When I was young, I once asked my dad why they made cars that would go faster than the speed limit. It seemed nonsense to me that anyone would make something with an ability that it was illegal to use.
My dad gave me a good answer. Firstly, he said, it was sometimes useful to be able to go a little faster than the speed limit for a short time to avoid an accident. Secondly, he explained how using anything at its maximum capacity for long periods almost always led to it wearing out much faster than if it were only occasionally pushed to its limit.
The second part of his answer has always stayed with me, and I often see evidence of its wisdom and accuracy. The food mixer I use when baking a cake has a button to make it go extra fast, but the instructions are very clear that it should only be pressed for a few seconds at a time, or the motor will burn out. When buying a boiler to heat my house, I have always been advised to choose one that can heat more rooms than I have. On a larger scale, the nuclear submarines in films and books frequently seem to use something known as “emergency flank” which gives them an extra burst of speed at a critical moment but then requires the reactor to be completely replaced.
Using something at its maximum capacity for too long will usually wear it out fast and can lead to serious damage. We can see it in the machines and devices that we use in everyday life, but are we giving the same consideration to our minds and mental wellbeing?
One of the few benefits of growing older that I have found is a greater understanding of how my mind works and what is likely to cause me problems. It is a long way from offsetting a body that now creaks and groans at the slightest exertion, but it is better than nothing!
I learnt quite early on that I was much more likely to feel down if I was tired, a situation that is usually easy to rectify at least to some degree. More recently, I have been reflecting on how my mind copes with stress and what sort of situations and pressures are likely to give me the most problems.
Some of the time, my moments of high stress come from a single cause. These are the big events that happen to all of us at one time or another, when a good deal of stress is to be expected – a close friend or family member being very unwell or a major life event like a new job or moving house. We all know that these times will be stressful and need to find ways to look after ourselves through them by taking time to relax as much as we can and having a plan to follow where possible.
But in my experience, I get into a high-stress state much more often as a result of several different things all happening at once. Each thing on its own would be relatively easy to manage, but when combined they become much more difficult to handle. These times can also creep upon us, as more and more pressures are added over time without us realising their combined impact until we near breaking point. It is like a central heating system having more and more radiators added until it simply runs out of capacity.
You see, our minds are like other machines in that they cannot run at maximum capacity for very long without starting to have problems. In a machine, what tends to happen is the weakest components wear out or just break. When our minds become overloaded, we may start to break down. The exact impact on us will vary according to individual, but they will not be good for us and are likely to need some time for recovery.
So what can we do to avoid this kind of burnout? I think the key is awareness of how many pressures we are under at any one time and knowing what we can reasonably cope with. The analogy that I find most helpful is to think of juggling several balls and having to keep them all in the air at the same time. Even an expert juggler cannot cope with an infinite number of balls and will find it progressively harder the more balls they need to keep going at once.
The simplest way to make your juggling act easier is to reduce the number of balls in the air. Can any of the things which are causing you stress be finished in some way, or at least postponed for a while? To do this, you must first be aware of what those balls are – many of us juggle a large number of balls all the time without even realising it, and some of these, such as ongoing caring responsibilities, will be non-negotiable (though perhaps a break could be arranged?).
So if you feel your stress levels rising, try to take a step back to look at what is going on before it all becomes too much. In a relatively calm moment, make a list of the things which are causing you concern, and identify which of these you have some control over. Can you resolve any of them quickly, or defer a few until later? Can you make a plan for some so that while you will still have to keep that ball in the air, you at least know in advance when and where you will have to catch it and throw it up again?
If this sounds like I have stress management down to a fine art, I really do not! The worst aspect of a high-stress time for me is when my mind feels “messy”. In these times I cannot focus on any of the balls I have in the air without becoming distracted by another. The way out is always to reduce the number of balls, but I know that it is not always easy to achieve.
In general, I often feel that we spend too much time planning and talking about doing things rather than just getting on and getting them done. But in the case of stress overload, I think a few moments of introspection can pay huge dividends. You do not want to suffer burnout of your mental health, even if it is only temporary. Only you know how much pressure you can cope with and for how long, but nothing, machine or mind, can run at maximum capacity forever. Something has to give.
A little awareness of what your mind is dealing with can go a very long way in making it work better for longer, and keeping you well.
Mark Palmer is a freelance writer specialising in mental health, autism and neurodiversity. He can be contacted through his website www.markpalmerwriter.co.uk, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on LinkedIn and on twitter @MarkPWriter.