Ask the Life Coach: Tired but Wired

Barbara teaches school and maintains a private tutoring practice on the side. She has a great life -- one she fills with activity. Unfortunately, this fast pace prevented Barbara from really enjoying herself. 

While she seemed happy to others, she often felt empty inside. 

"I get so busy that life just flies by, and I end up neglecting what's really important -- my own happiness."

Life coach and stress-management expert Cheryl Richardson offers her advice here. 

Slow Down and Savor
Barbara appeared to live a satisfying life, but she wasn't actually engaged in it. She needed to slow down and savor the moment. I started her with a simple exercise: eating one meal a day in silence, with no distractions. This meant no reading, watching television, or talking to anyone. Her only goal was to be mentally present to experience her meal. 

When she got antsy (and I knew she would), she would close her eyes. This would prompt her brain to begin making more alpha waves, the kind associated with the relaxing, in-between state we experience just before falling asleep.

When Barbara showed up for our next call, she reported that the silent meals had proven difficult. "I wouldn't have done it had I not made a promise. I felt bored and uncomfortable, and by the third day, I was ready to quit. But then I realized something interesting: How I eat is a metaphor for how I live my life. I rush through meals so I can get back to work. I don't slow down long enough to enjoy the flavor of life. I'm just not present."

Over the next couple of weeks, Barbara continued with exercises designed to help her gradually make the shift from doing to being. She cut back on her morning practices, took breathing breaks to re-energize her body, and spent more time on leisurely activities like playing with her dog. 

Reduce Stress Levels
While some of these changes helped, it was still quite a challenge for her to be still. During our next coaching call, we discovered why: Adrenal fatigue. "My doctor says that my body's fight-or-flight system has been working overtime for too long and that I need to reduce my stress level as soon as possible," Barbara admitted.

In lay terms, her diagnosis was clear: She was running on fumes. My colleague, Glenn Rothfeld, M.D., medical director of WholeHealth New England, in Arlington, Massachusetts, believes high-achievers who maintain busy schedules, eat lots of sugar, or live on caffeine run the risk of adrenal burnout. 

"I call it 'tired but wired,' " he explains. It was time to take the problem seriously. Otherwise, as Rothfeld warned, a weakened immune system could leave her more susceptible to illness and infection.

She had the classic symptoms of adrenal burnout: mental exhaustion yet an inability to relax; sleep deprivation caused by waking at night with thoughts racing through her head; distraction; and mild depression. I suggested that Barbara view her diagnosis as an invitation to care for herself, and take her doctor's recommendation as a permission slip that said, "It's now time to rest."

Write Yourself a Prescription
To complement the advice Barbara's doctor gave her on supplements to take, I asked her to compile her own prescription of things she needed to promote her healing. Her list contained good examples of what anyone can do to support healthy adrenal function.

  • Stop pushing myself. I need to notice when I feel tired and allow myself to rest, sleeping late in the morning or taking an afternoon nap.
  • Cut back on strenuous exercise for a while to give my body a rest.
  • Put more space in my calendar between appointments rather than book clients back-to-back, so I don't have to rush through the day.
  • Take a good multivitamin and drink lots of clean water.
  • Schedule a weekly day of rest to enjoy unstructured time without any demands or expectations.

At our next session, Barbara felt noticeably better. "I'm slowly getting comfortable with a saner pace of life, and one of my greatest teachers has been my dog. I've enjoyed being outdoors with her, doing absolutely nothing but throwing a stick and watching her fetch it. When I am in the moment, everything seems so clear and vivid. When I slow down and pay attention, I feel so alive. For the first time in a long while, I feel like I'm living my life rather than just doing my life."

To finish our work together, I shared a bit of wisdom given to me by my first coach many years ago during a similar conversation. When I had expressed my discomfort with not always doing something, he explained that what I considered boredom was actually the gateway to peace. Until I could learn to be "bored," I'd never get to the calm on the other side. "That Zen-like message has worked magic in my life," I told Barbara at our final meeting. "You might want to let it work a little magic in yours, too."

Text by Cheryl Richardson

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