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Burnt to a crisp — how to come back from burnout?

by Rebecca Hill

I was recently invited to participate in an online discussion focusing on burnout in the time of COVID-19. As a burnout survivor, I am conscious of what’s going on in the world around us. Many are struggling with life, work, and relationships due to COVID-19. Parts of our communities are particularly vulnerable to feeling overloaded and overwhelmed, and those feelings can quickly lead to burnout.

While there’s a growing awareness of burnout as a condition, it remains ill-defined. As a result, there is not much reliable and credible advice available for sufferers. What guidance is available focuses mainly on managing one’s resilience and setting firm boundaries, and for those with more severe cases, potential drug and or talk therapies are recommended.

My story of burnout is fairly classic. As a predominantly Type-A personality in a high-pressured, demanding work environment coinciding — and competing — with being a mature parent of a young child and the wife of a busy man in the throes of starting his own business, I, too, stumbled along a path that led me to burnout. My struggle led me to an intense path of investigation, which included reading many books and articles, speaking to quite a few professionals (including doctors and therapists, some weird and some wonderful), as well as burnout survivors, and of course, trying a whole range of remedies to aid in my recovery.

Given my recent experience talking about burnout publicly and realising the impending potential magnitude of this issue, I thought it could help share a few insights based on the information I gathered and my personal experience on the burnout journey.

1) Burnout is absolutely individual to each person. There is no one common set of symptoms, and therefore no one course of action works for most sufferers. What was interesting in much of what I gleaned was how burnout survivors would often advocate for one particular solution (usually the solution that worked for them). It requires diligent detective work by the sufferer to piece together a coherent set of symptoms, which can help build an approach to recovery. This is a real problem as time is the one thing sufferers lack. Even keeping a simple diary and writing down daily one’s experiences in a few words can help build a picture of recovery.

2) Burnout is a catch-22. It is neither just a mental nor just a physical condition. However, most available support for burnout sufferers focuses on either the mental (the preference of the medical establishment in the UK) or the physical. Little regard is paid to the fact that it is likely a blend of both mental and physical symptoms for most sufferers. Unknown to me at the time of my struggles with burnout, I was also going through a severe case of early-onset perimenopause, which meant my hormonal health greatly contributed to my anxiety and insomnia symptoms. The result was a bone-deep weariness and brain fog that contributed to and confused my burnout diagnosis. Whereas before, I would have been able to handle the high levels of cortisol and adrenaline (due to stress)*, I literally found myself unable to cope with the added effects brought on by the adrenaline/cortisol roller coaster. When I mentioned this to my GP, she instantly dismissed it. Through painstaking detective work, I was able to better understand how the physical symptoms contributed to the mental symptoms and vice versa and ascertain what I could do from a root cause perspective to address these symptoms.

3) Burnout is an expensive business in so many ways, not the least of which is financial. To access good support costs money. However, sufferers can enact small changes that make a difference and come at a minimal cost. Pay attention to the basics: watch what you eat and drink (especially alcohol and caffeine), prioritise sleep, establish routines above all else, and get really good at saying no. By turning as many of your activities into routines, you’re reducing the sheer number of decisions you have to make and therefore removing stress from the equation. Finding respite in nature: walking, gardening, or just sitting outside if that’s all you can manage is critical. Too many of us live our lives inside, stuck behind screens that sap our precious resources. Additionally, prioritise gentle exercise, preferably outdoors, until you start feeling better. In the meantime, avoid the high impact indoor workouts (like gym visits) at all costs.

4) Surround yourself with supportive professionals to help you on your journey. Money may be tight so investigate if possible, with your GP’s support if you are so fortunate, what you can access for free, or at a reduced cost. My GP was hopeless, and it was a hard lesson to learn. Fortunately, I was able to access support through a friend for low-cost mindfulness classes, and through health insurance, a specific type of osteopathy. Additionally, I paid out of pocket for various nutritional experts to help me with my recovery.

5) Burnout remains an “Achilles” heel for most sufferers. Particularly if you have had severe burnout. Most survivors I spoke to talked about needing to manage themselves and their sensitivity to burnout on an ongoing basis, and I can sympathise with that. In my case, my burnout led me to totally re-evaluate my work and my approach to it. I’m now crafting my work and my life in a way that gives me much more purpose and joy. It still has its ups and downs, and this year has given all of us many of those, but my bone aching exhaustion and extreme levels of anxiety are in the past. I remain vigilant.

In my Wise Sherpa coaching work, burnout is still a taboo subject to a great degree. There is a tendency for sufferers to downplay symptoms as “feeling a bit tired” or “run down.” The stigma of burnout for many, particularly in the workplace, married with the desire not to worry nearest and dearest, leads many sufferers to suffer in silence. My belief is, if we can talk about burnout, not just as part of the mental health debate but also as a psychological and physical condition, and do so in as many spaces as possible, it will be easier for sufferers to ask for help. This collective effort, I believe, will enable professionals to better understand the scale of this condition and the need for their quality support. My hope is that sharing my personal experiences through this post will help others open up further by engaging in the conversation and chipping away at the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding burnout.

PS If you’re interested, I’m working on a longer blog/article on the A-Z of burnout — a practical guide. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on what we should include.

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