5 Signs You're Heading for a Breakdown at Work — and How to Turn Things Around

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Stressed woman at work


Lisa Durante
Lisa Durante10
Get it done. It’s one of the mottos of my life. I’ve always been a person who stays busy with a never-ending list of things to do. And, for the most part, I do what I have to do to get them done. 
I will stay up through the night. I will lock myself in my home office. I will live off Red Bull and popcorn. I will curse or cry, or curse and cry. Whatever it takes, I will get it done.
Except when I don’t.
See, there have been a few times when I just couldn’t finish what I had started or promised to do. Physically, mentally, or emotionally I hit a wall and just couldn’t get it done. The reason? I was deep in the piping hot lava of a stress-induced meltdown.
It hasn’t happened a lot, but since becoming a mom and believing that to have it all I have to do it all, it has happened enough times. Earlier this year was another instance.
I had taken on a new project even though I had a pretty heavy schedule. For months I burned the candles on both ends and soon things started to slowly fall apart. When I finally crashed, I quickly decided to quit the project to get things back into balance.
Now that I’m well out of the woods and very much want to avoid putting myself in a similar situation, I’ve taken some time to reflect on those months and weeks leading up to my fall-on-my-knees moment.
We always think that such things just happen out of the blue. Yet, for the most part, they come after a build-up of a variety of pressures. As the situation worsens, there are signs that a breakdown is near. Here are the five signs I could have spotted had I been willing to listen to my mind and body better:

1. The physical symptoms kick in.

You know those people who can point North no matter where they are? Yeah, that’s not me. Before Google Maps, I got lost — a lot. I may not have an internal compass, but I do have an internal GPS system on stress. My body very clearly tells me when things aren’t right, and usually it’s well before my brain clues in. It starts with a stiff neck and shoulders, that escalates to stomach pains and then days of unwavering eye-piercing headaches. I look forward to the day I'm able to make the necessary changes at the stiff neck stage and save myself from having to deal with the rest. 

2. Sleep doesn’t come.

I’m a very good sleeper — as long as my girls don’t call for me in the middle of the night or the books they’ve brought to bed don't crash to the floor and shock me awake. But, when I’m heading toward personal disaster zone, my normal sleep patterns go awry. I have trouble falling asleep, toss and turn endlessly, and spend a lot of time wishing myself to just turn off. 

3. Your emotional fuse is short — really short.

Our temperament can be another sign that your stress is reaching a new apex. If you’re losing sleep and your body is in pain, it’s really no surprise that your reactions will be much more extreme than normal. At these times I’m usually sitting at an 8 or 9 on any emotional scale — patience, sadness, anger, self-doubt, you name it. So, when the smallest, most inconsequential inconveniences happen, my reactions are never good. 

4. Normal things just seem impossible.

My life isn’t hard by any means. My days are spent sitting on my bouncy ball chair doing what I love the most — writing. I have access to all the conveniences offered by civilized society, and I’ve got Netflix. Yet, when I’m nearing my breaking point, every-day things that I usually don’t bat an eye over become insurmountable feats. My brain hurts when thinking about what to make for dinner, let alone trying to order from a take-out menu. So, having to reconfigure my schedule to fit in a last-minute doctor’s appointment can throw my whole world out of whack. 

5. You’re letting people down.

As a mother, a partner, a daughter, and a friend, I have the luxury of other people telling me with tactful honesty when I’m screwing up. My two girls are especially skilled in this. They still remind me of the pot of peas I burned in early March. They also tell me when I’m on my phone too much or when I’ve locked myself in my office for too long. My husband has also reminded me of the times I haven’t come through for him — I was late meeting him because I thought I could take one last call before leaving work, for example. My father calls to remind me that it’s been a week since we spoke last. My friends send texts asking if I’m still alive. Even Facebook now tells me if it’s been too long since I’ve posted something. 
To tell the truth, these reminders are in and of themselves a source of stress. But just like the other signs listed above, they also serve as wake-up calls that things are not as they should be, and that I should really do something about it.
It’s not always easy to stop what we are doing and change track so we can avoid an afternoon of tears, followed by days or weeks of walking through life numbed by all the emotions exploding in your body and brain. But, we can always try. For advice on combatting burn out, check out these articles: 
Lisa Durante is a working mama who believes in the power of AND. She offers strategies and insights, as well as resources and programs to help you design a career and life that works for you as a working mama. Get new tips and free resources every week at LisaDurante.com.
This article was written by a FGB Contributor.