The Science Of What A Work-Life Balance Should Feel Like
While a work-life imbalance sometimes comes about because you're working 14 hours every single day and not seeing anyone you care about, sometimes it's a much more subtle, gradual transition into a situation that's unsustainable.
"A lot of people have trouble managing stress or managing their anxiety." Dr. Thea Gallagher, director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Bustle. "There are plenty of people who have general anxiety, or who are in stressful life or work environments, where, over time, that does take a toll."
In fact, most of us struggle with maintaining this balance. "In my practice, Your Happiness Hypothesis method, which is based on cognitive re-shifting techniques that help you achieve your desired outcomes, clients reported that 90 percent find work-life balance hard to completely implement in their lives," behavioral scientist, Clarissa Silva tells Bustle. "Seventy-five percent say not being able to strike a healthy between work-life balance is stressful."
The science behind this is interesting — because stress, and the way your body copes with stress, isn't always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes feeling stressed and then having that feeling dissipate can be a sign of a good work-life balance because stress is always a part of life. But when your body is always in that hyper-aware state or you can no longer cope, there's a problem. But how do you draw the line?
Your Body's Alarm System
If you want to understand the way a work-life balance should feel, it helps to understand stress and how it manifests physically. Even when you have a good work-life balance, some stress is normal.
According to Mayo Clinic: "Stress is a normal psychological and physical reaction to the demands of life. A small amount of stress can be good, motivating you to perform well. But multiple challenges daily, such as sitting in traffic, meeting deadlines and paying bills, can push you beyond your ability to cope."
If it's interfering with your life or your ability to handle small tasks, that's a problem — and there are often physical symptoms.
Your brain comes hard-wired with an alarm system for your protection. When your brain perceives a threat, it signals your body to release a burst of hormones that increase your heart rate and raise your blood pressure. This "fight-or-flight" response fuels you to deal with the threat. You might feel moments of this fight-or-flight response — and that's OK. Once the threat leaves, you're supposed to return to your relaxed state. That's where the problem lies. According to Mayo Clinic, "Unfortunately, the nonstop complications of modern life mean that some people's alarm systems rarely shut off."
One of the ways you can recognize this has gone too far is by looking at the rest of your life. Dr. Gallagher tells Bustle that chronic negative stress can lead to depressive or anxious symptoms, an inability to complete tasks, or even a feeling of apathy or lack of interest. If work is driving you into that kind of headspace, the balance is off.
The Subtle Signs Of Stress
There are also signs of stress that you might not always recognize. "In today’s digital-dependent world, we are faced with juggling a multitude of demands in our professional and personal lives," Silva says. "[C]reating a healthy balance between work and life can be challenging. For many, it can be a source of stress that manifests in symptoms that can be overlooked. Acne, headaches, chronic pain, muscle tension, exhaustion, insomnia, and changes in your sex drive are indicators of stress."
How To Evaluate Your Work-Life Balance
If you're not sure if your work-life balance is right or you don't know how to set boundaries at work, it's important to take some time to tune into yourself.
"I'm a firm believer in trusting your gut instinct," Laura MacLeod, HR expert and founder of From The Inside Out Project, tells Bustle. "Instinct never lies so if you feel XYZ, it's there and it's real. You need to address it immediately and if that means you take time off from work, change your schedule, get assistance from co-workers — do it. This will pay off for everyone in the long run. You'll be healthier and more productive in time."
If you're feeling like your life is getting on top of you, another great tip is to prioritize some alone time — it's one of the best ways to create space and reset. "Alone time is the key to restoring balance in our lives," author and life coach Kali Rogers tells Bustle. "If you haven't been practicing being alone in your own thoughts for more than 30 minutes a day, it's time. It will totally refocus your life."
Finding the ideal work-life balance may be an ongoing journey, but knowing how your body and mind should feel is key. Feeling stressed can be totally normal — from time to time. But if you're stuck in that space or find that it's interfering with your ability to live your life, then it's time to restore the balance.