourself about what’s going on. Or even record voice memos on your phone (and feel free to delete them occasionally without reviewing them). It’s kinda like journaling, in that you have to put your words in a more thoughtful, linear order than just letting things swirl around, but you don’t need to use your hands or eyes.
posted by itesser at 5:12 PM on December 3, 2019

Just to clarify, commute is by public transit. Also, I don't live in the US, should that matter.
Definitely considering the hotel stay option, though I know it's a temporary fix. Thanks, and would be grateful for more input as well, should someone have any.
posted by Nieshka at 7:38 PM on December 3, 2019

I just quit a job I really liked because I was unable (legal & ethical requirements) to discuss the extremely stressful parts outside of one colleague who was rarely available. I'm spending today writing very strongly worded recommendations for the replacement on the project to get more resources and different processes to prevent this happening again.

A) plan a 6-12 month exit. Give yourself an hour or two every weekend to job search. Just knowing there was an end in sight made surviving much much more bearable.

B) Sleep, sleep, sleep. I was so super stressed, sleep was a struggle but the days I could sleep were much better. Warm shower, long walk, hot milk, no electronic devices, whatever works for you. The Calm app really helped a lot for me.

C) Find a mindless offline app you can play immediately in the aftermath of an upsetting work situation. Stardew Valley, 2046 and Solitaire were my go to apps this time round. Anything with a fixed soothing time limit so you can just puzzle through something soothing immediately and distract your brain from the stressful situation for 5 minutes helps disrupt the cycle.

D) I had a hands-on embroidery project I did that really helped because it was physical and soothing, rather than cerebral and keyboard. I also avoided all media that had anything to do with the stressful topic I was studying and switched to being super into cats and food outside of work time.

E) Get a reality check from people in the same level. They do not have to be in the same field, but who are doing work of the same complexity. It was so helpful to hear from people doing work that was in the same area but not the same project, and to discuss in broad terms what was being expected, (deadlines, workload etc) and the workplace culture, and get a reality check so I knew I wasn't being a wilting flower or lazy. When you can't talk about your specifics, it's hard not to listen to the darker pessimistic voices and spiral down at work.

F) Journaling helped a lot. I saved detailed rants as private notes and had a very tight friends group that I shared general mood updates with when I needed reminders and reality checks.

G) Get great headphones and customise your tracks. I have had "white/brown noise", "angry screaming music", "happy joyful", "rage rage edm", etc. soundtracks. There is something immensely soothing about listening to very angry feminist music while you are being forced to walk around in heels uncomfortably. Play whatever makes you feel like you - 90s pop, 50s soul, whatever - throughout the day.

H) Part of my work was finding ways people coped in very stressful situations (the irony!) and hard exercise was named often as a good method. I have not personally tried this :-) but I can say days I take my dog for a long walk are way better.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:18 PM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

Just seconding that you should move treating your high blood pressure to the top of your list. If your bp is wildly fluctuating, this WILL impact your anxiety levels, and in fact could be causing some/most of the anxiety in the first place.

Have you had medical tests (thyroid, etc) to investigate why your pressure might be high for someone your age? Please speak to your doctor about treating/medicating the high hb. Some bp meds, like beta blockers, can definitely improve both blood pressure and anxiety.

Good luck. :)
posted by fourpotatoes at 2:09 AM on December 4, 2019

Lots of great ideas so far. Update your resume as a love letter to your professional self. Is there a professional association for people in your niche? If so, it might be be good to read up on how people deal/avert burnout. For my profession that was looking at conference offerings, message boards, l and reading Trauma Stewardship.

Also, look at free resources as a supplement to your strategy: does your health insurance offer tele-coaching? Is there an Employee Assistance Program that can be an hour to vent and externalize the emotional experience of the work without naming names/disclosing sensitive details?

Best wishes as you navigate this.
posted by childofTethys at 3:49 AM on December 4, 2019

Could you hire a private driver/cab/Uber for your commute? Being alone-ish in a car instead of on a noisy bus or train might give you a little downtime as you transition from home to work and work to home.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:10 AM on December 4, 2019

You may not be able to share any details about your work/life, but you can still listen to others in similar albeit non-TS/SCI (or your location's equiv) situations. Check out conversations about workplace drama, coping with bully bosses and impossible deadlines, overcoming weird/territorial coworkers, etc. on Quora or subreddits like r/CareerGuidance, r/AskReddit, and r/AskWomenOver30. There are also a surprising number of subreddits focused on specific trades and military branches -- these might be helpful too.

Also, exercise. When you're stressed and anxious, your brain pumps out all kinds of stress hormones. These hormones serve a short-term purpose; they help us outrun whatever is chasing us down. Here's the crazy thing -- our responsive physical activity not only gets us out of danger but it actually mops up the cortisol/adrenaline soup in our bloodstream. Stress --> OMG RUN --> feel better.

In times of extended stress, our biology starts to fail us: the brain still perceives danger and continues to make stress hormones. Unfortunately, if we're staring down a crappy boss and not a hungry lion, they don't really serve a useful purpose. The good news is that we can hack our biology, to an extent, by incorporating a few intense workouts into our week.

