My days start early and are full of activity, whether it's working, getting my four kids to and from where they need to be, or squeezing in daily chores and errands. Most of the time, I like it that way. I prefer to be on the go instead of sitting at home with nothing to do, but it has gotten to the point where I find it hard to remember how to really relax.
I know I'm not alone. When I ask moms at school, "How are things?" the answer I typically get is, "You know, busy as ever!" Life can be really stressful when you're trying to juggle commitments to family, friends and work. Often, the commitment to yourself takes a backseat—but does it always have to be this way?
Yes, a lot of us have a lot going on. Sometimes I'm embarrassed by my inability to balance downtime for myself and work time for everyone else around me. It goes without saying that I'm busy juggling four young children, yet, there are people in my life (and probably yours, too) who seem equally busy and continue taking on more and more even though they seem to have reached their limit long ago. They aren't afraid to share the constant and suffocating stresses in their daily lives; some appear to wear their busyness as a badge of honor, constantly talking about how frazzled and stressed out they are.
The Harvard Business Review did a number of studies of the perceived business of Americans and in each one, the busier someone appeared to be, the higher their perceived social status. It seems that somewhere along the way, being busy took on a new meaning: It's not that you can't manage your time well or that you have a lot going on, but rather that you must be really important because your time is in such high demand.
Lack of downtime leaves me feeling depleted, both physically and mentally. Plus, let's face it: Life is meant to be enjoyed! I don't want to look back 20 years from now when my kids are grown and wish I would have spent less time vacuuming and more time playing with them. I also don't want to look back and wonder what happened to the goals and dreams I was passionate about but had to set aside because I poured everything into everyone else. To avoid those feelings of regret, I'm proactively taking baby steps to become less frantic and more present now so that I can enjoy (or at least calmly manage) the craziness that surrounds me. Are you ready to do the same?
Implications of Not Taking Downtime
In addition to making you feel like you're constantly being pulled in 10 different directions at once—believe me, I've been there—there are also physical and mental health issues that can arise from no downtime.
Prolonged periods of too much stress affects your hormones, increasing the level of cortisol—also known as the "stress hormone"—and decreasing the level of serotonin and dopamine in your body. These hormonal changes have been linked to depression in some people. Increased levels of cortisol can also affect your appetite, potentially leading to weight gain. Constant stress can also take a toll on your heart. Whether the stress is coming from work, family life, financial issues or other places, providing no outlet for those negative feelings can increase your risk of a heart attack.
Taking a time-out now and then, whether it's a quick nap or a moment of meditation, gives your brain a chance to refresh and replenish. It improves productivity, creativity, increases your attention span and improves memory. I often remark to my kids that I had a great memory before I had them, but now it's basically turned to mush. Committing to turning off the brain and really, truly relaxing every so often can help your brain to get back on track for the next hurdle. A relaxed state increases blood flow to the brain and shifts brain waves from a beta (alert) to alpha (relaxed) rhythm. This state helps decrease anxiety, stress and worry in the body.
Getting Comfortable with Relaxing
Knowing that prolonged periods of stress with no relief isn't good for your health, how do you get comfortable with taking downtime? Why is it so difficult to give ourselves permission to relax?
Personally, I have trouble adding one more thing to a to-do list that's already overwhelming most days, even if that thing is just me time. It sounds crazy but carving out time for me sometimes adds to the stress. When you're being pulled in so many directions already, prioritizing yourself feels unnecessary at best and selfish at worst. I try to remind myself, though, that even though it's hard to find the time, after I'm done, I always feel like it was time well-spent. I've also discovered that I don't need to find two hours in a day to check out a yoga class across town. Even five to 10 minutes of quiet time meditating, reading or writing in a journal is enough to give me a chance to breathe and focus for the rest of the day. I also use one of these short "breaks" before bedtime to clear my mind from the hustle and bustle of the day.
Take a look at the tasks you have on your plate today. Can every single thing on that list really not wait? Are there any tasks you can delegate to others in order to free up small amounts of time for yourself? There is always going to be one more load of laundry to do or one more volunteer sign-up sheet, but sometimes it's okay to decide to put yourself first.
If you feel like it's important to stay too busy because of others' perceptions, ask yourself why. Wouldn't you rather people see you as a friend who is present and can take time to listen, or a patient parent who will spontaneously play dress-up or bake a batch of cookies with the kids? Even though it's not always possible to stop what you're doing and take time for more low-key activities, make that effort every now and then to keep yourself grounded and present in your life. Those around me don't envy my busyness—most of the time, they probably think I'm a crazy lady who just takes on too much.
How to Spend Your Me-Time Moments
Although the amount of time you have to spend on yourself varies depending on life's circumstances, sometimes it’s just about making the most of it. It's possible to spread quick relaxation "moments" throughout your day even if you don’t have large amounts of time all at once. Commit to spending a few minutes on one of these relaxation techniques and see what kind of difference it makes on your overall happiness.
At the end of my life, I don't want people to remember me as "the one who was always so busy." It's more important that I'm remembered as "the one who took time for myself and others."
Do you feel guilty spending time relaxing? How do you overcome those negative feelings?
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