the struggle IS real: the ten tell-tale signs of burnout (and your new to-do list)

July 26, 2016

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‘You rest now. Rest for longer than you are used to resting. Make a stillness around you, a field of peace.
Your best work, the best time of your life will grow out of this peace’ ~ Peter Heller

  • Your morning alarm is creating dread and overwhelm in the pit of your belly. You might fantasise about being in an accident, or being struck down by illness; anything to legitimise a few weeks off.
  • You have an overwhelming desire to hide from the world. Lying face down has become your favourite and you long to stay there. This may be accompanied by a metric tonne of guilt. Equally, you may find you couldn’t give a toss.
  • You can’t do more than one thing at a time. Thinking of all the things you are not doing makes you want to heave into a bucket.
  • You may feel epically frustrated that you can’t do what you normally do or keep up the pace you usually keep. Especially if you are used to being active and driven and successful.
  • You may find yourself feeling resentful and irritated by Every Other Human. Which leads to you being unreasonably and disproportionately mean to the people you love. And you probably don’t have the energy to muster an apology.
  • You are regularly avoiding the constant tumble of thoughts in your mind in some way (shopping, scrolling, rigorous exercise, (bottle of) wine time each evening).
  • You start to schedule time in your calendar cry in the loos at work (it is still a source of some pride that I was organised in my meltdown).
  • You might stop caring how you look and have absolutely no desire or libido. Or your appearance may become the absolute focus of your attention (lest anyone detect the screaming hot mess underneath).
  • You have no energy for the kinds of things that you usually do to take care of yourself. Nothing seems fun or helpful anymore.
  • You don’t feel you can ask for help. Because you don’t have the energy to deal with any of this.

There is a way through. Here is your new to do list:

One: recognise that you are burnt out.

Feel the relief from being able to say to yourself: I’m not crazy, and I’m not lazy. I have just utterly depleted all the energy, iron, chi, yin, yang, prana, kundalini and life force in my whole entire being. I am bone weary knackered. Done. Kaput.

It’s ok to stop for a while. And it’s always better to consciously choose to stop, rather than accidently driving up a one-way street and having both legs broken, or getting fired after an ill-timed outburst towards your manager (both true stories).

Two: tell people you are burnt out.

Tell your boss, your family, your people. Do it simply. Unapologetically. Even Especially if you have a load of stories about failure and shame.

When you are burnt out, one of the first things you lose is your perspective. I promise you that asking for help is the complete opposite of failure.

Three: get a blood test done.

Because you are probably anaemic, and you may also have adrenal fatigue. When you see your Doctor, talk about what’s going on for you (there is a chance you have tipped over into depression).

Get signed off from work for a few days. You need some breathing space.

Four: claim back your time.

Go through your calendar and cut out absolutely everything that is not about directly paying the bills or keeping yourself, and the tiny humans/furry beings alive.

Be ruthless. Call people and tell them simply and unapologetically: ‘I’m sorry, but we need to reschedule/cancel’. Feel the utter freedom of saying no.

Five: do whatever the hell you want to do.

Eat chocolate, chill out, wrap yourself in a blanket and let the furniture hold you for a while. Revel in healing yourself. Go to bed ridiculously early, be as selfish and lazy as possible.  I highly recommend switching off from the world early each evening at 6pm.

It’s a very kind habit to cultivate: no screens, no phone calls (does anyone actually call anyone anymore?), no Facebook, no live tweeting Game of Thrones. Absolutely no work. Would you just sit the fuck down?

NB: after a few days, you might start to feel better, more hopeful, even energetic. Do not re-restart your engine. Keep things simple.

This is a time to be fierce about being soft: your need for rest does not need to be justified.

Burn-out is a massive deal, and your body needs your loving support right now.

And seriously, expect all of this to feel a bit shit and weird for a while.

Your loyalty, resilience, tenacity, competence, your solution-focused, action-oriented way of getting lots done – these traits have been amplified to the point of extreme imbalance. When you stop, you are in foreign territory; it’s completely natural to feel disoriented and out of sorts.

The very values, qualities and traits that make you a brilliant human, have contributed to your burn out.

So switching off might even feel worse than burn out (because at least you know who you are when you are stressed). Try to remember this is not forever: it’s not a stop, but a pause.

After you rest, when your energy, perspective and some capacity to deal returns, it’s a good time to think about how you can nudge the pendulum to a place of manageability.

Some questions to ponder:

What do you believe it says about you, if you ask for help, or depend on other people? What would be the impact of reducing by 10%, the standards you set for yourself?

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Leave a reply

18 Responses to “the struggle IS real: the ten tell-tale signs of burnout (and your new to-do list)”

  1. […] tell-tale signs you’re burning out […]

  2. […] what we say and what we hear |signs of burnout […]

  3. lee says:

    My question is when is it burn-out and when is it depression? I experienced many of those signs in college and was diagnosed with depression. Now I’m experiencing them again and my therapist says it’s not depression.

    • Sas says:

      Hi Lee, I’m sorry you are going through a tough time.
      I am not sure that there is an easy answer to your question, though I know burn-out can certainly lead to depression.
      I wonder what it would mean to you, to have your experience named as depression?
      I highly recommend talking about why this matters, with your therapist.
      My thoughts are with you.

