Women Who Do Too Much

The exhausted woman is a cultural trope.

It’s a scene repeated in books, movies, our own lives: she arrives, apologetic, to a lunch appointment or meeting, straight after her last appointment or meeting.

Somehow, between mouthfuls of food, she remembers what’s been going on in your life, updates you on how she’s been juggling her career and her personal life and her family responsibilities, periodically checking her phone to answer an urgent text, share that contact you needed, forward that interesting article, and then rushes to leave on time for another appointment or meeting or to pick up the kids.

Even looking at the mythological modern woman is exhausting. Being her is next to impossible. A whole industry has been spun around the herculean task that is living up the feat that is being a successful modern woman.

Artist Emma Clit, who followed up her viral comic You Should Have Asked with The Consequences, used both to brilliantly highlight the multitudinous invisible burdens women carry with them every day. The psychological wear and tear is hard to see, but significant.

Women of all ages – from as young as adolescents – may recognize the heavy psychological effects that stem from the expectation that they can be everything to everyone.

So, what can we do about it? Recognize this in yourself? Want to know what to do next?

Don’t Feel Guilty

If you’ve taken pride in being there for the people around you, taking time for yourself – even when you desperately need it – can feel like self-absorption or failure. A helpful trick is to think of ourselves as our best friends: if they came to us, worn out and frazzled, we’d insist that they turn off their phone and think about taking care of themselves for at least an afternoon.

Running or Swimming or Yoga (or Something Else)

We’ve heard this ad nauseum, but it really does help. Any kind of exercise helps lower stress levels and does wonders for our health. We don’t have to run marathons or join dance classes (unless we want to!) Free youtube tutorials teaching you how to stretch or moonwalk or kickbox or anything that gets you breaking a sweat are just as good.

Schedule You Time

The way we’ve been told we need to make time for our jobs, our partners, our friends, is the same way we need to make time for ourselves. It is okay to say no to the party and stay in to rest if you need to (it really is). It is okay to tell your significant other you need some space to recharge.

Be Your Own Advocate

(Warning label: This can be the hardest one to do.) Learning to insist on helping and breaking patterns is a difficult thing to do, even when they’re patterns we don’t particularly enjoy, but it’s crucial to maintaining our mental health and the health of our relationships.

Further Reading on Girls’ Globe

My Experience with Social Anxiety and Alcoholism

When people think about social anxiety, they usually imagine someone cooped up in their apartment, too afraid to leave, nauseous at the thought of passing someone in the hallway. It’s true that social anxiety can sometimes look like this, but it’s not the whole picture.

For some people, like me, social anxiety can look like dancing in a crowd of sweaty people with a drink in hand. Like opening a third bottle of wine at your sister’s bridal shower. Like laying in bed with a headache, wondering if you’re dying, if all your friends hate you or if you did anything loathsome you can’t remember the night before.

These images are opposite sides of the same coin, though we don’t often realize it unless we’ve experienced it ourselves. Though social anxiety can drive sufferers to avoid social situations, it can also lead them to self-medicate in hopes of coping. It’s a dangerous cycle, and women are at an increased risk of getting trapped.

Anxiety can cause physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, heightened pulse and difficulty breathing. It can also lead to, frankly, pretty weird behavior. With social anxiety, some of the most banal things in the word feel terrifying — such as, in my case, standing in line at the grocery store, answering the doorbell or opening a text message.

At the heart of social anxiety rests a fear of being judged.

As a persistent phobia, this fear can get in the way of friendships, careers and ambitions, and women are two times more likely than men to develop an anxiety disorder.

Women’s predisposition to anxiety may be a result of biological differences. Hormones and higher sensitivity to chemicals responsible for stress could play a part. However, I believe social influences may play a role as well.

On average, women face greater pressure than men to meet certain standards. For example, society expects women to exhibit qualities like kindness, compassion and sociability. Women can also feel pressured to meet what are arguably high beauty standards. For some women, these pressures culminate into a perpetual fear of being deemed unworthy. With so much pressure to appear friendly, caring and compliant, some women might attempt to mask social anxiety rather than address it.

Alcohol can hide social anxiety.

As many people know, alcohol can temporarily lower inhibitions and allow users to feel relaxed, which is why partying isn’t necessarily incompatible with social anxiety. In these spaces, alcohol can temporarily relieve symptoms of social anxiety, allowing people like me to socialize without feeling nervous or uncomfortable.

Considering the effects of alcohol, it makes sense that anxiety disorders and alcoholism coincide. Around 20% of those with social anxiety also suffer from alcohol dependence. As the body becomes more tolerant of alcohol, it takes more and more to feel its relaxing effects, so it’s easy for an indulgence to become a crutch really quickly.

For women that suffer from social anxiety, alcohol abuse can be particularly dangerous. Research suggests that women become dependent more quickly than men. Women also risk health consequences like organ damage and poisoning from lower doses of alcohol. As a form of self-medication, alcohol comes with a scary number of side-effects.

