Take back control - burnout and binge recovery
As a therapist who works with recovery from harmful habits, the story below is the kind of thing I'm hearing this January.
"It was a shock returning to work after the Christmas break. I failed at the first hurdle. In my head, I had an easy schedule. The plan was to stop working so hard, meditate, exercise, read, play with my cat, connect with the people I love, and enjoy life.
"But, typically, I did not want to stop work when the time came. I habitually convinced myself it was OK to carry on.
"As I bargained with myself for time, I heard the voice in my head say: 'You ARE enjoying yourself; it's OK to keep going!'
"But, I felt stress in my body; a mania took over. I get the same feeling when I have chocolate, wine, shop online, or binge-watch Netflix. It's all like an addiction.
"The part of me that wants to keep working will not stop until I’m drained and feeling guilty of not having done enough, by 9pm. I’m left with the feeling that I’ve robbed myself of something valuable, again. So, I eat chocolate, drink wine, shop online, and watch Netflix!'"
As we contemplate coming out of Covid-19 isolation, this has been the consistent experience of so many of us for the better part of two years.
But, we mostly want a happy life, with a fit body and good relationships. In January, we usually take an inventory of our lives and decide to cut out things that we consider harmful. This rarely lasts, but this year, we are perhaps more exhausted than normal, maybe even burnt out, and we still need comfort, so it may be even harder to maintain.
Six ways to take back control
1. Explore your why
Identify what matters to you. Find out why you want to stop the unhealthy behaviour. This may help you choose to behave differently.
2. Reflect on your patterns around the unhealthy behaviour
- When do you do it?
- Is it when you finish work?
- Late at night?
- When you are alone?
- When you are around a certain person, or in a certain situation?
- How long have you had these habits?
- What other habits have you formed around this?
3. Ask what is happening just before acting out
To start making changes to our habits, we need to understand why they are there, and what purpose they serve. There is often discomfort behind the binge behaviour. Typically, it's a response to a feeling that we don’t know what else to do with, or are afraid of.
- Are you tired or frustrated because you’ve tried to do too much?
- Do you try to squash feeling stupid or upset?
- Are you angry when your partner makes snippy remarks, but swallow it for fear of conflict?
- Are you miserable because you haven’t had any good contact with anyone lately?
4. Note any self-criticism
Self-criticism only makes us want to practice the comforting behaviour more. Watch out for thoughts and behaviours like this:
- “It doesn’t matter anyway.”
- “I don’t care!’’
- “Why can't I stop? There must be something wrong with me.”
- Comparing yourself to others.
- Perceiving only negative things about yourself, and feeling not good enough.
- Feeling guilty.
- Focusing on the negative.
- Punishing yourself.
5. Lookout for brainwashing
There’s a huge amount of brainwashing and self-sabotage that happens around binge behaviour.
- “I’ll let myself go now (at Christmas), I can start again in January.”
- “If I don’t carry on, it will be a waste.’’
- “I need this.”
- “I’m enjoying myself.”
All of these are ways we tell ourselves that it’s OK to carry on.
6. Practice responding to your needs in other ways
This is something that can be researched, learned and practised. Ways to respond differently include:
- self-soothing techniques
- asking yourself what you feel, to understand what you require
- staying with emotion or discomfort in the present, with compassion and understanding
Here, I’ve suggested that you explore your values, your discomfort, and your automatic thoughts. As well as this, find other ways to manage your feelings and habits. There are other ways.
Stopping a comfort behaviour is a constant journey of awareness. There isn’t a quick fix or a cure because there is none for the discomfort of being human. Revisiting engagement is where you’ll find relief and change. The more often you come back to what’s important to you, engaging with what you’re doing, how you feel and what you require, the more you’re likely to choose what’s best for you. You'll feel better along the way, too.
This is the continuous human journey for all of us at this time.