Obviously clear this with a doctor first, but if you get the green light, you could try swimming or HIIT sessions. HIIT is particularly great for busy people because most of us can squeeze a 10 or 15 minute workout somewhere in our day. (Don't let the duration fool you -- a 10 minute HIIT workout can be utterly exhausting.) You'll probably feel a bit better a few hours afterwards, and if you're consistent, you'll probably notice a marked reduction in anxiety after a few weeks.

You may want to look into, or ask a therapist, about CBT/DBT techniques for managing anxiety. They can help a lot with repetitive thinking, and developing a kind of detached awareness/interest when drama swirls around you. Think of it like mental yoga that you can practice all day long!

Over the counter supplements like magnesium and taurine can help with anxiety, and generally do not interfere with security clearances. Your mileage may vary, so clear this with any appropriate authorities/physicians before starting.

Lastly, one thing that helps with the symptoms of this line of work is taking back small bits of control where you can. Buy yourself some really luxurious teas or hot chocolates and drink them at work, when possible. Keep an especially yummy candle in your purse and shamelessly huff that thing on your commute. Splurge on a few audiobooks and don't censor yourself -- check out a cheesy romance novel, a classic you've always wanted to read, or an intensely-deep non-fiction title like Sapiens. The main thing is to "get lost" in something completely unrelated to your current daily life, and to do that wandering on a regular basis.
posted by muirne81 at 11:28 AM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

For therapy: have you considered an online service like talkspace, which might fit in more easily? Or does your therapist do video/phone appointments? I understand that it's not quite as good as in-person, but it's not nothing.
posted by mosst at 12:06 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Prioritise healthy food - that’ll help with energy levels, sleep, overall health. I can have really heavy periods at work and they normally start in the 2nd week of Jan and go on through Easter. So it transpired that if I don’t spend a couple of days after Xmas cooking batches of healthyish food, portioning it out and filling my freezer I know I will put on a lot of weight. I also make sure I spend a couple of hrs at the weekend prepping snack bags of fruit and veg and basic components of dinner so I am more likely to eat well and not snack on chocolate.

Also, schedule a massage at the weekend, if you can afford it every week or so. Quite apart from the clear physical benefits associated with loosening tight muscles there are clear psychological benefits to being touched and to allowing yourself that hr to relax. I can literally feel the crazy ebb away.

I personally prefer to sleep in my own bed and by the time you have packed, checked in and out etc single nights in a hotel near work would do nothing for me. But things that cheer me up no end are small luxuries like nice smelling toiletries, nice hand cream or lipstick.

I have also been known to hide in the bathroom at work for a few minutes if there are limited good options of places to retreat to. Sometimes you just need not to be approached for a few mins and anywhere will do.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:05 PM on December 4, 2019

I asked a question like this a while back. While I didn't have the same security restrictions, I was in a setting where I couldn't vent to others.

This answer made me laugh and then it was useful (though I didn't actually take off all my clothes):
Honestly, the last time I was in your shoes, I locked myself in the large single-stall bathroom of a nearly-deserted restaurant, made sure to not have my phone on me, took off all my clothes, and just sat there. It was such. a. relief. to know for certain that no one knew where I was, no one could ask anything of me, no one could comment on anything I was doing. I must have spent at least an hour in that bathroom, sitting naked on the floor on top of my pants, doing nothing but luxuriating in the silence. It was so incredibly restorative.
posted by quadrilaterals at 7:40 AM on December 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

Hey, I am a 31/F with a high pressure job with a security clearance (though based in the US), and boy do I ever relate to this question. I'm too young to be a mentor but happy to be a sympathetic ear, though I understand if being part of a different government makes that problematic.

One thing that helps me is cultivating at least one very honest colleague-friendship with someone in an adjacent part of my organization. This is good because they understand the concept of need-to-know, so I never feel a need to share anything sensitive. But they still have a general understanding of the work culture, the office politics, the health insurance, and maybe know good coffee shops or spas near your workplace, etc. It is just so nice to have someone nearby to go to and be like, "OMG the construction noise across the street is driving me BANANAS!!" And they can be like, "I hadn't noticed because of our mutual colleague's HACKING COUGH!!!" For me these people have always exclusively been female and similar-ish in age, though the age thing is less important. I'm sure if you are this stressed out by your job, likely the organization itself is dysfunctional so despite the initial awkwardness of striking up a conversation, you will be "pushing on an open door" when it comes to sharing frustrations.

The other thing that jumps out to me from your question is the length of the commute. If you are deeply committed to this job, then I would begin investigating ASAP relocating home nearer to work. Also, explore the physical area around your work - are there walking paths, salons, cute cafes? Sometimes popping out to get my eyebrows threaded on my lunch break and having a nice chat with the salon owner goes a long way to snapping me out of a negative thought loop.

The other thing I keep in mind is that each issue I manage has other smart, hardworking people also focused on it, and if I need to tap out (e.g. call in sick, or even quit) I am replaceable in the long term. And in a larger sense, I work for a government in a democracy. My job is a small part of a collective system. The problems I face are the persistent problems of humanity - the ones society and private enterprise has yet to/may never solve. And if the collective democratic republic system's policy flops despite my honest and consistent effort, that represents a collective failure, not a personal one, even if I might be the last person where the buck stops.

Hang in there, fellow government gal. In the immortal words of Leslie Knope, "There's nothing we can't do if we work hard, never sleep, and shirk all other responsibilities in our lives." :P
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 10:03 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

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