For weeks now, a message has been popping up on my laptop saying that the storage was almost full and I needed to delete some items to free up space. I kept ignoring it, or trying to free up a little bit of space here and there so that I could keep working. But then it happened... my laptop crashed, and now I can’t turn it on. Apparently, it could cost me a whopping $600 to get it fixed! I think I might buy a new laptop.
It’s a bit like that with burnout. We keep going and going, ignoring the signs that we should take a break and free up some mental/emotional space... and then we crash... leading to a much more costly (longer) recovery.
So, what is burn out? Well, it’s pretty widely known now that some stress is good for us (called eustress). This is when our adrenaline and cortisol kick in and we can achieve a lot more than usual, such as completing an assignment/big project/organising an event in a short period of time such as a night or a week for example. The good thing is, we can usually rest a bit afterwards and our stress hormones go back down to baseline.
However, what if we don’t rest and just keep going, for weeks, months or even years? Well, that baseline changes and we end up living on a high level of the stress hormones for a prolonged period of time.
Our adrenals are responsible for releasing those fight or flight or stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol. When we are constantly releasing these hormones over a sustained period of time, our adrenals burn out of them... hence the term “burnout”.
When this happens, sometimes we aren’t even able to cope with minor stressors, as they trigger a massive fight or flight response that our bodies no longer have the resources for.
Symptoms of burnout
Some of the symptoms of burn out are:
· Trouble concentrating
· Poor memory
· Lowered immunity
· Headaches or muscle pain
· Increased cynicism and negative outlook
· Loss of motivation and/or satisfaction
· Withdrawing from work/friends/commitments
· Consuming food, drugs, alcohol to cope
Stages of burnout
There are different stages of burnout, and if caught early, this will diminish the length of recovery.
Stage 1 – High stress: this is when you have been experiencing stress for long periods of time, possibly staying up late and burning the candle at both ends. This might include increasing consumption of coffee/tea, food, drugs, alcohol to cope.
Stage 2 – Fatigue: extreme tiredness starts to set in, and you may experience frequent illnesses such as colds/flus and/or unexplained symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, etc.
Stage 3 – Burnout: when your body crashes and you feel unable to get out of bed to go to work or even catch up with a friend. You may even possibly feel unable to complete small tasks such as chores in the home or cooking.
Guidelines to recovery
1. Rest, rest, rest. This means saying “no” to many things, which is often challenging for people facing burnout. One of the reasons many people end up burnt out is because they struggle to say no. A Counsellor or Psychologist can help to process the underlying reasons why someone struggles to say no, and help build assertiveness. Seeing someone who understands what you are going through is extremely comforting to those experiencing burnout.
2. Reassess your priorities and start spending your time with people/activities that fill your energy tank rather than drain you. If you are in stage three, you will most likely need to take some time off work/study, or heavily reduce your workload. Some GP’s acknowledge burnout and will write you a medical certificate for this.
3. Find your flow. Doing an “in-flow” activity means finding something that takes your mind off everything to the point that you can lose track of time. For example, you might love to garden. Research shows that doing an in-flow activity has a restorative effect on focused attention (we can’t just go-go-go all the time, we need breaks!)
4. Eat healthily, with good portions of protein to give you sustained energy and prevent the energy highs and subsequent crashes caused by sugar.
5. Visit a naturopath and discuss taking helpful vitamins such as vitamin C, omega 3 oils, and ashwaghanda.
6. Drink plenty of water!
7. Have faith - while recovery may take some time, if you follow the above guidelines, you will get there!
Why do we push ourselves so much? What hinders us from caring for ourselves? Don't wait until it is too late. Perhaps now is the time to take the step and stop the burnout.