Stress Kills Parky’s
How to make the sweetest music possible, for as long as possible.
In the workplace I take ownership of my work and I take pride in a job done well. But sometimes I forget that as a Person with Parkinson’s (PwP), I have to pay extra attention to my health. Stress kills Parky’s. To avoid having to learn that lesson repeatedly, always know and pay attention to the instrument you have been given. When taken care of and used as designed, it will serve you well. Read on for a couple of tips for making the sweetest music possible, for as long as possible.
I was starting to think that I might have found a way to overcome the problems I had experienced at work over the years. Problems that started many years before I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Problems such as brain fog, trouble finding words, difficulty speaking, apathy, and irritability. Yet, lately many of those problems that effect my motivation, and productivity had once again been slowly creeping back in to my work life. I’ve learned as I often do: the hard way, that no amount of willpower can overcome those problems. Instead, I need to pay attention to this instrument I call my body.
I stubbornly pushed on, refusing to admit that I needed to slow down and take care of myself. The warning signs were there. Two of my closet colleagues even noticed and encouraged me to take it easier. I had been taking on a lot of responsibility. And I had been handling it pretty well…until my Parky body caught up to me, and then the trouble started. At first, the added workload was exhilarating. But as time wore on, my ability to stay engaged began to slip. I found myself getting really really fatigued. As I was slowly getting over whelmed by an avalanche of tasks, my stress levels rose. When I get overly stressed, I experience noticeable changes in my ability to process information efficiently and articulate thoughts. This can add additional frustration and stress, which worsens my symptoms and results in a downward spiral. That’s when productivity and motivation can take a nose dive. Fortunately, I realized (well…admitted) what was happening, and took a step back, reflect, and take corrective actions before any lasting damage had been done.
Why is it that PwP are particularly vulnerable to stress?
Besides missing that extra squirt of dopamine responsible for keeping a healthy brain engaged and motivated, the Parkinson’s riddled body already has to work extra hard to overcome a host of challenges. Problems with stiffness, rigidity, pain, slowness (bradykinesia), speaking problems, spacial awareness issues, and many others. Add stress to the mix, which amplifies all of these problems, it’s no wonder we PwP can struggle with fatigue, apathy, and reduced motivation. Why do I have a tendency to get burned before pulling my hand out of the fire? First, these problems can creep in gradually and be difficult to notice. Speaking for myself, I tend to stubbornly ignore the warning signs. I can’t say for sure if this trait can be attributed to Parkinson’s or not, but I suspect it is common.
The thing is, when I get to the point where, burned out and exhausted, I’ve finally taken a moment to pause and reflect on how I got to that place, I’ve usually already endured quite a bit of avoidable pain. Because fortunately, there are ways to help ensure you don’t end up overly stressed, burned out, or with a completely broken instrument. I offer these 3 tips for PwP to keep stress levels low and productivity up in a fast-paced work environment.
Slow down, take care of yourself – Counterintuitive. But we PwP need to first go slow to go fast. I get it, you want to perform. But if you lose your mind and your body doesn’t work, your productivity is going to suffer, no matter how hard you try. For us PwP, stress levels are inversely proportional to our ability to function. Haven’t you heard? Stress kills Parky’s. So, if I know I need time to decompress I need to do it. Get up, move around, de-stress, and return relaxed and motivated. Make it a priority to move and do the exercise our bodies so badly need to stay functional. Eat right. Be healthy. Don’t worry too much about falling behind in the short term. In the long run, you’re going to contribute more if you take care of yourself first.
Know and respect your limits – Whereas a normal brain can take the ups and downs of everyday life in stride, the parky brain can leave the baffled sufferer struggling with a vast array of potential symptoms. This can make it challenging to maintain a steady drive to continue on and see things through. That’s why you have to understand your limits and heed the warning signs to avoid burning out. Limits are something I often have trouble seeing until I get tripped up by them. I’m not sure if this trait is commonly tied to us PwP, though i suspect it is. Regardless, when we do see warning signs, we have to heed them. When we see our colleagues taking on seemingly limitless responsibility, it can be tempting to ignore our warning signs. Don’t. The limits of the instrument we have been provided are nothing to fret over or be ashamed of. We’re going to be overall more happy, healthy, and productive if we respect our limits.
Communicate with management – Importantly, you are the only one who knows what your limits are. If you take on more work your employer is only going to be all too happy to oblige. So you have to know your limits and communicate them. It may seem somewhat counter-intuitive to discuss your needs with your supervisor. My experience has been that they appreciate you being up-front about it and are happy to accommodate. In fact, in this country the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) provides certain protections. This means that they legally have to provide reasonable accommodations for you to perform the duties of your job. In reality, I’ve never had to invoke the ADA in any requests. On the flip-side, flexibility and accommodation is a two way street. If you want flexibility to address your un-predictable Parky symptoms, be available to work flexibly if needed to finish up tasks.
Once I realized (ahem…acknowledged) that I was getting too stressed out at work, I started to take measures to correct course a bit. Firstly, I started to bow out of meetings that I really didn’t need to be in. While I found them interesting and I was able to contribute, it was overall better for me to give myself much needed time to de-stress…and focus on what I really needed to get done. Secondly, I realistically re-evaluated my limits. For me, some days are just really hard to get into the office. So I’ve been teleworking a bit more. That again leaves me a bit more time to do my exercises at home to connect my brain to my limbs so I can walk and move more freely, feel better, and be less stressed. Finally, I’ve spoken to my supervisor about my challenges and discussed areas where I could use some help. He’s been happy to work with me on getting help to cover down in areas I just don’t have the bandwidth to address.
I really like my job. The important work we do and the great people I work with make it satisfying and fulfilling. Besides the obvious financial benefit, being a productive member of the workforce gives me a sense of belonging and contribution. As a PwP, in order to maintain a sustainably high level of performance out of this instrument I call my body, it’s extra important for me to keep my stress levels manageable, do the exercises that keep my body moving, eat right, and generally stay healthy. Hopefully, I’ll be able to remain a happy and productive member of the workforce for many, many years to come!