hamster wheel health effects negative spiral stock taking May 09, 2020


I was stuck on a hamster wheel. It was my own fault.


I had a full-time position in the finance sector and worked as an intercultural trainer in my free time. I commuted more than three hours every day by car and train. I spent my short evenings in the gym, at networking events, singing with my choir and trying to meet up with friends. On weekends I tried to do some more sports, spend time with my partner, cook something healthy and to maintain contact with my family in Germany. But instead of feeling energised by all my activities, I felt exhausted. 


This is how my body reacted:

Just a normal life – or maybe not? It didn’t work out. I started burning out. At, first, I became aware of some physical manifestations. I noticed

  • Sleep problems
  • Headaches and back pain
  • Muscular tension
  • Worsening eyesight
  • Constant fatigue
  • Weakened immune system

Then my soul started reacting too and I started struggling emotionally:

  • Continuous self-doubt and questioning my actions
  • The quest for meaning: what am I doing this for?
  • Negative rumination and overthinking
  • The creeping recognition that I was losing track of my life’s values
  • Cynical hostility towards my work


I had ended up in a vicious circle. One of the main drivers for my hamster wheel was my perfectionism, which took a heavy blow: because of my health problems, I started to feel that I could not deliver perfect work results any more, which lead me to work even more in order to compensate, which resulted in even worse sleep, resulting in me feeling tired and unfocused the next day…. I became indifferent and at the same time more edgy. Life was reduced to a single sensation: stress.


Which consequences have you observed?

My story is a classic example of the kinds of experiences people have when they’re stuck on the hamster wheel: The aimless rotation starts a negative spiral which manifests itself physically and psychologically.

Which effects of the hamster wheel do you already notice – privately or professionally?

  • Health related consequences
  • Frustration or anger
  • (Self)-aggression
  • Irritability
  • Lack of concentration
  • Hyperactivity
  • Sadness
  • Resignation
  • Giving on yourself
  • Pretense
  • Compensation through drugs, alcohol or food
  • Worsening relationships with partners, children, friends
  • Withdrawal, isolation


Ending up in a negative spiral

Being stuck in a hamster wheel is destructive. You go through a long period of suffering. You acknowledge your emotions, but you oppress them as long as possible. Often it’s friends and family who first notice that something is wrong – your constant nervousness, your increased sensitivity, your aggressive outbursts.


However, if nothing changes on the outside – no new, more understanding boss, no relief through supporters or colleagues – there will come a point when you realize that you can’t go on like this. That you’re missing out on your own life only to satisfy the needs of others – no matter whether in your private of professional environment. You neglect your own needs. You know that something needs to change. But you don’t know what. And you do not know, how. And you have no idea how you can find the time to reflect on your situation – without panic, without guilt, without pressure.


Try this exercise: Taking time for stock-taking

If you get stuck at this point and can’t get yourself to take action, then you’ll remain on your hamster wheel. Alternatively, you might desperately exchange your old hamster wheel against a new one – a new job, new boss, new environment – only to realize some years later that it doesn’t matter in which cage your hamster wheel is positioned. Treadmill is treadmill.


But maybe you stand at this turning point and take it as an incentive to take a look at your life from a different perspective. This means that you take a timeout for yourself and devote some thoughts to the question of what you want to do. It might be useful to start thinking about this on your own first, before approaching family and friends with your ideas. People in your environment very often have an interest in you staying put in your place – for example: as a provider, a protector, problem solver….


It’s important that you gain awareness around your own needs. Sense your emotions and feel your body claim its right. This won’t happen in the blink of an eye, it’s a long process. The goal is to improve the sensory perception of your own being.


Try it out. Block the next free slot in your diary – for yourself and your stock-taking exercise. Honor this appointment with yourself and don’t overwrite it with other events. Don’t feel bad about it: it’s ok. Yes, you can do this without a bad conscience. You won’t turn into a ruthless egotist simply by taking time for your orientation and life planning. Grant yourself some space for your own needs and your vision – in order to get out of the vicious circle of negative emotions and ruminations, and in order to take control and live your life according to your own masterplan.


Let me know in the comments below if you tried out this exercise and how it felt for you.


Photo by Trent Szmolnik on Unsplash

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