mental health

Pumping the Breaks

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

~Douglas Adams

Mention the word “vacation” and everyone sits back and begins to think of their perfect retreat. Some people picture tropical beaches, complete with an iced beverage and glittering white sands. For others, it means a mountain trail to a quiet lake, roaring waterfall, or a rocky overlook. Maybe it translates to days running around an amusement park, standing in line for the newest roller coasters (or waiting for your phone to let you know you’re clear to enter Galaxy’s Edge). And a break can even end up as something as simple as sitting on a porch or deck, enjoying your view of choice. That’s the EXPECTED reaction to the word.

But for some people? It’s anything but.

Ask some of us what “vacation” means, and we shake, hyperventilate, and break out in hives. Take a break from work? Are you serious? Turn off the phone, step away from email, and pretend there aren’t any responsibilities? Pretty sure that only occurs in movies – and it usually doesn’t end well when it DOES happen. What if something critical happens and you miss it? Maybe someone will see your Out of Office reply and decide you’re lazy or unmotivated. (A dedicated worker would snap to respond at any moment of the day or night – accepting work on vacation) And what if you’re somewhere with NO internet signal? (They exist – I found pockets of them) The chances for a lack of work skyrocket. The anxiety spirals set in, and you run screaming from the suggestion of a vacation – almost as if someone suggest you spend a week in a torture chamber.

Why? Programming, what else? Way too many of us spend years working in careers where “vacation” ends up a taboo subject. Sure, you have vacation days or hours as part of your benefits package. But the reality is Management DOESN’T want you to use them. (Paying you for NOT working? It’s not something they’re fond of) That’s why you see that disapproving expression when you submit your Time Off request. Sometimes you get the bonus of a sigh – as if you’re asking for a promotion to Owner of the Company. And some places make you jump through elaborate hoops to get that time off. You may need to submit your request MONTHS ahead of time. In other places, you have to find someone to cover your shift – even AFTER you’ve followed the other rules. And you may even have to compete with more senior employees for time; if someone else decides they want a week off? You’re out of luck.

The system is designed to KEEP you working.

And (as a hard-working employee) that’s what you do. It’s not like you get many hours off, anyway. (At least, I usually didn’t) Then you grit your teeth when Management stands up in meetings, talking about the importance of self-care. And when you finally get a precious vacation here and there? You take phone calls from work. Or you walk back in (because you know better than to go too far from home). Your brain learns that you’re not supposed to do anything EXCEPT work. Until your anxiety starts screaming any time you’re NOT working. It’s a sadistic system, and it’s rampant in the careers out there.

The worst part? I STILL fight with this concept. And I’M my boss now! I call the shots and have the right to take a vacation whenever I want. But when my husband and I started discussing plans for a break, that familiar anxiety was waiting for me. I didn’t feel right leaving everything behind. It got to the point he made me PROMISE not to work while we were away. No checking (or answering) email. No new writing. No phone calls. I was to RELAX and turn my brain off. (Such a novel concept)

I felt like an outright criminal. An entire week without focusing on my job? Seven days spent away from my computer? My brain braced for lectures, frowns, disapproving glares. None of them came, of course. And around the third day, I realized how STUPID that system is, and how much damage it did to my mental health.

I lost SO MUCH enjoyment on vacations in the past, constantly feeling chained to my phone and needing to check in with my job. Whenever I found a moment of tranquility or joy, that stupid piece of technology would break in and ruin everything. But this past week? That never happened – because I refused to let it. So I got the chance to laugh, NAP, and reset my system. You know – the things you’re SUPPOSED to do on a vacation. Making that promise was the best thing I’ve ever done.

And the world didn’t end!

If a client feels I’m lazy for taking a much-needed vacation? I don’t want to work with them. But someone that wants to work with me will respect my time off. That’s the way the working world SHOULD function. If people want us to thrive, they need to allow us time away to unplug and regenerate. Sitting over a laptop in a panic attack – even on a beach – isn’t HEALTHY! Why don’t corporations understand that? People DIE every year from stress and overwork. And it’s due to the system they’ve created.

Yeah, I’ve broken free from the insanity at this point. But not everyone can do the same. If you’re not self-employed, you need to feel empowered to stand up for your vacation time. (I can’t advocate breaking the rules they’ve set; you don’t want to get fired) When you punch out of that clock? TURN OFF YOUR PHONE! You’re NOT available any more. They have plenty of other employees they can contact for an answer. And while you’re at it? Unplug your brain. Your work worries will wait for you (don’t worry about that). When you sit back at your desk, you can pick them up again. But for the time you’ve carved out? You don’t need them.

It’s WELL past the time that we took back our vacation time. We are NOT robots with endless programming. And management structures need to understand that. Preferably before they land their top employees in a hospital – or a grave.

mental health

Brain 180

Collection of blue arts and crafts supplies
Photo by Shopify Partners from Burst

Overcoming the need to constantly achieve perfection is difficult. Remembering to take a time out and allow the brain and body to reset is crucial to our general well-being (and sanity – though that’s overrated). I’m the first to admit that I continue to struggle with both on a daily basis. However, I’ve found an outlet that’s set me on the right path:

Creativity.

Now, I could cheat and say that my speculative fiction fills that creative outlet, but that’s an outright lie. Writing is writing, no matter how your dress it up. Sure, I have complete creative freedom with my own writing (though, to be honest, I have pretty loose reins with most of my freelance work). It’s still work, though. I demand nothing short of perfection from myself. Watching me edit makes a deranged serial killer look like an angel. I’m ruthless. I hack and slash with the best horror movie monster. Even the writing process is terrifying; no character is safe. (Not even main characters – no one gets my sympathy!)

