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  • Writer's picturecoswaycbt

The Silent Struggle: Understanding and Managing Mental Load


A female face, partially obscured from view, indicating the silent struggle of mental load


Lots of us can probably relate to feeling that our lives are like some sort of circus act, with us in the middle of the ring spinning multiple plates in the air, desperately trying to keep everything balanced so it doesn't come crashing down.


Behind this dizzying spectacle is an invisible force known as 'mental load.'


It's the silent weight that we all carry and impacts much more than our ability to keep those plates spinning...it is a significant factor in our overall wellbeing.


 

Unveiling the Silent Struggle - Defining Mental Load


It's vital to recognise the silent forces that are at play as we're trying to keep those metaphorical plates balanced and continually spinning - so what exactly is 'Mental Load'?


Over the shoulder view of a person writing a list in a notebook to represent mental load

One way of thinking about it is that it's our mental to-do list...all those responsibilities that weigh on our minds, all those cognitive tasks and emotions that we carry with us from one day to the next.


It's a mental juggling act that extends well beyond just our physical performances in the metaphorical circus ring of our daily lives.

 


The Weight We Carry - Types of Mental Load


Emotional Labour


This is the management and regulation of our emotions in a manner that aligns with societal pressures, or those of our employment; most of the time it flies under our radar because it’s a crucial aspect of maintaining both our personal and professional relationships.

Two female figures, seated on a log, embracing each other to illustrate emotional support and wellbeing

An example might be a time when you were an emotional anchor for a friend or loved one who was navigating a stormy period of life.


Perhaps you were their main person in life offering a listening ear and a source of comfort to them; or perhaps you were more actively involved, managing conflicts and problem solving to support their physical and emotional wellbeing.


In a professional context, emotional labour is commonly associated with caring roles where managing emotions is part of the job description.


Some are perhaps obvious, such as in healthcare and customer services, but any role that is people-facing in some way can involve emotional labour, such as the hospitality sector and any management/leadership positions.


It’s not just about expressing our emotions, but also about any effort we may be exerting to supress or manage them – for example when we’ve had a really challenging day at work but come home to find disharmony in the family and suppress our feelings about our day in an attempt to create a more positive family experience.


Emotional labour is a pervasive aspect of life – in our daily performances in this circus of life, emotional labour is the silent act of keeping everyone else’s emotional plates in motion along with our own.

 

Cognitive Labour 


Cognitive labour refers to the mental tasks that we are all juggling on a day to day basis, such as managing our daily schedules (and perhaps those of family and loved ones), making a myriad of decisions (lots of which we do automatically and don’t even realise), and problem solving on the go all those little (and sometimes not to little) things that come up to frustrate us to some degree or other – basically it’s all the everyday multitasking that we do.

A gymnast in contorted pose to illustrate mental load

All this mental gymnastics has us performing like the circus acrobat, stretching and contorting our mental capacities to keep on top of everything.


Similarly to emotional labour, cognitive labour is a silent weight that we carry; it is our mental to-do list that grows and grows with every decision we make and every task we attend to.


You know how sometimes you can feel exhausted at the end of a day even though you might feel like you haven’t physically done much?


That’s the result of cognitive labour – you might not externally have appeared to have much going on, but internally you have been extremely busy!


Cognitive labour is the unseen burden that takes a toll on our mental stamina.

 



Personal Reflection and Emotional Intelligence


Encouraging Self-Awareness


I often tell my clients -


“We can’t do something about something if we don’t know what that something is!”


Self-awareness is a crucial aspect of managing mental load; it’s like turning on the light in the dark corners of our minds so that we can see the sources of the stress and pressure that we’re experiencing. In so doing, we can start to work on developing our resilience.


A vintage lamp shining in darkness, to represent self-awareness in the context of mental load

When we cultivate our self-awareness we empower ourselves to make conscious choices and this, in turn, helps us to develop our emotional intelligence, and to develop a deeper connection and understanding of our wellbeing.


So what are some strategies for developing our self-awareness?


Reflection:

this can help us to identify specific situations or regular tasks that consistently trigger our feelings of stress and overwhelm. Some people find journaling helpful to do this, because over time we can start to see patterns emerging, and that helps with the identification process.


Mental Load Journal:

noting down your thoughts and emotions at different points of the day can help you to identify recurring stressors. Most of us have our phones on us the majority of the time - you could just quickly make a note in your phone at regular points during the day. I have a lovely little app that I use for this and many of my clients have found it useful too. Check out Daylio app here


Emotional Check-in:

just taking a moment to regularly check in with our emotions at key moments of the day – assessing what our internal weather is doing – helps us to raise our awareness and learn to acknowledge our emotional state; it also helps to start considering what might be contributing to the emotions that are surfacing.


