Archive | December, 2012

How to Listen to Your Body

23 Dec

Notice (Photo credit: Squirmelia)

In my online research about burnout, I have run into several articles that counsel “Listen to your body.”

Lucky for me, I know what that means. However, I remember what it was like before I learned HOW to listen to my body. It was supremely annoying to repeatedly hear, “Just listen to your body,” from yet another 95-pound darling yoga chick. Undoubtedly, HER body was saying, “OMG! I am so hot!” while MINE was saying ” . . . . . . .”

Indeed, everyone says it is a good thing, listening to your body, but few offer any meaningful instructions about how to do it. Our culture values the life of the mind more than the care of the body (except for attaining or maintaining sexual attractiveness), so people frequently just get lost in their own ideas about their body. This is not listening. It is the equivalent of lecturing the body in how it should be.  Listening to your body will give you information about what actually IS. It is a lovely reality check for those of us who need that.

So, here I offer one way to decipher all the new age body-speak.  It is not the only way, it is just one way that can work, and work well. Full disclosure: learning how to listen to your body is not a 10-minute project. It takes time, like spending time with a special friend, or with a loved one. The rewards are worth it.

For starters, I learned that, as human beings, we are always moving, thinking, feeling (having an emotional response) and sensing. These four “operations” are always going on simultaneously, as long as we are alive.  While thoughts can be viewed as the language of the mind, the language of the body is sensation.

Take a moment and lie down on the floor. If it is comfortable for you to do so, lie with your legs lengthened out and separated, and with your arms down at your sides. Stay here for just a moment. Your sensations will tell you very soon whether or not this is comfortable.  And, you will almost innately know how to change your position so that you are more comfortable. Perhaps you will bend your knees so that the soles of your feet contact the floor. Perhaps you will leave your legs long, but will cross them at the ankles. Perhaps you will put your hands behind your head. You just listened to your body!  Being able to discern what is comfortable or pleasurable, and what is not, is important.  Equally important is the experience of finding comfort for yourself in this moment. Not only did you listen to your body’s sensations, you responded with intelligent action. This kind of information can eventually keep you out of all kinds of trouble.

Now, begin to simply sense all of the places where you can feel yourself contacting the floor. Through sensing, you can begin to form a mental picture of yourself — your body — as you lie on the floor. You will notice that the places of contact have different shapes, and you can sense differing degrees of pressure, or the firmness of your contact with the floor. Where do you contact the floor most clearly? Most firmly?  Your mental image may begin to take on the characteristics of a pressure gradient map, or a topographical map that shows variations in elevation. It doesn’t matter how you sense it — simply that you begin TO sense it.  You will feel places where your contact with the floor is lighter, and lighter still. And, you will notice some places where you are not in contact with the floor at all. Behind your knees? Behind the back of your neck? Behind your low back? Where else?

All of this is simply information. When you take the time to notice these sensations, you are listening to your body. For some, this begins as a deep and fascinating conversation.  For others, it amounts to nothing more than small talk. However, you can begin to translate some of the mysterious words you have heard all your life, and have them make sense. You can think of “grounding” or “groundedness” as this sensation of contact with the floor. You can take a few minutes each day to simply stop and notice these sensations as you lie on the floor, or sit in a chair, or walk.

You will begin to be able to further interpret these sensations beyond simple pleasure and pain. You will begin to feel gradations in the amount of effort or strain that you feel when you are moving, in action. Through this kind of listening — I would rather call it awareness — you can begin to calibrate these sensations so that you are responding and adapting to these sensations for your own benefit.

Just as you would stop to remove a small pebble lodged in your shoe, you can begin to take better care of yourself. As one experiencing burnout, you may come to realize that you have ignored these sensations for a long time. Many of us have become adept as over-riding thoughts, feelings, and sensations, in service of something else. This course of action, I believe, will inevitably lead to a burnout.

I learned to listen in this way through my practice of the Feldenkrais Method.  In my interpretation, there is nothing “woo woo” about any of this. It is simply paying attention to what you sense, right now. Soon you will also be more aware of your thoughts and emotions, as well as your actions. One recent personal realization is that I have been practicing the Method in order to teach others, but have not been taking full advantage of it for my own personal growth. I am counting on daily Feldenkrais practice to reconnect me to my self, as I recover from burnout.