Excessive alcohol use kills about 88,000 people annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It hurts me to think how many of those deaths could have been avoided with proper mental health treatment.

It might sound like a cliché, but the first step to getting better is realizing the problem. It took me a while to do that, but eventually, I did.

Overcoming alcohol dependence requires people to understand the roots of the issue — in my case, it was social anxiety.

Here’s the good news: self-medicating with alcohol isn’t the only way to treat social anxiety. Therapy and medication both provide effective treatments, and support groups — like the one I joined at home — can help as well.

Learning to socialize without alcohol can feel like re-learning how to walk for some people, but it’s seriously worth it — believe me.  I swapped nightclubs for book clubs out of necessity. But what I realized along the way is that it’s possible to meet people who support you despite your anxiety, and who remind you there’s no pressure to be perfect.

Advocacy Burnout is Real

The strict deadlines, tight budgets and high pressure involved in advocacy can be overwhelming, and it comes as no surprise that numerous articles talk about ‘advocacy burnout’ or ‘activist burnout’ as a real and pressing issue.

My Personal Experience

For me, this reality hit home around a year ago. After coming to the end of an exciting and challenging advocacy position, I joined my boyfriend for a few months in Norway. I believed it would be the peaceful break I needed after a fast-paced time in my life.

But it was in our small Norwegian house, overlooking the wonderful natural landscape, where I realised that things weren’t going back to ‘normal’ – at least not in my head. Instead of enjoying the peace and quiet I had been looking forward to, I felt restless and uneasy. My job had become part of me, and now that it had ended, I found myself struggling with my identity and confronted with the question of what my future plans and goals were. I knew I was an advocate, and I knew my passion for advocacy remained, but I didn’t know how that translated into my day-to-day life anymore.

After the first weeks in Norway, I found myself feeling anxious and experienced spells of depression. I was very irritable and I didn’t feel like I was successful. I was starting to forget things (like where I’d left the house-keys, or things off my grocery list) and although I wasn’t doing much, I was always tired.

Initially, I blamed the weather and climate. Being half-Kenyan, I found the short hours of sunlight and cold weather undesirable to say the least. There were also – I should add – other personal circumstances that fed into the way I was feeling.  But after I returned home, I didn’t notice any change and so I visited a psychologist who confirmed that I had been suffering from a burnout for over seven months.

After months of not feeling like myself and being overwhelmed, I felt a wave of relief wash over me when she said that. Since then, I have been working hard to get better and I now feel like I’m nearly my true self again.

Burnout & Young Advocates

The reason I’m sharing this personal and painful experience is because I’ve noticed that in the competitive field of advocacy, the issue of stress and burnout is rarely brought up. I have seen many young advocates work tirelessly during the night or through weekends to achieve wonderful results professionally, and then face repercussions in their personal lives.

The experience of burnout is shared by a wide range of young people working in various fields, not only advocacy. In the Netherlands, attention is being brought to increasing rates of burnout among young people, with the influence of social media and pressure to perform being named as underlying reasons for the trend.

Looking specifically at advocacy, the divide between work and home life can become blurred. Being an advocate is often more than a job – it’s part of your identity. Many young people enter this field due to their empathy, compassion and sense of justice. This makes it hard to clock out at the end of the working day and take enough time to rest and recuperate.

Adding in all of the other pressures on ‘millenials’, I feel that this group in particular needs stronger mental health support. They are particularly vulnerable to stress and burnout, given their drive to achieve results.

It is key that organizations and institutions in the development and advocacy sectors pay attention to the young people working for them. They need to provide all of their employees and volunteers with mental health support and information on how to access relevant services.

By keeping a close eye on the demands placed on young advocates we can help to create a more healthy work-life balance. Opening the dialogue on stress and burnout within organizations can help young employees and volunteers feel free to express their emotions without feeling like a failure, fearing stigma or worrying about future career repercussions.

Taking Action

If you’re a young advocate, how can you recognize if you are at risk of burnout? This article, written by fellow Girls’ Globe Blogger Tariro, highlights a number of points to look out for.

I have also noted the following tips from my own experience and online resources:

  • Don’t be afraid to look for help. This is the first thing I wish I had known. As an advocate you may be used to being in control of things, but when it comes to your mental health, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Start by reaching out to people close to you and then expand by visiting a health professional (this could be your doctor, a psychologist or a therapist).
  • Make time to rest. Whether it’s taking 15 minutes to read a book or taking a ‘mental health’ day from work, it is important to schedule time to do something that grounds you and gives you energy. My personal go-to has been guided-meditation before I go to bed, as I find myself feeling most anxious around this time. I currently use the free app Insight Timer, and I have also heard a lot of positive stories about the Headspace app.
  • Say no. If you are like me, you might find it challenging to say no to new opportunities or requests. In my case, it’s not necessarily that I don’t want to disappoint others, it’s more that I’m easily excited and eager to take on a new challenge. Making sure you look at the time and energy you have in a realistic way can help you pace yourself and say no some of the time.
  • Schedule time for reflection. A tip I received during my treatment was to schedule a specific time every day just to think. This can help you organize your thoughts and reduce overthinking during other times of the day.

