Over twelve years ago as a 41-year-old mom with three teenagers, I started reading Dr. Richard A. Swenson’s book, The Overload Syndrome, at the recommendation of Debbie Williamson, the leader of our church’s women’s ministry at the time. I also worked through the companion workbook, Restoring Margin to Overloaded Lives, with the book.
I had tea a few weeks ago with a younger woman, a friend of mine who is in the throes of raising two boys, ages 6 and 8, and is right smack where I was emotionally at the time I was pointed in the direction of this great material. So I recommended Dr. Swenson’s books to her. Then I decided to pull my copies out, dust them off, and revisit this topic from the vantage point of the decade of my 50s, just to see where things are different for me and where they are the same.
Mind you, I’m only through the second chapter of the book and the second session of the workbook in this repeat reading, and I’m blown away.
I’m blown away that I had this information available to me and I STILL got into complete burnout mode by not reserving margin in my life. Margin is that space between load and limits, as defined by Dr. Swenson. It is gratifying to be able to see that in some ways I have come a long way, no longer feeling that I must perform in order to please God and others in my life. I can also see that I have far fewer physical manifestations of hyperstress; oh, except for having developed cancer. Hmmmm, well, I guess I’d rather have headaches, but then again, the headaches can lead to more serious conditions if hyperstress continues to be one’s constant state of being.
Dr. Swenson even wrote the following words in his workbook: “If we trigger the [stress adaptation] response too frequently, we will be in states of alarm or resistance too often. This overdosing on our own adrenaline has potentially serious consequences . . . It ages our cells, and it can weaken our immune system (and so cause infection or cancer) . . .”
I think that this time around, I understand better the difference between stress reduction and stress management. I can see that I went away from Dr. Swenson’s teachings and focused on various ways to manage my stress, rather than applying his teachings on reducing stress. These are two different subjects. And I triggered the stress adaptation response too frequently and for too long a time.
To deal with stress management, I have tools now that I didn’t have then, such as the Emotional Freedom Technique, or Tapping. I have a strong meditation practice I didn’t have then, and I am exercising daily. But it probably took a breast cancer diagnosis to really get how to really reduce stress. I did it artificially by creating a Healing Bubble around myself so that I could focus only on healing. I stopped everything else but the non-toxic, natural treatments I was committed to using for healing. And I healed.
Now that I do not need to be in such a tightly controlled bubble, can I keep my stress level low and not step right back into the same level of activity, pressure, and discomfort? I believe I can.
How do I propose to do this? Well, I intend to lean on others around me a bit more. I have shaken off the belief that “if it is to be, it’s up to me.” Nope, not true. There are many around me who are just as capable, and even more so, to create success in the projects that have the most meaning to me.
My life is very different now than it was in my early 40s. I have no children at home, and I get to travel the world with my hubby. I am also at a different stage in the game professionally. The non-profit I was running by myself has become a corporation with a board, a small staff, and a great team of volunteers. I am now a volunteer, too, and have a seat on the board of directors, but there is a board chair, a chair emeritus, a vice chair, and a treasurer to share the load, as well as other board members. I can finally live my dream of writing books, studying, practicing, and teaching Tai Chi and Qigong. I can go to bed early and sleep late, catching up on years of too little sleep, if that’s even possible. It might not be, but I’m certainly trying!
Cancer has been a blessing in my life. Cancer allowed me to find the Pause Button for the world. I have learned how to both create and hold on to firmly, well-defined margins. Rest is no longer a “theoretical concept.” Today it is a strategy for a long and healthy life. I pray that I stay awake to the ever-present danger of the Overload Syndrome, and continue to guard my margin, the space between my load and my limits.
In the coming blog posts, I will share my tactics for creating and holding on to my margin with the hope that these tips are helpful for your long and healthy life, too.