We all get stressed and are sometimes a bit fraught, sleeping badly and feel increasingly ineffective… but that’s not burnout, is it? If left unchecked, it’s not long before you find yourself wondering if this constant state of exhaustion and mild hysteria is the new normal.
Burnout is a real problem (it even has its own test, the Maslach Burnout Inventory), and while it might not have been talked about as much previously, it’s not a modern phenomenon. Those sandwiched between children and ageing parents, while trying to juggle peak career stress, seem to be the most at risk. As the early symptoms can resemble depression – it’s not difficult to see how the two might be related – it can be hard to unravel the signs. It begins to feel ‘normal’ to be functioning like this, strung out, unable to concentrate.
That’s how burnout happens; it tends to creep up on us. We do manage, often for a long time and by burning the candle at both ends, to stay on top of impossible schedules. We pride ourselves on being able to multitask, to produce that 5,000-word report and a batch of cupcakes for the school bake sale, when the only time off we get is at 1am after the cat’s litter tray has been cleaned. If this is ringing a bell, it may be that your work/life balance needs reevaluating, because the impact of trying to function like this for days, weeks or even months will take its toll. Remember, if a high-performance car is driven relentlessly at full throttle and burnout occurs, it doesn’t just stop: all systems fail.
And that’s the problem. Burnout is really bad for both our mental and physical health. When the pressure is on, the nervous system responds by churning out lots of coping hormones – adrenaline and cortisol – designed to keep you going, but only for the short term. Over longer periods, the adrenal glands that produce these hormones become overstimulated and can become damaged, turning unpredictable – sometimes failing to produce hormones on demand, sometimes over-producing – which can leave us feeling completely floored or wired and panicky. Ultimately, the adrenals can virtually pack up, creating the risk of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), and autoimmune disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Worst case scenario? Complete burnout is really the final stage of adrenal exhaustion and when that happens, it’s mostly because we missed the warning signs.
The smart thing to do is to pay attention to those early warning signs and symptoms. Easy to say and less easy to do, granted, because the difference between coping and not coping is highly individual and often a matter of degree. These symptoms may be low-key at first, but their cumulative effect is insidious. Tiredness, the sort that creates feelings of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion, is an early warning signal. Sleep itself often becomes problematic, with either difficulties falling asleep or waking very early in the morning. That sense that you’re on a treadmill, that what you’re doing isn’t good enough, can be another sign.
It takes time – weeks, sometimes – to re-set our stress thermostat if we experience burnout. But being smart to your signs of stress and avoiding their escalation by ensuring you take basic self care measures every day – adequate sleep, regular nutritious meals, exercise and relaxation – all help. It’s important too to learn and define where your limits are – and then say no to excessive demands on your time. Ask for help when needed, create a support system for stressful times and relinquish the idea of achieving perfection in everything you do. Remember; before you put on someone else’s oxygen mask, you must first fit your own.
This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 29. Illustration by Lorna Jameson.
How to recover from burn out: first steps
Learn how to recover from burn out with these tips from Harriet Griffey’s new book, From Burnout to Balance.
Below are some immediate first steps that you should take if you are approaching or in burnout. It’s important to recognise that these steps won’t completely solve the problem – but they will start the process.
- Go through your diary and cancel any upcoming events or functions that aren’t completely essential.
- Set up an ‘out of office’ email reply explaining that you’ll be away from your desk for a while.
- Turn off your computer.
- Turn off all social media apps on your smartphone.
- Only do any exercise that is calming, such as restorative yoga, gentle walking or swimming. Don’t do anything that makes your heart pound.
- Eat small amounts of nutritious and easy-to-prepare foods at regular intervals (every 3–4 hours) to maintain blood sugar equilibrium: avocados, bananas and proteins balanced with slow carbs.
- Keep hydrated, but only drink water, calming tisanes or herbal teas like chamomile, roobois, lime blossom, lemon balm, mint, fennel or jasmine. Avoid caffeine.
- Take a warm (not hot) bath with lavender oil and magnesium salts.
- Wear loose, comfortable clothing and warm socks.
- Listen to calming soundscapes or music that has a rhythm slower than our heartbeat or resonates with the Alpha wave pattern in our brain. Alpha waves are on the same frequency as the Schumann Resonance, the frequency of the earth’s electromagnetic field. When our brainwaves are in Alpha rhythm, we feel more grounded and in tune with the earth’s energy. Bach’s cello suites are a good example of Alpha wave music.
- Don’t watch or listen to the news, as this can trigger a stress response. Try to disengage your thoughts for a while.
- Do some breathing exercises to help stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the deceleration effect of the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Create a calm atmosphere in your home and sleep as much and for as long as you can. If you can do the above for a whole day, a weekend or even a week while on holiday, you will have started the process of alleviating burnout. This is the basis on which you can move to a fuller restoration of life balance.
Burn out first aid
These are quick and easy things you can do to ease stress and relieve immediate symptoms of burnout:
- Deliberately and consciously slow and steady your breathing. This sends a message to your body that you are physically feeling calm.
- When you smile, the arrangement of your facial muscles tells your brain you’re happy, which can actually make you feel more optimistic: watching a familiar, heart-warming television series or movie can help you relax and switch off for a while.
- Gentle physical exercise stimulates the production of mood-enhancing endorphins, so try 10 minutes of yoga stretches or a gentle walk.
- If you can’t get out into nature, even just looking at a picture of a rural landscape, such as trees, hills, a lake or the sky, helps to counteract urban stress.
- Listen to music that resonates with your alpha brain waves This will encourage you to move into a more calm and relaxed state.
24-hour crisis plan: recap
Pay attention to your symptoms. When you spot the signs of burnout, take action fast. Look at the list of first steps and commit to following them for at least a day (ideally longer).
Clear your diary wherever possible, try to stay off your computer and social media, avoid any potential stressors and try to create a calm environment. If burnout is approaching and you can’t take these actions, try something from the burnout first aid list to tide you over until you can take a real break.
Remember, these are just the first steps, and will not be enough to hold burnout at bay in the long term.
Harriet Griffey’s new book, From Burnout to Balance, will be published on 29 October 2020 (Hardie Grant, £12.99). Click here to order your copy.