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‘Tis the season to be burned out

17 Dec
A Christmas tree inside a home.

A Christmas tree inside a home. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For some reason, it has been a tough week to stick with my burnout recovery program. It’s interesting that I say that, because I can point to a couple of real successes. I have stuck to my eating plan and now weigh less than I have weighed at any time since December of 1999. So my nutrition and overall health is good. I have also written at least 750 words every day except one since the beginning of December.  Writing is my touchstone to creativity, and this is a milestone. Having stopped writing completely for about nine months, and having just resumed in November, I am pleased with my return to visits with my muse. I feel like I am writing my way back to health.

But burnout doesn’t go away all at once.  Things are vastly better than they were a month ago, and for that I am grateful.  However, the personal”fuel supply” is slow to come back. An interpersonal challenge regarding a professional matter has sapped my energy and attention since Thanksgiving, and the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut is one of nationally historic proportions. I felt my energy drain away as I turned my thoughts and actions to each of these issues. Simply dealing with daily matters is still an effort. However, I feel some strength returning on the professional front, and I feel the pain of compassion for all of the victims of the tragedy. I will continue to reflect as all of this flows through.

Even without a national tragedy, the holiday season is difficult for many people. I am going to follow good advice and conserve my personal energies as much as possible.  We are doing simpler holiday gifts this year, opting instead for stocking-stuffer fare and a dinner together as a family. I am sticking to my eating plan and will go to my regular exercise classes. I will get on the floor each day and enjoy some Feldenkrais for my own benefit. For now, my own self-care is the key to being able to care for others.

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Anatomy of a Burnout, Part 2

3 Dec
I've Been Known To Burn The Candle At Both End...

I’ve Been Known To Burn The Candle At Both Ends – 21/365 Fire (Photo credit: Jer Kunz)

In the last post, I described the convergence of events that contributed to my burnout. Today, I realized the reason it all seemed so overwhelming.

The problem was that, in my mind, normal tasks that would have been easy, all seemed to jumble together into one, big, THING. Somehow, I eventually was able to take a step back and just take things one day at a time.

On Thanksgiving Day, I hosted a small family dinner. Our upstairs neighbor brought the turkey, I prepared all the sides. During our dinner, the expected arrival of a guest Feldenkrais trainer from Germany occurred as planned.

On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, I spent time with our guest, cleaned up from the holiday, and began to take our equipment from the storage unit to our training venue. Since it was likely that I would miss a day or two of the training because of the trial, I started to delegate some tasks so that everything could proceed smoothly.

The trial began on Monday morning, and ended on Wednesday afternoon. Each day, I kept in touch with my assistants at the training. They were fine. I was back at work at the training on Thursday.

When I write it all out like that, it seems simple. Standing “on the edge,” it felt like everything needed to happen simultaneously.

So here’s my first big tip for dealing with burnout. My schedule became manageable when I broke things down into small pieces, understood a logical sequence, and then just did one thing at a time, in order. I managed to eat well and get enough sleep each night. That self-care, along with staying in the present moment, somehow de-fused my anxiety.

Sometimes, despite my best efforts to keep a sane schedule, things just get crazy. I can plan, but I have to be flexible to allow for the unexpected. Exciting opportunities may come my way, or situations beyond my control may come my way. This time, my resilience only appeared as I reflected in retrospect. Next time, I will just do one thing at a time, until everything is done. And that oxygen mask? I’m keeping it close-by.

What helps you to get through hectic times? Share your experiences here.

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Anatomy of a Burnout, Part 1

1 Dec
Shift from personal learning to co-creative #TP382

Shift from personal learning to co-creative #TP382 (Photo credit: ConnectIrmeli)

What is burnout? I must be a totally modern person, because the first place I went to clarify my terms was — Google, of course.

Burnout (n.):  1. The reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion. 2. Physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.

Both definitions seemed to apply to me: the first, on a metaphorical level; the second described the phenomenon I was experiencing. Others perceive me as an energetic, creative, and positive person. I no longer perceived myself that way. I felt like I was “out of gas.” I was not simply moody. I felt exhausted, cosmically tired, yet wound up. I sensed a strange, low-level, idling pre-panic state of agitation. Given the choices, Fight? Flight? I was done fighting. I wanted to flee, escape, get-me-outta-here!

What was I overusing? What were the origins of the combustion? It is ironic that I found myself in this position. As a teacher of the Feldenkrais Method, I ask my clients exactly these questions. My business is to teach people how to find sustainable ways of using their own bodies, their own thoughts, sensations, feelings, and actions. I was not being a good model for the work I believe in so strongly. I had overused myself.  I saw a long “to do” list that stretched over the coming months, and, for the first time, wondered how the hell I was going to make it to the other side. I felt overwhelmed, unimaginative, resource-less rather than resource-full. Not a happy place.

