Melanie Lee of seechangeholistic.com
This spring I experienced serious burnout for the first time. I was exhausted, indecisive, lacking motivation and alternated between feeling flat and anxious. I was completely taken by surprise – I work in mental health, I prioritise my self-care, I no longer work crazy hours, in many ways the pandemic has made my life simpler and easier. And yet here I was – eyeing up my sofa and cosy blanket. I took 2 weeks off to reset – one week was planned, the other less so.
When I stopped to reflect I noticed many of my peers feeling the same – we were one year post lockdown and collectively people were hitting a virtual wall. Colleagues, friends and clients alike, many people were reporting feeling depleted and burnt out.
So what is burnout, and what can we do to recover from it and prevent its recurrence?
What is it?
Burnout is a state of exhaustion caused by prolonged and chronic stress – it frequently, though not exclusively, stems from work stress and then spills into other areas of our life. Burnout is more likely if you feel a lack of control over your work, feel your work is poorly recognised or rewarded, or the work is a mismatch with your own values.
Burnout leaves us feeling exhausted – physically, mentally and emotionally. We can reach a point where we feel helpless, hopeless, cynical, resentful, humourless and lack motivation. Anxiety may rise or we feel numb. Physically, we may experience frequent headaches, body tension, aches and pains, lower immunity and our sleep, appetite and digestion may all be affected.
As a counsellor working during the pandemic it feels like burnout is wider spread than before. Whether I’m talking to key workers, people working from home juggling childcare with work, people worried about elderly relatives they can’t see or self-employed workers feeling powerless with restrictions which threaten their livelihoods, many people are feeling exhausted and drained.
We may have found that without activities like coffee breaks with colleagues, getting to the gym, or socialising with friends we’re not getting the chance to reset ourselves in the ways we used to.
As humans we’re not designed to live in a state of stress for long periods and we may have felt like we’re running an ultra-marathon lately having initially expected restrictions to last nearer the 2-3 weeks mark (let’s call that a 100 metre sprint).
How can we recover?
Initially many of us may have succumbed to ‘bad’ coping mechanisms. We may use drink, drugs or unhealthy foods to escape or try and ‘grab’ more energy or a better mood. We may withdraw from others, distract ourselves with activities that leave us feeling less connected, blame others in our lives for our unhappiness or procrastinate work and life tasks.
These things tend not to help and often keep us stuck.
So what helps?
1. Good self-care. Start to remember what things help you feel happier and more resilient. I love the Self Care Wheel for kick-starting the process. Create your own list of things that help, keep adding to it and refer to it whenever you need a boost. Schedule those things in regularly – physically add them to your diary as otherwise it gets full of less restorative activities.
2. Relaxation, mindfulness, relaxed breathing. There are plenty of apps such as Headspace, Insight Timer or Calm to help you with mindfulness and relaxed breathing. Try and regularly slow and deepen your breathing. It can help to start with a powerful breath out your mouth to start with, returning to nostril breathing, in then out. Perhaps a count of 4 out, a pause, then 4 in and pause. Repeat for 2-3 minutes. If you find still mindfulness difficult, combine it with walking, running or photography.
3. Eating well. We need good fuel for our brains to function well – B vitamins, Omega 3s and magnesium are a good place to start
4. Listen to our bodies. If we need more movement – find something you enjoy. Running, walking, cycling, yoga, dancing or sea swimming? Exercise helps burn off stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, relaxes our nervous system, releases happy endorphins, and gets our digestive system back online. Start really gently, perhaps with a more restorative yoga practice or a slow walk, if you’re feeling really depleted. Perhaps we need a good massage, reiki, reflexology or other body therapy? If we can’t afford that some self-administered massage – foot, hand or leg – may be possible. I’m a fan of Shakti acupressure mats when I can’t get a massage.
5. Being in nature. On my list of things that help I have added to ‘walks’: ‘River? Trees? Sea? Big skies? Hills? Flat paths? Sunsets? Sunrises?’ Sometimes when you’re feeling really low you need little hints of what nature you might need right now. Blue and green spaces can reset us beautifully when all else fails.
6. Being creative. Find something that allows you to be creative and playful, unconnected to work. See for example, Anna’s beautiful mandala creations.
7. Connect to others. On your list write down who you might connect with when you’re struggling and start with those people who lift you up. These might be friends, family, and colleagues, people who like doing the same things as you or a counsellor such as myself.
8. Talk to yourself with kindness and focus on baby steps. You don’t have to do everything on this list, just start with one thing that resonates for now.
For me, I could see where some of my good habits had slid, and where bad habits had returned. I used my time off to re-establish my meditation and yoga practices, to cook better meals and immerse myself in nature to reset my nervous system. I planned small adventures to sprinkle through my diary after I returned to work and set some important work and personal boundaries. Your recovery may look different.
How can we prevent it?
All the things listed in recovery also work for prevention. Treat yourself as a lovely, compassionate experiment just now, especially as you heal and the outside world starts to change. How often do you want to socialise in a week/fortnight/month? How much quiet time do you need? How often do you need to exercise or be in nature? Set boundaries and schedule in what your mind, body and soul needs. If you’ve realised your values have changed or work no longer has meaning for you, start exploring what you can do to change things.
If you recognise yourself in any of these words and want help restoring yourself after burnout I would be very happy to help support you with counselling. My sessions take place using Zoom and I have some availability. I love helping people move from mere survival to thriving.
Finally, I am a big fan of ‘mini-adventures’ of the sort WanderWomen do. Taking a half day, day or overnight out of your everyday life can help you reconnect with yourself, find like minded people and fulfils many of the ‘recovery’ points listed above. You can easily see what works for you in one wee adventure and then start to scatter these things into your everyday life.