There are many more coping and treatment strategies to deal with burnout or stress which mental health professionals can provide, and so it’s important to make services accessible and available to young advocates. A stronger recognition of this issue will help more young people feel free to open up about the realities of their work and the implications it can have on their health.

Are You at Risk of Burnout Syndrome?

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. It is a vital time to spread awareness and knowledge about mental health and the impact it has on many lives around the world. Run by UK charity Mental Health Foundation, the theme this year is stress.

Stress in itself is not a mental health diagnosis but it is an important factor that can lead to anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide. It also has physical health implications, such as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Reading about stress made me recall my days as an intern medical doctor in a rural South African hospital, and the stress that I endured in the overwhelming hospital environment. In the beginning I could not recognise that the physical and mental symptoms I was experiencing were related to stress and burnout syndrome. I found myself exhibiting signs of:

• Physical and mental fatigue
• Forgetfulness
• Depressed mood
• Irritability
• Detachment from my work and patients
• Sense of failure

After talking to my peers and doing some of my own research, I realised that I had burnout syndrome. I had never been prepared or warned about it as young professional. I also learned that as a female doctor I had 60% greater chance of experiencing burnout stress than my male colleagues. This was is related to gender-based expectations and societal pressures that women experience on a regular basis.

Burnout syndrome is a form of chronic stress. It is an alarm clock to a more serious problem and needs to be addressed as early as possible. In my instance, I spoke to my senior doctors and supervisors about how I was feeling. They helped me reduce the levels of stress I’d been feeling by finding me additional assistance for my workload. I started to focus on lifestyle changes to alleviate the symptoms such as eating healthily, exercising, and talking to someone about the frustrations I was dealing with at work.

We need to have active dialogues about stress and burnout. Ask yourself if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above. Involve others in that self-reflection. Start this week – discuss amongst your friends, your work peers and your family. Let’s engage in conversation so that we can recognise stress and allow ourselves to receive the help and treatment we need to handle it.

Why Do Women Suffer More From Stress?

Statistically, women suffer from depression and anxiety disorders more frequently than men. The only exception to this is social anxiety disorder, which seems to occur in equal numbers regardless of sex. For all other forms of anxiety, including everything from acute stressors to diagnosed anxiety disorders, women tend to be the forerunners.

Anxiety disorders can be debilitating. They can increase the risk of diseases, including heart disease, which kills 17.7 million people globally every year. They can also increase the risk of depression and suicide in people who suffer from them and can prevent people from being able to function on a day-to-day basis. Mental illness can dramatically affect your standard of living.

While we know that women suffer from anxiety more frequently than men, the reasons why are still unclear. It’s most likely that there is a combination of nature and nurture at the heart of it, meaning that some factors are biological and some are environmental. Most studies will not be able to account for all of the influences, but we can consider them from a broad perspective.

Nature

Research shows that women tend to have more hormonal fluctuations than men do. Some of the hormones that surge during pregnancy, for example, are correlated with an increased tendency to develop obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which is classified as perinatal OCD. Hormonal fluctuations may contribute to an increased level of stress, but they don’t necessarily account for the increased frequency of lifelong anxiety diagnoses in women.

There do appear to be some genetic factors. Based on studies of twins and family records, women are more likely to have stress and anxiety issues. These studies are the best indicators we have that some stress is due to a difference between the sexes and rather than environmental conditions.

Nurture

A key indicator that environment influences stress is that prevalence differs between cultures. Women in North America have been found to be more stressed than women in other cultures, despite generally having better access to the resources to create what many would consider relatively more comfortable lives for themselves.

This cultural difference could be explained by the fact that stress is often measured by Western standards, so it’s possible this is a false positive result. However, I believe it’s still fair to assume that the environment a person is in can contribute to their stress levels.

Today, most women still perform the majority of the unpaid work at home, despite joining or wanting to join the workforce. Even as more women enter the workforce, they is often an expectation that they will continue to take responsibility for housework.

Of course, it’s a difficult feat to keep up a home and a career without one interfering with the other. Women are also still generally expected to be caretakers – the ones responsible for remembering birthdays and anniversaries, sending out cards and making sure everyone in the family is fed and taken care of.

Many women do attest to having a caretaker mentality, though it’s hard to say if this is innate or created from societal expectations. While every woman is different, the responsibility and expectation can take an emotional toll. And while it’s becoming more common for men to take on the same at-home responsibilities as women, I don’t believe that it is expected of men in the same way.

The mental health gap between men and women may be partially biological, but it doesn’t have to be as wide as it is. Ultimately, working toward a more equitable environment will benefit everyone.