“I’m good thanks, just been really busy.”
We live in a world where “I’m busy” has become the norm. In fact, so much so, that to not be busy is seen as strange or unproductive.
So why? Why are we busier than ever?
First things first, the world has changed. We live in a time of finite trying to do infinite. Let me explain.
Take a look at our work lives. We are finite beings, with finite energy trying to do an infinite amount. We beat ourselves up when we can’t express what we’re thinking in a meeting, we get angry that we can’t attain “work-life balance”, and as a result get more stressed about finishing an outstanding report. We bring work home with us. We disengage with friends and family. Stress levels increase. Burnout is ever increasing. But this isn’t exclusive to work.
We’re seeing a division in our interpersonal relationships; an inability to fully engage regardless of the context work, friends, family, relationships and even time to ourselves.
In order to explain the real reason why we’re busier than ever AND how we resolve it. Now I’m going to get my FULL geek on you (but trust me, it’ll be cool and explain SO MUCH!)
In every human being that has ever walked the face of the planet, there is something we ALL have in common. Four of the same chemicals in our brains (now how’s that for something to unite us in global equality?) These chemicals are endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin.
This is the chemical responsible for the “runner’s high” or positive buzz we feel post working out. Endorphins are released to help reduce our perception to pain. When we work out, we’re creating tiny tears in our muscles, and endorphins are released to help decrease the thoughts towards that pain and keep us going.
If there was a Kim Kardashian to this family of chemicals, dopamine would have to take the cake. The most famous and commonly referred to, dopamine is our “reward and pleasure” chemical. It’s what’s released when we eat, have sex, drink, complete tasks from our ‘to-do’ lists and get “likes” on Facebook. It is a highly motivating chemical with both positive and negative effects. If there was ever a place where the cliches “everything in moderation” makes complete sense, is in reference to dopamine. Left to its own devices, dopamine can lead to addictions. Alcohol, social media, sex. All good and enjoyable within their respective parameters, but when they begin running our lives that’s when we know that we giving the reins over to dopamine.
These first two are interesting because we can control when we get the ‘hits’. Want a hit of endorphins, go for a run. Want a hit of dopamine, grab that cup of coffee. The next two are where things begin to get interesting.
Ah, the infamous ‘human hormone’ or ‘cuddle chemical’. It’s what’s released when we hug, kiss, and in close connection with another human being. It’s what makes us feel valued, heard and connected. Interestingly enough, when we get a hit of oxytocin the same ‘hit’ is also released in the person we are in contact with.
If dopamine is a sprinter, then consider serotonin a marathon runner. It is the underlying chemical that makes us feel trust. Here’s where it gets REAL exciting! When it is out of balance we feel anxious and stressed. Even more interesting, serotonin is predominantly found in our gut. Hence, “my gut is telling me we can trust them”, or when we get nervous “I feel butterflies in my stomach”, aka our gut. EVEN COOLER STILL is that serotonin is released when we are in nature, which explains why we feel calmer in nature AND when we eat foods from nature (because it boosts the serotonin in our gut!)
But there’s a HUGE catch I didn’t tell you about.
There’s a 5th chemical. And its name is cortisol.
It’s like the Kylie of the khemical Kardashian family (sorry I couldn’t resist!) Cortisol is becoming ever increasing the chemical to talk about because we are seeing it rise unlike ever before in our everyday lives.
It the chemical that is designed to help us survive. It puts us into our fight/flight mode and takes us right back to our Reptilian system of basic survival. When cortisol increases we focus on our energy inward as a means to survive. There are various things can spike your cortisol level; unsafe environments, accidents or witnessing an accident. Cortisol like every other chemical has a purpose and it is needed. But not in the heightened state we see it today.
Here’s the catch. When cortisol (stress induced) is high, our oxytocin (human connection) and serotonin (trust and safety) levels are so low, they’re almost non-existent. Here’s why we see disconnection of epidemic proportions in our daily lives. We’re all bloody busy. Nay, we’re all stressed to the extent that whilst we desire and long for connection and rest, we don’t believe it’s possible anymore.
“If I don’t do it, no one will.” 8 words that have plagued parents for years. Shamed them into never being enough, and as a result leaving many striving to be the perfect parent.
“You could be so pretty if you tried.” Words subliminally sold to young and old women alike daily.
Add on top of that the normal stress levels of work, family, friends, relationships and somewhere in between taking time for yourself. It’s no wonder we’re burning out, disconnected and lonely. We’re being told a million and 1 different messages every day about who we should be and how we should be doing things, that we are simply running on cortisol as our motivator and dopamine and endorphins as our temporary gratifying fuels.
It begins with permission. Permission to pump on the brakes and stop for a moment – you have WELL and truly earnt it!
If I can be candid and open, earlier this year I had a huge low. I had just come off the back of launching the magazine, being in India, fully leaning into my new job and LOVING it, taking on another side job too, as well as keeping up day to day life.
Only it wasn’t working. It took a full month of binge watching 5 seasons of Gilmore Girls and copious amounts of coffee just to function before it dawned on me. This is not okay. I am not okay. It wasn’t a big kumbaya moment, but rather a feeling that I was distancing myself from the woman I knew in January who loved spending time outdoors, hearing people’s stories and loving life. I didn’t like the direction I was heading in and knew something needed to give. And it was going to take a whole lot of courage.
Brene Brown puts it beautifully. Courage isn’t the shouty person up the front who gets up on stage into their place of comfort, courage is the quiet whisper in our weakness that says “It’s okay, you can go this.”
For me, courage looked like allowing people in. Learning to trust selected people who “my gut” knew were trustworthy. It was cutting out 1 hour a week of ‘my time’ to have “my time”. Time that I could do whatever I wanted to, and if that was to watch a movie or go for a hike, I gave myself permission to do so even if it didn’t feel “very productive.”
Over the weeks and months, my habits began to change and evolve. My goal is no longer to be perfect but to be unapologetically myself. And yes, that does mean owning the fact that I am a FULL FLEDGED GEEK.
You see, when we get a taste of true freedom, a life lived to it’s fullest in who we are and not who we should be, something beautiful happens. We can’t remain silent.
Whether I have had the honour of being able to meet you, or have yet to, may I extend this invitation to you. That you have permission to stop.
In fact, right now, pull out your phone (awkward if you’re reading this on a phone, but anyway.) I want you to go into Calendar. Now pick a time THIS upcoming week – 1 hour, 5 hours a day. Whatever works best for you. Now create a new event that is simply labelled “Me Time”. This is your time. Time to go do something you love, but you never make time for. Gardening. Hiking. Visiting the Art Gallery. Do whatever you love and be unapologetic about it!
Most of all, like a protective mother hen, nothing can “overpower” or be “more important” than this time. It carries the same weight you would give to an important client.
Our way of counteracting busyness is not continuing to fuel it with quick hits, increasing our cortisol levels and using dopamine/endorphins as temporary ‘lifesavers’. Instead, let’s slow down and prioritise time for oxytocin and serotonin to be released. Besides it’s not about the giant, radical leaps we make that define who we are, but rather the small everyday, seemingly mundane things.
Writer and geek about everything neuroscience, history and culture.