Stress wraps its invisible fingers around our insides and begins to squeeze. We don’t notice it at first. It starts out subtly, slithering and silent. It coats our stomachs and wraps around our brains, until one day, we realize our food isn’t digesting properly, our heads ache more often, and we aren’t sleeping well.
Like any kind of weight, stress comes on a spectrum of mild to obese. Mild stress can result in small frustrations, avoidance in relationships, and poor habits and decision-making. Major stress can lead to mid-life crises, abrupt changes in life like divorce and quitting a job, and an inability to rest and relax. Crippling stress leads to constant illness, severe depression, and a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. And people who learn to live with stress begin to think of it as normal and natural.
Stress is a natural condition for moments, for short durations, during a college final or a work deadline; it is not natural as a perpetual state of living. Being overwhelmed is directly equitable to being mentally overweight or obese.
Mental obesity can also show up in the form of boredom. Humans have a need to be challenged, to be mentally stimulated. A lack of these leads to itchiness, frustration, and dissatisfaction. Education and engagement are crucial to mental fitness and human interactions.
As a therapist, I frequently see clients who are over-burdened by their jobs, or bored with their lives. They struggle with finding any hope in their future, dwelling firmly in the fact that they aren’t happy with their lives or stations now. And when someone is dissatisfied in their jobs, when their talents aren’t being utilized, when they are unemployed, when they feel their boss is constantly breathing down their neck, when they are putting in 80 hours a week and can’t get ahead… when these things happen, humans have health problems and unhealthy eating and exercise habits, they have dissatisfying relationships, they struggle with depression, and they lack purpose and inner peace.
Humans also need to regularly achieve. They need lists to check things off of. The perfect remedy to being bored is to get up and do something; the perfect remedy to being overwhelmed is to choosing one task at a time and completing it.
Another form of mental obesity is extreme debt. We live beyond our means, make big purchases, and charge up credit cards, and then work too much in a constant state of stress while living from paycheck to paycheck and barely managing to pay off the interest payments.
Being mentally fit requires mental discipline, vocationally, financially, and academically.
Somewhere along the line, it was bred into me that there is only one way to be successful. I threw myself into high school, completing difficult homework assignments, sometimes loving the knowledge I was acquiring, and sometimes being so overwhelmed by it that I couldn’t retain the algebra equations and history dates and chemical compositions. In college, I worked full time and would take between 15 and 21 credit hours, and I saw that impossible learning regimen as necessary for adulthood, while sacrificing my emotional, physical, and spiritual health. As a young social worker with a masters degree, I grew accustomed to doing ten hours of therapy for low levels of pay, going home physically and mentally drained each night, and dreading work the next day. Over time, I lost sight of why I got into social into the first place, and began to feel like a cog in a machine that was being aged prematurely.
Around this time, I was receiving steady paychecks, and writing out regular bills, for health insurance, for cable and internet, for electricity and gasoline, for food, for car payments, for medical insurance, for automobile insurance, for cell phone, for tithing, for student loan debts, for college education funds for my sons, and, most overwhelmingly, for mortgage. I would sit down and budget each month and become overwhelmed by the massive amounts of responsibility. Later, after my divorce, this only mounted when child support payments were placed on the top. And I couldn’t even mentally factor in the amounts going toward income taxes, property taxes, state taxes, and federal withholdings. I remember that old pit in the center of my stomach.
I was so constantly overwhelmed by the stress of my job and the responsibilities of my financial debts that I had little opportunity to find things to achieve. I had forgotten the wonderful feeling of finishing a book, the interest I could throw into a research project, or the simple sensation of setting a goal, working on it, and ultimately achieving it. Accompanied by depression, a lack of purpose, and physical weight, the mental stress compounded, feeling like it would overwhelm me and shorten my lifespan.
My mental weight took me much longer to shed than the others. After losing my physical weight, coming out of the closet, grieving my past, discovering my spiritual health, and forming true friendships, I could start to examine my actual stress levels. It was a few more years of maxed out credit cards and working 60 hour weeks before I realized that I was stressed, overwhelmed, and consistently complaining about my financial responsibilities.
My mental health came through exhausting areas:
- Making regular time for myself to learn, read, research, and write.
- Taking a careful look at my financial situation and preparing a careful plan to relieve financial debt and plan for the future.
- Remembering what I love about my professional field, finding a way to make myself happy in my field, and finding a way to make enough money to support myself while doing what I love.
I began organizing my schedule differently. I quit my job and became self-employed, and I began diversifying my services. I advertised. I started with lower rates and then began to charge more. I did regular self-inventory to make sure I was happy along the way. I began limiting my expenses and putting my extra money toward debt. In a year, I was able to pay off one of the credit cards, then my car, then the other cards. I was able to establish a savings account. I began actively learning, and writing about what I learned. I began setting and achieving goals that would have felt impossible years before.
Now, I love what I do. I engage myself intellectually. I challenge and push myself. I take time off when needed, and I don’t let myself get bored. I recognize when I’m overwhelmed and I nurture myself into health again. I budget and plan things out financially. I recognize my needs, and I take care of myself. And, most importantly, I recognize that stress, exhaustion, and boredom are not my natural state; fulfillment, accomplishment, and satisfaction are.
(This concludes my writings on obesity. Previous blogs on emotional, physical, and spiritual obesity were previously submitted).