*Cliff, a CPA, arrived at my office promptly on the hour for his appointment we had scheduled via email after he searched the terms “stress” and “Fresno”. After cordial introductions and a brief review of our professional histories, Cliff quickly confessed, “I don’t really feel stressed. I just can’t sleep. I mean, I sleep, of course. I just don’t sleep the night through. I wake up in the middle of the night and cannot get back to sleep. Sometimes I can, but not until almost the time my alarm is due to go off.”
“When did this start?” I asked, trying to begin our timeline. There are some clients that can quickly pinpoint the origination of their concerns while others struggle to nail down any event or date.
Without clearly answering, he continued to lament his exhaustion, commenting that it has always been a byproduct of his job, seemingly unaware that we had just unwittingly discovered another area that he is struggling in. “It’s a good thing I work at home, I’ll tell you that much. I’m not sleeping at night and so tired during the day. At least I can take a minute here and there when I find I can’t stay focused. My phone conversations seem to drag on into topics that have no relevance to my client’s finances or business. It’s frustrating because I can’t seem to steer the client back into the receipts I’m reviewing. It’s discouraging.”
Wanting to touch back on the actual issue of insomnia, I redirected, “I’m sure you probably know that insomnia, a lack of sleep, can have really dire effects on your overall health.” Cliff nodded, so I continued. “From what I’ve read, I understand it can lead to big health issues like heart disease, heart attacks and all of the symptoms that lead up to those big heart problems.” I leaned in as I rattled off the list. “It makes depression worse. It can affect almost all aspects of your health.” He sat quiet and still. He didn’t seem to register any of the symptoms.
“Is there something that you find yourself worrying about all the time?”
“Headaches and an upset stomach are almost weekly and have been for quite some time now.” Cliff went through a checklist of health issues he had been experiencing. “In the beginning I thought I just wasn’t washing my hands enough and kept getting a stomach bug. Now I make sure to wash my hands any time I touch door knobs, shake hands or spend time in a building other than my home office.”
He seemed unwilling to stay on any one topic, so I tried to keep things moving. “So what does your wife think of these changes and new habits?”
After a drink of water, Cliff described another symptom. “I get dry mouth when talking about my insomnia with my wife. I even get a little sweaty. I can’t explain it. I sweat like I just went for a jog. I guess that’s what it would be like. I don’t jog,” and he chuckled. “I don’t want to join a gym. Sarah and I are of the mindset that it isn’t the best return on the investment when we can exercise anywhere for free. Unfortunately, we don’t exercise. I thought about jogging, or just starting out taking walks. Either way, I don’t know how I could leave the house and stay focused if I cross paths with all of the neighbors. Walking doesn’t seem like a great idea. Sarah would want to hold hands and make it a stroll.”
“Do you have any stress in your job?” I asked, expecting the typical reply. Most people rely on their income, there are daily interactions with others that can be negative, etcetera. Cliff’s experience was no different.
“Who doesn’t? I haven’t met a business owner that isn’t completely overwhelmed by the pressures of keeping the business going and still trying to have a family life.”
There were brief pauses throughout our conversation. Cliff was very deliberate in his sharing of details and much of the time he seemed uncomfortable. “See?” He held out his obviously clammy hands. “I get sweaty and know that I’m just overtired. Last night was particularly frustrating. I woke up every half hour, checked the clock, tossed and turned, and then I’d doze off.” He became very solemn. “Sarah and I had a bad week. It seems like we don’t have many good weeks anymore.” He was obviously despondent. It was clear he had many different concerns and was struggling to untangle which ones were most problematic because they all were, and they were all connected.
We had to wrap up our appointment, so I finished by sharing information on the physiology of stress on the body.
“Let me explain what stress does to your brain. The amygdala is the part of the brain that scans for danger. Based on our past experiences, if the amygdala senses any danger, it kicks in our limbic system. That reaction is the survival part of our brain in charge. We have less access to the rest of our brain during this time that can help us problem solve. There is a physical effect of that limbic response, to prepare us for the fight, flight or freeze. Experiencing this often leads to exhaustion which then leads to stress and it becomes cyclical.” I finished with a brief wrap up. “So, if there is something you are worrying about often, then you are triggering the limbic system response and it’s causing you to ruminate without any solution. Does that make sense?”
Cliff nodded as he processed the information very carefully. I handed him the workbook opened to the page that described the Limbic System. I asked him to take a look at it before our next appointment, and write down any questions he might have as he took it all in.
The next session began quite differently for Cliff. He had read and re-read the workbook, studying the definitions, the diagrams. It was obviously a game changer. For Cliff, seeing the information in black and white, printed in front of him had a significant impact.
“Okay,” I said, feeling encouraged that we could get down to the core issue rather quickly. “Let me ask you something I asked last session. When did you start to have trouble sleeping?”
His reply was focused. “The first time I lost a big client.”
I have shared this story as a glimpse of a coaching relationship. This story is based on multiple clients’ personal stories. *Names and details have been changed for privacy.