The Fine Line Between Keeping Busy and Overwhelming Yourself

It’s common for people who struggle with an eating disorder or other mental health problems to want to keep busy. In my own experience, I’ve found that having too much down time can make my negative thoughts run on overdrive. When I have nothing to do, I obsess about everything negative going on in my life, be that weight, calories, and exercise, problems at work, or interpersonal conflicts.

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When those thoughts get to be too much, my first instinct was always to distract myself by filling every second of the day with an activity.  It started out with just taking on an extra side job, like tutoring, one night a week. But, being the perfectionist that I am, it turns into so much more. Before I know it, I’m working full-time at my job, tutoring 10-15 hours a week, going on extended walks with my dog every day, scheduling multiple appointments before and after work, and planning out every minute of my weekends. I love being busy, but this is a recipe for disaster. By distracting yourself to the extreme, you fail to process any of the negative emotions you’re bottling up, which causes the thoughts to grow more powerful.

This is why I had to learn to add balance to my life. I had to learn what my limits were and when to say no to people asking me to take on more than I could comfortably handle.

The problem is, sometimes it’s hard to recognize that fine line between keeping busy and overwhelming yourself. I know that there have been times when I don’t realize I’m taking on too much until I’m so overwhelmed that I crash. This is particularly dangerous for someone with an eating disorder or other mental health conditions because it can lead to a full-blown relapse. Trust me – I know because it’s happened to me multiple times. But, the good news is, I’ve finally learned what my limits are, and I have some tips for those of you who may be on the verge of overwhelming yourself by taking on too much in lieu of dealing with down time:

·       Talk to a trusted friend or family member – Before I make a decision to take on a new responsibility or activity, I talk to my boyfriend to get his view on the situations. He’s the person I see the most, so he can often tell when I’m starting to go downhill in my recovery before I can. Therefore, before I decide to take on a new tutoring client or commit to a new time-consuming hobby, I sit down and talk to him about it. We talk about how I’m doing physically and emotionally, why I want to take on the new opportunity, when it will fit into my schedule, and more. By talking it through with someone I trust, I have the chance to get feedback, which may include “It looks like you’re taking on too much right now.” That feedback used to frustrate me, but now I take it into account before making a big decision.

·       Journal – Whether you want to journal daily about your emotions, stressors, and positive experiences; write daily affirmations; or reflect on how things are going periodically, journaling can help you better understand your thought and behavior patterns. Look back at old entries and try to find common themes related to what helped you do well and what made you struggle. If you find that overscheduling yourself has caused problems in the past, look for the warning signs based on what you wrote about at that time. If you find that having too much down time was actually causing you to fall back, carefully consider how to add more structure to your day.

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·  Make a calendar – Sometimes, I wouldn’t realize just how packed my schedule was until the end of the week when I was feeling exhausted from running around everywhere. Now, I keep my calendar up-to-date with all my appointments, work meetings, tutoring sessions, guitar lessons, and more. By looking at my calendar at the start of the week, I can identify if a certain day looks like it is going ot be difficult due to too much down time or too many scheduled activities. Now here’s where the hard part comes in…if your calendar looks too packed and you know that it is going to negatively impact your physical or mental health, make a plan to cut out something that isn’t necessary. I know that I have a very hard time saying no to people, so this step took a lot of work. Recently, I’ve had to say no to new tutoring clients that I couldn’t fit into my schedule, whereas in the past I would say yes to everyone and then potentially breakdown when it all became too much.

·       Get comfortable with some down time – After working hard to balance my schedule, I’ve learned that some down time is important for everyone. Even if I feel uncomfortable in the moment, I know that I need to have time to just sit at home and relax. Start small if you have to – watch a 30 minute TV show before bed, or do a mindfulness meditation on your lunch break – and then work your way up to feeling more comfortable with having time to do nothing. At first, it might stress you out, but in the end, finding this balance between activities and relaxation time is going to be key in your recovery.

Of course, there are going to be days when you’re over scheduled and stressed, but the key is to learn how to handle those days in moderation, while trying your best to maintain the balance between busy time and down time.

This is a continuous process of learning, making mistakes, and celebrating small victories. Don’t be too hard on yourself if it takes you a while to find this balance – be patient with yourself and know that if you continue to work on this, it will only help with your recovery process.


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Meagan works as a full-time Digital Account Executive at a marketing agency on Long Island. She enjoys writing and tutoring during her free time and she is currently in recovery from anorexia. She participates in the annual Long Island NEDA walks and is striving to achieve full recovery.