Mindful Reflection:

mindfulness is a bit of a buzz word these days, but it’s not all about sitting around meditating! You can do anything mindfully, and developing this skill equips us with a powerful tool for enhancing our self-awareness. Mindfulness is an intentional awareness - just taking a moment to observe the thoughts and emotions that are coming up for you, in an open, curious and non-judgemental way is a mindful practice.

 

Embracing Emotional Intelligence


A couple, holding hands, in front of a huge waterfall, dressed in bright yellow waterproofs, to illustrate being equipped with emotional intelligence

Intimately connected with self-awareness is emotional intelligence.


Whereas self-awareness allows us to understand our internal weather, our emotional intelligence equips us with the appropriate outfit.


What is it they say…there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing…well our emotional intelligence helps us make sure we’ve got some good waterproofs on when it’s getting a bit wild and stormy!


Emotional intelligence is how we understand and manage our emotions, which ultimately impacts on how we manage our mental load.


You don’t need to be any kind of expert to benefit from emotional intelligence and it isn’t only relevant for specific situations, it’s a practical skill that comes into play even in the simplest of our interactions.


When we develop our emotional intelligence it empowers us to understand and manage our emotions as effectively as possible.


So how can we start cultivating our emotional intelligence? Well, many of the strategies for developing self-awareness will also help us with emotional intelligence, so close is the connection between the two!


Reflection:

reflecting on what you are feeling and why you are feeling that way is the groundwork for developing emotional intelligence.


Mindfulness Practices:

as I mentioned above, we can do anything mindfully, but some people really benefit from specific mindfulness practices such as meditation or breathing exercises. I find the free app Smiling Mind to be really helpful for this, as do many of my clients (find it here) . Just a few minutes of daily practice can make a big difference over time.


Journaling:

journaling isn’t just a way of recording what has happened but it is also a way of you can explore and clarify your emotions. Writing is a great way of externalising your thoughts and feelings – “getting stuff off your chest” – and gives you a tangible outlet for self-expression and self-understanding.

When writing about your daily experiences include all the associated emotions…identify the thoughts that came up and what emotions link to those thoughts, and then how both of those relate to what you did and you responded. It’s a great way of organizing things in your mind and can bring you emotional clarity.


Active Listening:

when we truly hear what others are saying it enables us to empathise and respond in the most appropriate way. This means giving our full attention to the other person and developing empathy – trying to really think about and understand the emotions behind the words.

Try to imagine the view point of the other person; it can be really helpful to seek out diverse viewpoints and try to imagine and understand the emotional experience behind them. As well as helping with developing your emotional intelligence, this will also enhance and strengthen your relationships.


The effective management of mental load is intimately connected to emotional intelligence, just as that wet weather gear helps protect us when we’re out in the storm then emotional intelligence shields us from the storms that can brew within us.


A figure splashing in a puddle, only the lower legs and bright red boots being visible, to illustrate emotional intelligence in the context of mental load


Not only are we cultivating our understanding and management of our emotional landscape but we are laying the groundwork for managing the mental load that we all carry.




Having explored self-awareness and emotional intelligence, let’s move on to thinking about practical strategies for dealing with mental load – skills to empower us to navigate that circus of life with balance and increased resilience.

 



Strategies for Managing Mental Load


A female dressed in overalls choosing a tool from a well equipped toolbox to illustrate practical strategies in managing mental load

Having a set of practical strategies to work with is like having a well-equipped toolbox.


No one single thing is going to do the complete job, but using the right tool at the right time can help us get there in the end.


The following suggestions are not theoretical concepts, they are practical and actionable tools that, used regularly, can empower us to effectively manage our mental load.




Mindfulness and Stress Reduction


Mindfulness keeps coming up and that is because it really is a very powerful tool which can be incredibly effective at helping with managing that unwelcome companion in our fast-paced lives – Stress!


Try integrating short mindfulness breaks into your routine. If you notice that you are having a particularly hectic day then just pause for a moment (even if you have to hide out in the loo to do so) and take a minute or two to focus on your breath whilst bringing your attention to the present moment.


A mini-mindfulness break like this gives you a small respite and, when repeated throughout the day, can help keep stress levels manageable.


