Are you someone who feels a need to make sure you are always busy, even if you don’t have to be? I’m not talking about people who are busy because they are working three jobs just to make it each month. I’m talking about people who aren’t happy if their schedules aren’t chock full of meetings, tasks, obligations, and responsibilities. These are often the people everyone knows will help out in a pinch, the person you can go to to make sure something critical gets done even if they are already overly busy. Is that you?
If you think I might be describing you, or someone you love, you need to know that this drive to be constantly busy can be a sign of trauma. You might say, “But I’m a highly successful individual. I’m functioning highly and my life is organized. Where’s the trauma?” Good question! Your current life, it would seem, is non-traumatic. The trauma may have occurred many years ago. It might even have been in your childhood. People can have the affect-effects of trauma and still also be successful in life.
Busyness may be a response to a chaotic childhood. Perhaps your nervous system got accustomed to uncertainty, to things changing unpredictably and frequently. Remaining constantly busy, moving from one task or responsibility to another, might feel somewhat like that time in your life when things changed often. Or perhaps the busyness and the deadlines help explain or mask the anxiety you are experiencing already. This familiarity can be comforting to the nervous system.
As a trauma response, staying overly busy can also function as a distraction and as avoidance. If you have deadlines (even self-imposed deadlines or deadlines you volunteered for), they can keep the trauma pushed out of consciousness since you must focus on the current challenges. In other words, busyness may be a coping mechanism.
As coping mechanisms go, busyness seems like a relatively harmless one. After all, many people respond to trauma with addictions, self-harm, or disordered eating. These are also trauma responses. Each has predictable effects which help to regulate a dysregulated nervous system and are therefore very logical and understandable actions. Unfortunately, they also end up further hurting the individuals utilizing these coping mechanisms and the damage ultimately outweighs the initial perceived benefits. Busyness, in comparison, seems quite benign. But is it really?
People who use busyness as a coping mechanism may rarely have down time, time to relax and unwind. This means they are experiencing stress and anxiety in an ongoing, largely constant manner. Our bodies are not designed for constant stress and anxiety. The stress of approaching deadlines or of trying to squeeze in too many commitments or responsibilities for a given time may lead to repeated releases of adrenaline and cortisol. This takes a toll on the body and suppresses the immune system. In the wild, an animal either escapes its predator and then immediately calms and relaxes, or it gets caught and killed. To the body of a chronically busy person, it’s as though you are fleeing from a predator who never stops. The body never escapes and gets to relax and replenish itself. Meanwhile, the world may be praising you for your dedication and productivity, not realizing that you are hurting yourself in an attempt to keep traumatic memories at bay.
Chronic over-achievers and the chronically overly busy are not necessarily all reacting to trauma, but it’s worth investigating if this is what is driving you. If your busyness is a coping mechanism, then the trauma is still defining and driving your life, even if you aren’t usually aware of it. And while you may be very successful in your life, it is very likely your life is missing richness from under-developed aspects, such as relaxation and leisure. So chronic busyness is not just a health risk, it’s also a quality of life issue. With therapy, you can resolve the trauma so you no longer have to live a frenzied pace to avoid it. Resolving the trauma can leave you with a greater ability to consciously choose your priorities and to invest your energy and efforts into valued and meaningful activities rather than doing so reactively and randomly.
Are you wondering if I might be able to help you? Call or text 816-226-4678 to set up a free video consultation.