I put it off for weeks, but I am finally sitting in the waiting room of the clinic, filling out one of those forms. In go the details, the medical history, the current medication. Then we get to the pain area. Head, Neck, shoulders, back, I circle them all. I tilt my head to the side and feel the heavy dragging ache that I’ve been carrying for a couple of days. It’s definitely time for a massage.
I have been in somewhat of a slump.
I am tired, I am filled with lethargy, I am struggling to enjoy things that I usually get pleasure from. I want to be in bed, or asleep, all of the time. It’s not as bad as it has been, or could be. It’s just a general feeling of being slow, of having weights attached to your brain that make everything heavy. And that’s not just an expression, which is how I end up sitting in the waiting room at the clinic. The crushing headaches. I get into the massage room and I don’t even have to take off my clothes before the masseuse puts one hand on my clavicle and said “Hmmmm, yes. Your clavicle is a little higher, and your shoulder…it’s uneven.” My inner tension had misaligned my physical body! She then spent the next 45 minutes tugging and manipulating my reluctant muscles in order to correct it. She sent me home with some exercises to do, and the awareness that bending over a computer might be turning me into Quasimodo.
But I don’t just blame my computer – whilst it might account for some of the back tension, the other symptoms are partly my fault. I haven’t been feeling well because I haven’t been doing the thing that I find the hardest – relaxing. And it’s not just me! Apparently, we are all suffering an exhaustion epidemic. As Louise Carpenter says in her enlightening piece for the Guardian, “The Exhaustion Epidemic”**:
“Only recently, a survey commissioned by Legal & General found that 42 per cent of the 5,000 people asked said that lack of sleep was their biggest health concern, followed by 34 per cent worrying about low-level, general fatigue. More than a quarter said they were stressed and another quarter admitted to depression. It was concluded that working long hours combined with not seeing enough of friends and family is about to threaten our health. These statistics confirmed those produced less than three weeks earlier by the Chartered Management Institute, whose ‘Quality of Working Life’ report showed that more than half of us experience feelings of constant tiredness at work and even more of us suffer from insomnia.”
It’s all down to our inability to relax. Studies have shown that even though we know we need to change our pace of life, we don’t, and are only prompted to change by a break-down. I know from my own experience and the experience of others around me that have suffered mental or physical problems as a result of constant stress. I’m part of a group of twenty-somethings who have been brought up to constantly push forward: we pushed ourselves at school, we pushed ourselves at university or into a job, we push ourselves to pursue careers, and we push ourselves to maintain a lively social circle that we think is appropriate. We are constantly pushing towards the social security achieved by the generation before us, but also pushing towards the individual, passion-lead ideal life that we are encouraged to pursue. It’s a lot to achieve, and when we don’t achieve these things, we feel we are failing. When we strive for them relentlessly, we burn out. Or, in my case, my mental health problems get worse.
So how can you build relaxation into your life whilst living in a society that fetishizes workaholics? I’m no expert, but here are some ideas:
Know your limits
My limits are a lot lower than most other peoples. This is partly due to my mental health, partly due to my personality, but whatever it is the limit of time before I need to recharge and relax is lower. But just because I need it more often, doesn’t mean I need it more than anyone else. I have friends who work incredibly high powered jobs where they leave the house a six and don’t get home until ten in the evening. I have friends with small children who keep them awake all hours of the day and night. Their limits are higher, they can go longer without relaxing, but if they don’t then they will still feel consequences, just like everyone else. So work out what your limit is. I work full time and that takes a big chunk of my energy. Consequently, I have to be very protective of my outside of work hours. I have to be strict about socialising; I generally only socialise with a larger group of people once a week. I can’t do more than that, because whilst I find it enjoyable, I don’t find it relaxing. Which sort of leads me to my next point.
Know where you get your energy from
I have a job that involves me standing in front of large groups of often rowdy school children and entertaining them, and I love that. I love the adrenalin that comes from performance. I love to hang out with friends and organise parties and events. I love all of these things, but I am still an introvert. What does that mean? It means that whilst I love these things, they don’t give me energy – they take energy from me. This means that at the end of a working day, a day talking to people and presenting to children, going out with my friends will not relax me. I might enjoy it, but it won’t give me energy. I need to go home and not talk to anyone for a couple of hours. Extroverts are often the opposite. For some extroverts, the best thing after a long day at work is a drink out with some friends. They unwind and relax and are re-energised by social situations. Being an extrovert and an introvert is not binary or static. My husband is an extrovert, but he also draws energy from time alone. I’m an introvert, but a dance class with lots of people will recharge me. It’s just about working out what recharges you. Which leads me to…
Work out what recharges you and when
Different things relax us at different times. It is helpful not just to know what relaxes you, but at what times those things will be most relaxing to you. I often find writing this blog relaxing, but there are sometimes when I don’t even have the energy to do that. Rather than forcing myself to write and maybe draining more of my energy, it’s better for me if I do the things that I know will relax me according to my energy levels. For instance, earlier today I got back into bed. I had incredibly low-energy, stressed, and felt basically awful. After 45 minutes, I felt better – more relaxed. Well enough to get out of bed and start to work on my blog. Now I feel even more relaxed. I suggest working from the bottom up: What relaxes you when you are at the lowest ebb of your energy and so frazzled you can barely think? For me, it’s time with my partner, a neck massage, and a long shower. What is it for you?
When we don’t give time to our relaxation, then other areas of our lives suffer. I have seen this happen in the last few weeks in my life. I have been so worried about work and I haven’t been relaxing, but rather than making productive at work, my work has suffered. I’ve been too tired for things, I’ve found concentrating hard, and activities more draining than they usually are. Turns out, constantly worrying about things doesn’t make them better, it just makes you less effective. So I have been focusing on making a sustained effort to do the things that relax me. Reading books. (Not just buying them and taking photos of them on Instagram!) Watching TV shows with my partner. Making pom poms. Bullet journalling. Face masks. Cooking. Hanging out with friends. Getting a massage, even if it is delivered by a woman whose unflinching claws make me wince and give me bruises. (Actual. Blue. Bruises).
Lastly, I need to allow myself to do these things without feeling bad or feeling like a failure. Sometimes, by relaxing I feel like I am somehow not taking my work or my responsibilities or my worries seriously. That I am somehow betraying the people who rely on me by relaxing and letting those things fly from my mind. But I am not, and neither are you. We all have a duty to the people we love to stay healthy, and true health is only achieved by balance. Because I’ve seen the pointy end of a lifestyle without relaxation, and I’m here to tell you, it is not worth the price.
So let’s do the hard thing and take a deep breath… and relax.