Prioritisation Techniques

Effective prioritisation is a key factor in managing mental load; it’s like having a roadmap to guide you through a jumble of winding country lanes. The act of prioritising empowers us, fostering clarity and a sense of purpose, as we try to negotiate our way through what might seems like an overwhelming maze of tasks and challenges.


Identify and rank tasks:

start with writing a to-do list and then review each item to highlight any time sensitive items; categorise each item based on urgency and importance. On the surface this seems like a simple thing to do, but it is deceptively powerful…it gives clarity and lays the foundations of effective prioritisation.


Eisenhower Matrix: 

A matrix diagram which is useful for prioritisation exercises in managing mental load

this is another powerful prioritisation tool; the Eisenhower Matrix (also known as the Urgent-Important Matrix) helps you visualise your tasks to help you work out where to focus your efforts.

Being busy and being productive are different things, so it’s important to distinguish between tasks that take you no-where fast but feel urgent, compared to those that are important and will facilitate you achieving what you need to achieve. Additionally, by attending to important tasks in a timely manner, it prevents them from then becoming urgent at a later date.


Effective Time Management


When we manage our time effectively it creates space for us to be able to focus on what is important and the knock-on effect can be a reduction in our stress levels.


We can think of time management as being a strategic approach to navigating our way through the demands of life that can significantly reduce the burden of mental load that is weighing on us.


Prioritisation techniques, as mentioned above, can help us with time management, but there are other skills that are also valuable to have in the toolbox, such as Time Blocking and The Pomodoro Technique.


Time Tracking:

this can be a good one to start with as it helps you to identify any time-wasting activities that you can then work towards eliminating, in order to free up time. Simply keep noting down how you are spending your time throughout the course of a day. If you do this for a week or two you will get a good overview of where your time goes.


Time Blocking: 

once you know how you are currently spending your time, and you have identified activities that are wasting that precious time, then you can then use this tool.

It involves structuring your day by allocating blocks of time for the specific activities that you want/need to be doing.

This can help you achieve balance and guard against the kind of overwhelm that can come along with multitasking.


Batching Similar Tasks: 

in combination with Time Blocking, grouping together similar activities can help you make the most efficient use of the time that you have and also it also means that you are focusing on one type of task at time; this should minimise the mental load that can be associated with constantly switching from one kind of thing to another.


The Pomodoro Technique:

this is where you break up your work/task into short intervals, say 20-30 minutes, interspersed by a short break. This can help you to keep your focus and concentration, whilst preventing fatigue and burnout.


Eat the Frog Technique: 

this is a funny sounding one but basically the idea is that if you attend to your most challenging and difficult task first then everything else should be easier to tackle afterwards….once you’ve eaten that frog then everything else seems much easier by comparison!

 

Delegation and Asking for support 


A stressed mother, surrounded by her three children, holding a sign upon which is written the word HELP to illustrate seeking support in the context of mental load

The Eisenhower Matrix mentions delegation as an option when working out what to do with differently prioritised tasks.


Some fear that seeking support from others and delegating tasks might be seen as a sign of weakness, but when others around us have the appropriate skills and the willingness to help us then reaching out for support is a positive and proactive way of lightening our mental load.


It fosters a collaborative culture of shared responsibility, whilst simultaneously working to preserve our mental health.



Another way of thinking about this is that effective delegation of tasks allows individuals to work to their strengths, which should lead to a more efficient completion of the task and it also contributes to the overall success and wellbeing of a team/community.

 

Effective Communication


A key skill required for effective delegation and asking for support is being able to communicate your needs in an appropriate manner.


In this way, communication is a linchpin for managing mental load.


It’s not just about exchanging words with the other individuals involved but it’s about understanding and setting appropriate boundaries, recognising responsibilities and appreciating the needs of all concerned.


Setting clear boundaries:

this is important in both our personal and professional lives. We have all probably experienced situations where we’ve ended up agreeing to something that we didn’t really want to, doing things that go beyond what we were originally willing to do. If this happens frequently then it can significantly impact on our mental health and wellbeing. Assertiveness is a key part of this. Sadly it is often misunderstood and some people worry that assertiveness equates to aggressiveness, but this isn’t the case. One way of thinking about it is that, whereas an aggressive stance is


“I win you lose”,

an assertive stance is


“We both get some, but not all, of our needs meet”

which is a more balanced situation and more collaborative approach to communication.


When we promote open and honest communication in this way, then we build healthier relationships with mutual respect.


Active Listening:

we mentioned this one above. It’s a really important part of effective communication as we need to understand, not just ‘hear’, the perspective of the other person; this contributes to a healthier mental environment for all parties involved.