Three major factors contributed to my most recent experience of burnout. (Yes, I’ve been here before.) I’ll share a happy ending with you now, even though it’s a spoiler — I am doing much better now. But here is what was going on.

1. My partner’s best friend of nearly thirty years was in the end stages of a terminal illness. He was in the role of primary caregiver for over two years, and he needed my emotional support. This person was also my friend, and during his last four months I too was involved in his care, and hospice visits, up until days before his death.

2. I was being sued for my part in an auto accident that happened in February of 2010. The plaintiffs in the suit had not accepted repeated offers of settlement from my insurance company. Despite the fact that 95% of these claims are settled and never go to trial, my case did. From the initial notification that I was being sued, through about eighteen months, it was a constant, nagging, and worrisome distraction. Ultimately, the case went to a jury trial. While I was found at fault in the accident (the facts were never in dispute), the jury found overwhelmingly in my favor. After the plaintiffs pay their lawyers, they will end up with less money than they would have, had they simply settled. The waste of time and energy, the expense, the bad timing, and the blood-sport that is our adversarial civil justice system, all contributed to my feeling frustrated and helpless.

3. We train Feldenkrais teachers in Houston. We have a fantastic training program, with wonderful students. Part of my work involves all of the local arrangements and logistics for the training. Our group comes in for 40 days each year, for four years. They arrive each year, in May, for a three week stay.  Another three weeks in September are followed by two weeks which fall right after Thanksgiving. It is hectic and wonderful, with many details to attend to. The interpersonal relationships are also foundational. In addition to our regular trainers, we host guest trainers from time to time. Each student is undergoing a profound transformational learning process, which is sometimes difficult. I care deeply for everyone involved in our program. There are about 25 students in our training, which means countless verbal and non-verbal interactions just in the course of one training period, or one day, for that matter! I realized that there was a “weight” that came with caring for that many people, and being on-call, in service to them. I also came to realize that this 40-day training, which should occupy about 15% of my time and attention, had actually gobbled up about 40%.

As a bonus; the trial (#2) was scheduled to occur around the time that our next training segment was to occur. As it turned out, I had to do all of the preparations (scheduling, printing, schlepping things from storage to the venue, liaison with accommodations for our trainers) with the idea in mind that I would not be available and on-site for several days.  This was, indeed, what came to pass. The trial and the training occurred just two weeks after our friend died.

You may think that none of this describes anything particularly arduous. Teachers, clergy, caregivers, elite athletes undergo much more of an intrusive and grueling schedule that I have described. What I have learned is that the feeling of burnout was not just because it was a lot of work (I have worked harder at different times during my life). The stress came from the uncertainty of each situation, and from the meaning or interpretation I attached to each. Examples of uncertainty include: When would our friend transfer to hospice? When might his extended family come to visit? When might he die? When will the trial be? How long will it last? What will be the outcome? Which students will attend this segment? What will they need? Examples of meaning and interpretation include: I will not subject myself to this kind of pain at the end of my life. I need to talk to my children about my end-of-life wishes. My partner is losing his best friend: how will I take care of him through this? Relationships and group process in a company or training program can be a bit bumpy from time to time. What does it all mean?

The more these three events began to converge in time and space, the greater my sense of overwhelm. During a state of overwhelm (or even “whelm,”) one’s possible options, resources, and strategies are not clear. I started this blog to create space for myself to figure out how I got into such a bad way, and to bring myself out. From my research, I realize now that I was experiencing a “triple whammy,” a perfect storm where caregiver, personal, and professional burnout all showed up simultaneously.

The short answer to the question, “What did I do about it?” is this: I had to be able to think clearly about how I was spending my time. What would resolve on its own, whether I did anything or not? What tasks could I delegate or delete to make life easier and free up some time so that I didn’t feel so swamped? Then, upon seeing how I spent my time, I needed to think clearly about creating something better.  How DO I want to spend my time? How do I want to feel day to day, concerning my health, my emotions, my thinking? That led me to the most important questions of all: What makes me feel most alive? What activities make me most happy? How can I create more space for THAT?

Tune in for future episodes in our continuing saga. . .

When have you felt overwhelmed? What helped you? How are you doing now? Please leave a comment.

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