the normal response is to fall back to habitual things, to narrow one’s perspective to the most immediate concerns and just try to survive.
As far as I can tell, we’ve been like that pretty much forever – it seems to be a slightly more self-aware version of animal survival instincts.
Which would, of course, explain why we just keep doing it, even when it’s not the best way to deal with a situation. Or in some cases a decent way to deal with something.
I’ve been there often enough to know, and to have a few somewhat usable methods of pushing back so I don’t go from overload to burnout or worse, crash. It’s something I’ve had to learn as part of juggling with narcolepsy spoons – something anyone who lives with a long-term disabling condition has to learn.
It starts with stress, of course. Whether the stress is physical or mental doesn’t really make that much difference, apart from the “fun” extras that physical stress can generate. After enough of it, the constant twitching of fight/flight responses turns into a kind of dull roar of tension that never goes away. Relaxing just doesn’t happen – the poor sod in the situation might be able to push it away for a bit by doing something they like, but then as soon as they stop, the weight of it rolls right back.
And everything is muted. The overloaded one stops enjoying things. There’s just not enough “them” left to spare on happiness, or so it seems. There’s always the next problem to deal with, and the next, and the next…
Someone who’s gone that far down the overload path often can’t tell whether or not the next problem is really a problem, much less how important it is or whether it can be put off for a while. They might be grouchy, or they might just seem lifeless. They’ll avoid activities they’d normally enjoy, right along with activities that they don’t want to do. In more extreme cases, they start cocooning themselves, pulling away from contact with other people a putting up walls to avoid others.
At that level, it’s well past overload and into burnout, and it can take a long time for someone to recover. Weeks, even months. I’ve certainly had times where I’ve been solidly into burnout and took more than 2 weeks of inactivity to reach the point where I started to feel alive again. Happy took longer.
That’s why when I notice the signs I start to pull back on the things that generate excess stress and start to consciously look for things that make me happy. Things that don’t need much energy but make me feel alive. It helps – I might be semi-permanently exhausted (thank you so much, narcolepsy – but I can still take joy in the small things.
If you’re overloaded, do what you can to do the same thing. Pull back from the responsibilities eating you alive, find the little things that give you pleasure. And remember, you’re not the only one that’s always running out of spoons.
That or some S.O.B. stole all the life-spoons and left us with a shortage.