Expressing Needs and Saying ‘No’:

this is a ‘biggie’ and one that lots and lots of people struggle with! It can be really scary at first, especially if you have rarely or never said no to a request, but it can be a transformative step in prioritising your wellbeing and lightening your mental load. It’s not just about declining requests, but is about effectively communicating where your boundaries are, respecting them yourself and encouraging other to do so as well.

Don’t be tempted to give an excuse when saying ‘No’ to something as this may be taken as an invitation by the other person to problem-solve…and then if they come up with a solution to whatever your excuse was, then you may feel backed into a corner and unable to continue to say ‘No’.

Practice saying ‘No’ in low-stakes situations to help you build up your confidence. If you can get used to having a clear boundary on the occasions when it doesn’t really matter then you will be more confident for the times when it really does.


Now that you’ve got some practical strategies in your toolbox that you can start working on to relieve some of that mental load, let’s go on to think about other factors that can be contributing.

 



Cultivating a Supportive Environment


Another big factor to consider when thinking about our mental load is the environment that we operate within – after all, we don’t live in a vacuum…we are constantly interacting with our surroundings and the other individuals who are also inhabiting the same space, even if only for short periods of time.


A chaotic and untidy room to illustrate the importance of a supportive environment in managing mental load

Imagine your mental space as being like a cosy room; sometimes it is comfortable and inviting, but other times perhaps a bit cluttered and untidy.


Whilst making changes to our environment in a practical sense is a factor, creating a supportive environment isn’t only about channelling your inner Marie Kondo to tidy up and declutter, it’s also about the people you share this space with and the kind of energy that they bring into it.

 

Building a Support System


Human beings are social animals, we naturally live in groups, so having a tribe of like-minded people around us can be like having a warm blanket for our souls; it taps into something on a basic instinctive level.


It is far better to have a few high quality relationships in our lives, with people who really get us, than to be surrounded by a massive crowd of people with whom we only have a surface level relationship.


An anthropologist called Robin Dunbar has theorised that humans can only maintain friendships with around 150 individuals, and only 5 of those would be intimate or close relationships (loved ones) and 15 of which would be good friends; harking back to our ancestral past when we would have lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes. 


Knowing this can help make sense of the experience that some of us have had of feeling lonely whilst being surrounded by other people – far better to have a few close and trusted individuals who will stand by us through the storms of life than being just another face in a crowd.


Open Communication Channels


As we have talked about above, communication has a pivotal role in all this; so it’s not a surprise that this pops up again here.


Open and transparent communication, where we are confident that we can express our needs without judgement, is a key part of creating a supportive atmosphere.


It means making ourselves vulnerable, but appropriate disclosures within a trusted relationship gives clarity and helps everyone to be on the same page.


Collaborative Problem-Solving

Everyone has tricky issues come up in life – it’s part of the human condition.


Even people who appear to outsiders to have the most charmed of lives will still be encountering difficulties and challenges on a daily basis.


Every individual has different life experiences and different perspectives, so a collective problem-solving approach draws upon a bigger pool of expertise; this is the power of mutual support and teamwork, whether in the workplace or at home.


Physical Environment


Above I used the idea of your mental space being like a cosy room but the actual physical space we inhabit can have a significant impact upon how we’re feeling.


It isn’t just walls and furniture, personal items and knick-knacks, this space can be a mood setter.


A tidy and comfortable space can be a mental sanctuary, as well as a physical retreat, because a clutter-free organised space encourages relaxation and focus.


Encouraging Work-Life Balance


In the modern world it can be very easy to get drawn into a situation where life is skewed towards work rather than personal life.


If life is a seesaw, then there may be times where the work side is perpetually touching the ground which leaves the personal life stranded in mid-air.


‘Downtime’ is an antidote to stress and burnout as it gives us a chance to recharge both mentally and physically – remember, resting isn’t doing nothing…you’re still working hard at recharging your batteries!


When we can achieve and maintain a healthy balance it is another contributing factor to our supportive environment that helps us to manage our mental load the most effectively.

 

In a way, creating the supportive environment is the foundation to everything that has gone before. Intentional choices and meaningful connections are powerful factors in managing mental load with resilience.

 



Conclusion


We started out thinking about life as being like a bit of a circus act, desperately trying to keep all those spinning plates balanced and in the air.


Now, armed with insights and a toolbox equipped with resilience building strategies, we can take a bow.


A guitarist taking a bow at the end of a performance


The show will go on, there will be ever changes demands and challenges, but now we have the tools to navigate the twists and turns whilst still keeping managing to keep everything balanced.

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