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Giving you the physical and emotional resources to do all the things you need to do

Sep 12, 2014

There is a popular Dolly Parton song from the '80s called "Working 9 to 5." At the time the concept of working 9 to 5 seemed standard. Today, you may not be able to keep your job if you expect to only work 9 to 5. 

With the Internet, smart phones and tablets, you can work from anywhere at any time. Even if you are not working, you can take in new information, read articles, etc., in the 30 seconds you are stopped at a traffic light.

Even though surfing the Internet and keeping up with friends on facebook may be fun, it does have the net effect of producing too much mental stimulation, which can wreak havoc on your body. 

Let's look at Lisa.

Lisa is a 38-year-old project manager who is on target to become a director at her company. She loves her work, but complains about having trouble keeping up with her responsibilities since the recent reorganization that left her team one person short. She has trouble completing tasks and usually needs to bring work home in the evening.

In response to her complaint of "not getting things done," her doctor prescribed the stimulant Adderall because Lisa said she has always had trouble staying focused. Lisa also has some marital problems. Her husband complains that she's always distracted and never wants to spend time with him. Lisa says all the stress of work and home causes her to have panic attacks. So she goes back to see her doctor and tells him she having lots of anxiety and she gets Xanax.   Xanax is a benzodiazepine that is used to treat anxiety.  People will use it a lot because it relieves anxiety immediately as opposed to seeing results after a few weeks like you would with an antidepressant.  Antidepressants are the treatment for anxiety disorders even if you are not depressed.  They are designed to be the long term solution that you would take everyday for a year or more.  The benzodiazepine is supposed to be a temporary solution to use while we wait for the antidepressant to kick in.

So back to Lisa

Lisa's company has a few large product launches each year and during this time, she stays up until midnight or later to finish her work and respond to emails from overseas.  After a few years of this pattern, she now has trouble falling and staying asleep on most nights, even when she really tries to go to sleep early.  So she calls her doctor who recognizes the importance of good sleep and she gets Ambien. 

Ambien is a common sleeping medication, in fact it’s probably the most popular sleep aid because it works well for most people.  It works fast to help you fall asleep quickly and it usually doesn’t result in the daytime hangover effect.  Despite all these positive aspects of it, no sleeping pill is perfect and they all can stop working at any point.  Some people can take them for months with good effect and for some people it’s over after night 2. 

Now Initially Lisa was pleased with how much better she was able to keep up with things, until she starting becoming more irritable, forgetful and unmotivated to do her work. 

Lisa then wondered if she should be put on an antidepressant and sought a second opinion about this. I was that second opinion. 

When I asked Lisa about how she was doing at work, she said that even though the Adderall helps her, she still finds that her attention starts to drop off around 10 p.m., making the rest of her evening unproductive.

This is a classic scenario I've seen with hard-working, ambitious people who have unrealistic expectations about how long a person should be able to sustain attention. If you start working at 9 a.m., your attention should drop off 11 hours later. Unfortunately, instead of living within her body's physical and mental limitations, Lisa was using medications to push herself harder. And this is exactly how you can burnout your motor.  In her case, her cocktail of Adderal, Xanax and Ambien was serving the purpose of performance-enhancing drugs.

When you push yourself past your normal limits.  You burn out your motor.

Lisa could keep up this pace in her 20s. After all, it's not uncommon for the college student to go to class all day, study until late in the night and pull all-nighters with no obvious mental or physical problem.   But nearing 40, Lisa just couldn’t keep up.  None of us can. Her medications carried her for a while, but eventually her body and mind stopped going along with that set up.

As it turns out, Lisa did not need stimulants to be more productive; she needed downtime to recharge her mind. This was counter-intuitive because on the surface it seemed that taking breaks from work would only slow her down. A study from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed that taking mental breaks from intense work increases performance and helps your focus.


These breaks don't have to be very long. You could start with two five- to 10-minute periods during your workday where you do something non-work-related, such as listen to a music track or just reflect on your last vacation.


Here are some other suggestions to help you decompress your mind.

Stop cell phone use while waiting in traffic or standing in line. Use that "forced" downtime to be present in the moment. Reflect on your environment; focus on something pleasant around you like the phenomenal painting on the wall, or the smell of someone's perfume.

I was in a building in downtown Atlanta and got into the elevator.  The building probably had 20 + stories so it was one of those where they split it into sections.  I was surprised to a television in the elevator.  I thought, have we gotten to this point where we can’t go 5 minutes on an elevator without being entertained and mentally stimulated?

I think this is just the product of being in this digital age where we don’t have to spend anytime thinking about nothing.  If you have a free 30 seconds, you check your email or send a tweet.  A negative outcome of this lifestyle is trouble focusing, poor sleep and anxiety.  The answer may not be that you have ADD or an anxiety disorder.  You just may be overstimulated. 

When was the last time you sat for 10 minutes and did nothing?  How hard would that be for you?  Would you be stressing out about all the stuff you’re not getting done? 

I challenge you to try this this week.  Take a 10 minute noodle brain break.  This is not a time to do some problem solving in your head or add something to your to do list.  Forget about all of your obligations and just sit.  Set the timer on for phone so you don’t have to watch the clock.

If you just can’t sit peacefully, listen to some music.  It’s easy to listen music on autopilot and still go through your to do list.  In this case really listen to the musical notes.  If it has words, listen to the words.  Pay attention to what the song is saying. 

See if this helps you decompress and de-stress.  Do it at least once in the day, but I would suggest twice over the course of the day. 

This process of decompressing may require you to eliminate some activities from your schedule so you don't overload yourself. It is very easy to pack too much into a day by seeing 20-minute snatches of time as opportunities to "get some things done." If you decompress, you become more efficient and less anxious, and you sleep better. This isn’t the only solution.  Slowly integrating other healthy lifestyle choices such as exercise and good diet can help you rid yourself of the need for the high-performance cocktail.