No, when I say you need a creative outlet to escape to, I mean something outside of your wheelhouse. Something you maybe aren’t good at but enjoy. (Don’t torture yourself – that’s bad for your anxiety and depression) Something that engages the other half of your brain, taking pressure off your overworked synapses. An art form that sparks your imagination and gets you excited in a different way than your usual goals.

A break that isn’t a break.

Sneaky, right? You’re still actively participating in SOMETHING, but you’re not driving yourself crazy with work. You step away from assignments and a need for perfection (that’s a cardinal rule, by the way), and you just PLAY. It’s not a complete reset, which appeals to those of us who struggle with the need to STOP, but it gives your brain breathing room.

The kicker is finding something creative you WON’T stress over. You have to relinquish the reins of perfection and be willing to create a mess. Remember, this isn’t something you’re pursuing as a goal. This isn’t a lifelong dream. This is just a creative outlet. Something that catches your interest. A 180 from your usual interests and work pursuits. Something you’re willing to complete suck at. (No one else has to see the results except you)

I have a couple of creative retreats. I have a scrapbook I’m slowly moving my old pictures into. Is it Pinterest worthy? Not by a long shot. Am I proud of it? Of course I am! I love all of the papers, stickers, and various scissors. Looking through the old pictures relaxes my brain, flares old memories, and drops my shoulders back where they belong.

I sketch and draw. Are any of the pictures going to sell on Etsy? Not even for a penny. But I like them. The movement of the pencils across the page does something to my body. I feel my blood pressure come down, synapses quiet, and my lips curve into a smile. The sound blends with the music I listen, soothing the thoughts in my head until there’s nothing troubling me.

I’m trying to learn to crochet. I have the chain down, but I haven’t figured out any further. The feeling of the yarn under my fingers is soothing, even if the hook and I aren’t sympatico. (Not to mention that fending off cats from the yarn gets annoying after a while) And, while it sounds crazy, knowing that I’m struggling with something my sister is a sheer genius at (she even creates her own patterns!) calms my brain. I SUCK at something! It’s humbling.

Simple, uncomplicated, and WORTH it!

When everything starts overwhelming me, I go to my creative outlets and resettle. When I feel like I can’t take time out (guilt’s a terrible thing, by the way), doing SOMETHING eases the feeling. It’s a break, don’t get me wrong, but it’s an active break. My brain still gets the chance to reset some of the circuit breakers, and I get to wake up some of the breakers that were asleep. It’s a win-win, of sorts. And I’m creating SOMETHING! I’m using my hands to create something of my own that has meaning to me.

Find a creative outlet that works for you. You won’t regret it. And your brain will thank you.

mental health

STOP!

“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.”

~ Maya Angelou

Have you ever reached a point where you opened your eyes and had absolutely no clue where you were or what you were doing? I’m not suggesting you lost consciousness, just that your brain completely blanked out and abandoned you. Not a fun experience, am I right? Especially because those moments like to come when you LEAST need them (exams, interviews, traffic lights). Your brilliant intelligence leaves you looking and feeling like a complete and utter moron. All because of one simple fact:

You pushed yourself too far.

If you have anxiety, you know there’s a limit to what your brain can handle. Trip that line, and the system goes down. Then you’re left struggling to put two syllables together. Same with depression: drop too far down the hole, and standing goes out the door. We KNOW this! Yet we still let ourselves get worked up to the edge, and we even trip right off the cliff, over and over again. And the payment is a system shut-down while the brain tries to reboot and make sense of the gibberish we’ve created.

Even without the struggle of a mental illness, you can overload your thought processes and crash your brain. Everyone has a threshold of tolerance, and so many of us push and work right up against that line. We set unrealistic deadlines, impossible standards of perfection, and bars so high that even Godzilla couldn’t reach them (if you know of a taller monster, feel free to sub their name). Exhaustion depletes our brains of resources, frazzles our nerves, and the body has no choice but to shut down.

Why?! Why do we do this?!

We’re clearly intelligent, and yet we forget the importance of STOPPING and TAKING A BREAK! Even a five minute breather to let the system cool down! We deprive our more cells of a chance to settle and reset before returning to the grind. We know the importance of that break, of stopping to reassess and think, but we ignore it and plow forward like an idiot. Then we wonder why our brain abandons us. It’s smart, that’s why! It’s trying to preserve function! Instead of letting us completely burn out and collapse, it’s enforcing the break we skipped!

This is probably a good time to mention this is one of those posts where you should do as I say and not as I do. I’m TERRIBLE at remembering to take a break. I panic at the very thought of stopping to breathe. If I pause…you know, I’m not really sure there’s logic applied to my thought process. I think if I pause, the entire world will collapse into chaos. So I work late. I throw myself into assignments until I’m cross-eyed and mind-blurry (a great frame of mind for working, I might add). Then I have to redo everything, taking MORE time.

And my brain goes into self-preservation mode.

I’m still learning the importance of taking my fingers off the keyboard and walking away. Closing my eyes, breathing, and letting my poor synapses collapse into overworked puddles. Which is hysterical because the times I DO take those breaks, I function better. My work flows better, and I FEEL better.

You’d think I’d have the system down by now. But that drive for perfection, the anxiety to get things done still raise their heads. It’s difficult to overcome. And so I get those blank moments of, “Where the hell am I?” Eventually, I might learn my lesson. I’m hopeful.