  4. Ali says:

    Yes yes yes to all this. My doctor had me do a saliva test a few months ago to check for adrenal fatigue and it came back very positive indeed. But she didn’t have much to offer and I think that happens a LOT. It’s one of those nebulous, possibly-just-in-your-head, vague airy-fairy things, right? Well, actually no. It’s very real and can take a while to recover from.
    Finally I have taken matters into my own hands and have found some excellent supplements which seem to be working already, after only a week, hooray – I’m not a doctor, and do see yours, people, but check out Dr Wilson at adrenalfatigue.org. He lives in NZ like many of the best people…
    I’ve been eating brilliantly for years and I have many great self-care practices, but there it is, anyway. It looks a bit like depression, a bit like procrastination, a bit like a lack of exercise, a bit like unresolved grief – but it isn’t any of them. It’s physical, and it can be fixed. Take heart!

    • Sas says:

      Yes its TOTALLY real. It’s so interesting that Doctors can struggle a bit with care advice.
      Yay for Dr Wilson! What a great resource – thanks for sharing Ali.
      Take care of you xx

  5. Shalagh says:

    I actually pulled the plug on myself last week. And am posting on it tomorrow. Summer means two children to juggle yet I had the same lofty aspirations for myself. And suddenly, I realized I was feeling like a loser instead of a winner. Summer is finite I said, so knock it off. And I’ve promised to take a better look at what my aspirations are. Do I want to do it vs have to do it? Does it tickle my fancy? Is it for me vs for others? Is it of intrinsic value?
    Your no nonsense voice is just my cup of coffee Miss Sas. Would that I were in a place to afford you, I admire you greatly.
    Love,
    Shalagh

    • Sas says:

      Oh this sounds fabulous! There’s something about the finite nature of a break that somehow makes it more doable, doesn’t it? It contains it somehow. And yes – that rest is the perfect time to slowly noodle on the big aspirational stuff… but you know, there’s no rush 🙂
      A friend of mine has declared this summer ‘the summer of the languid unfolding’ and she has put a lovely timeframe on it to just chill the hell out. She also bought a canoe to support this project #ilovecanadians
      xxx

  6. Sas says:

    Hello Donna – I’m so glad this resonated.
    And yes absolutely agree that anaemia and burnout are not causally related, but there are correlations where fatigue is exacerbated by low iron levels.
    I suspect folks who are experience burnout are deprioritising nutrition.
    Either way, it’s worth getting checked out!

  7. Donna says:

    This resonated really strongly with me. Thank you for writing this.

    I’m not sure about ‘you are probably anaemic’ – anaemia can be a cause of the things you listed, but so can a lot of other deficiencies and conditions. It seems unfounded to say burnout is very likely due to anaemia.

  8. Madeleine says:

    Beautiful and so resonant, Sas. Lately I’ve been fascinated by the changing seasons and the different energies each one brings (I love the way you weave this into your work and of course the mindful year).

    My instinct is that this feeling of burnout is also a feeling that belongs to summer. Of course we can experience burnout at any time. But my own experience is that this overwhelm and frustration and lethargy is most likely to strike at those times in the year when the animals around me are resting and conserving their energy (the dogs and cats seem to spend most of their days lying on the cool floor of the kitchen right now) while I’m pushing on with my to-do lists and actions and creating. Spring and Autumn I feel more motivated, the days are cooler and the heat less oppressive, and I seem to be able to manage my energy better and feel more balanced.

    This got me thinking about the word we’re using – “burnout” and its connection to the fire element in summer. Where I live we’re in forest fire season so burning is a very real risk of the heat right now. I think of anger as being an emotional excess of fire, but of course we can burn out ourselves, internally, too, as you describe.

    Thanks for such a compassionate and articulate piece and for sparking (ha) new thinking. Your blog is one of the few I read and re-read (and I’m not even a coach…).

    • Sas says:

      Oh, the idea of a seasonal aspect to burnout is fascinating.
      I wonder if there is also something about the social-cultural aspect of taking holidays in Summer, and wanting to get everything ‘done’ so we can say we’ve earned our rest?
      I too find the Spring and Autumn more motivating, while Winter makes me introvert like it was an Olympic sport. And living in England means we aren’t troubled too much by the heat!

  9. Catherine says:

    This is so familiar. You might have written this just for me. I’ve just been diagnosed with anaemia and am exhausted – especially interested in what you say about anaemia and adrenal fatigue. I’m going to look into this now but if you know of any useful resources I’d be interested to hear about them. Thank you for writing this!

    • Sas says:

      Hey Catherine – I’m so sorry you are going through this, but it’s a mighty good sign that you are aware of what’s happening. I’m convinced awareness is the fastest way to heal 🙂
      I don’t have any resources on the medical side of things, but I would say to trust your sense that something is up as you know your bod better than anyone.
      Adrenal glands get a big workout from those of us that have a tendency for burnout – it’s definitely worth seeking some medical help to see what would best support you.
      Thinking of you xx

    • tina says:

      Catherine, I’m currently going through some anemia issues myself. Lots of blood work, a scheduled colonoscopy and a recent visit to a holistic practitioner have me stopping and realizing that I turn 49 on Tuesday and I refuse to go into my 50s in poor health that my 40s had to offer. It’s about taking your life/health into your own hands. What you are experiencing is very draining on you physically, mentally and emotionally. And it will spill over into the other areas of your life. Good luck and know that this can be taken care of with tlc!!!

  10. Jen says:

    ” The very values, qualities and traits that make you a
    brilliant human, have contributed to your burn out.” So true. It is a very strange and foreign land to find yourself in, but in my experience, good comes out of it, as you said, when we slow the hell down, ask for help and learn to nourish ourselves through this time and ongoingly.Patience too!

    • Sas says:

      Hey Jen! Yes absolutely – patience matters so much doesn’t it? Great point.
      It takes a lot longer than we would hope to recover (if my experience is anything to go by).
      Thanks for stopping by xx