Healing From Destination Burnout, and Keeping Myself From Ever Going Back
It’s taken me a year to recover from burnout and I’m not sure I’m even entirely ready yet to write this article, but here I am giving it a crack. Going through the toughest 12 months of my life I’ve learned a lot about myself, my self-worth, values and building a different life that is more balanced with a strong connection to purpose. It is my wish that someone will read this and realize they are at risk of following a similar path and make some changes before they are in the depths of burnout.
Through the experience of essentially, breaking down, I felt like a failure, and I had no idea what to do about it — plus I didn’t want anyone to know. All my “Type A, get it done, make it happen, suck it up and do it better than anyone else” tendencies did not help me. It’s not that I didn’t try — I furiously read everything and listened to every podcast I could find about anxiety and kept working 12-14 hour days for six months until I couldn’t keep going another a day, when I then collapsed and got some intensive support.
What is burnout?
The World Health Organization classifies burnout as an occupational phenomenon in the International Classification of Diseases and defines it as:
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Psychology Today has a simpler and broader definition:
“Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. Though it’s most often caused by problems at work, it can also appear in other areas of life, such as parenting, care-taking, or romantic relationships.”
My personal experience related to the broader explanation of burnout when I had prolonged and repeated stress in a number of aspects of my life all at the same time. I wasn’t familiar with what burnout meant or what signs to look out for, all I knew was that I was anxious all the time, could barely get a few hours sleep each night and tasks that felt very easy for me to accomplish in the past seemed to take more energy than I had to give.
How do you know if you are in burnout or headed in that direction?
People experience burnout to varying degrees and have different circumstances that are the catalyst. There are many symptoms identified by different articles that I have read, however the consistent three that are identified are chronic fatigue (physical and emotional), cynicism and negativity, and feeling ineffective or decreased performance.
In the last 12 months I experienced some of the worst fatigue I’ve ever experienced, and went through months of very little sleep and a couple of months of sleeping about 14 hours a day and still feeling exhausted. Concentration was difficult for about nine months and during this time I watched very little television and I certainly couldn’t concentrate long enough to watch a movie. I had periods of severe anxiety, feelings that it would never end and a strong desire to isolate and hide from the world.
Healing from burnout has taken much longer than I could have ever imagined and I’ve been very impatient and frustrated at every step. I thought a few weeks off work and I’d be ready to walk back into the fire — oops I meant corporate world. I actually naively allocated myself three weeks R&R after which time I had planned to start applying for new jobs and get straight back to it. Who knew it would actually take a year, even with amazing support from professionals, family and friends? In reading some stories from others who have recovered from burnout in my research for this article there were many who took years to fully recover.
My self-care practices are what have helped my recovery the most and none of these practices were part of my life pre-burnout. I have implemented mindfulness meditation, regular walking, a good sleep routine (see my earlier blog article), regular massage, acupuncture, making an effort to regularly connect with people, volunteer work at a food bank, no alcohol for six months and regular therapy. To relax I started doing painting by numbers. It was the only thing I could focus on, relax and satisfy my need to be doing something all the time without adding to my stress. I’ve now changed my career completely from a corporate executive role to running my own business, educating others about mental health first aid. I feel like I’m now doing something that I was always meant to do. Throughout I’ve slowly been learning to be kinder to myself and I’m gradually easing off on that Type A relentless focus with a need to be achieving something every second of the day.
My ongoing focus now is preventing a burnout relapse. This time round I didn’t see it happening until it was too late, but I’m determined not to end up there again. The same practices that have allowed my nervous system to recover will be the preventative measures that will stop me going back down the road to burnout. I also have learned to listen to my body which communicates loud and clear when I need to slow down a little. Previously I’d ignored it so long that the messages from my body never entered my consciousness. I’m learning more about self-care and what my limits are, all the time. Stay tuned and I will continue to share my experiences with self-care practices as I continue to look after myself better.
Overall, I now feel like I’m living my life on purpose – making choices that align with my values and feel right. It took the universe giving me a pretty big smack across the head to force me to stop and re-evaluate what I wanted from life. Pre-burnout I was just so focussed on relentlessly striving and achieving I would never have changed course without a pretty big wake up call. In many ways I’m still recovering, still learning about the new me, working out what I want from life and discovering all the ways I can give back too.
A version of this story originally appeared on mentalhealthaware.com.
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