Taking burnout and our minds more seriously
From an article by the Mind and Soul Foundation
Kate Middleton remembers a conversation a long time ago, with a highly successful businessman. He came to see her out of the blue, wanting to tell her his story. And it began with him telling her about an amazingly successful life and career. The model family, the high powered job, the house in Kent, the nice car that was parked outside the church building where he had driven to meet her - he had all the trappings of success. Sure, his work schedule was intense, starting every day before dawn with the drive into London, finishing late in the evening as he worked at his desk at home having come home to see the children before they went to sleep and then returned immediately to work. But, he explained, in his industry that was normal. And he accepted it without question.
Until the day when, out of the blue - in his words - ‘something broke.’ He told her, calmly and without emotion, how he had driven that day, not to work but to the coast, with every intention of ending his life. He felt, he said, quite calm, but the thoughts and plan were clear in his mind. He just couldn’t do it anymore.
Thankfully he didn’t go through with his plan. And his visit to her was to tell a story of God intervening, of clawing his way back from burnout - and how his chance discovery of a book she had written on this very subject had been part of that. It was an amazing story full of God’s grace and rescue - but the path back from burnout was not an easy one.
In this season the word ‘burnout’ is being bounced around a lot as we talk about certain people and professions under pressure. But do we take it seriously enough? Burnout is often dramatic, impactful and devastating. It represents a moment when your capacity to continue under extraordinary pressure and demand, physically and/or psychologically, is simply exceeded. You cannot go on anymore, not because of some emotional weakness or lack of backbone, but because you are human and you have limits.
Your stress system manages short term or ‘acute’ stress relatively well - think those mad moments or life’s little dramas. In those moments a complex physiological system coordinates a host of responses - immediately grabbing and focusing your attention, flooding your body with the things it needs to physically be able to react - be that fighting or running away, switching down less important ‘housekeeping’ things like digestion. And so, stress is intrinsically linked to two key emotions: anxiety and frustration. These emotions operate on the same physiological system and are part of your brain’s mechanism for warning you things are going on that might become significant, so you might need to act. By triggering your stress system they too grab your attention and prime you just in case you do need to do something.
Problems develop when stress is not acting like this - when the things you are managing are not acute ‘in the moment’ needs, but long term challenges you need to keep a handle on and juggle or manage. The more of these you have in your life in one moment, and the longer they persist the more this activation of your stress system becomes not acute but chronic - long term. And neither your body nor brain was designed to work like that.
We all have a crisis level. When Stress levels are on the edge of your capacity to manage - life starts to feel very uncomfortable. You are acutely aware that even the slightest demand might push you under. And even the normal demands of day to day life become very hard.
The truth is, many of us live life far too close to this overwhelm space. 21st-century life is busy and demanding, and many of us love the buzz. It’s easy to feel that time spent resting or relaxing is time wasted, or to use any ‘down’ time doing things which whilst distracting and/or cathartic, remain physiologically demanding for your body or brain but the cumulative effect can be a gradually creeping up baseline on our stress system.
And in this season an unusual, specific challenge has hit most people. Lockdown and the realities of pandemic living have raised everyone’s stress level almost universally, as we manage constant change, new life routines, and for some, relentless additional demand, responsibility or stress. The emotional load of loss and constant triggering of emotions like anxiety and frustration add to the raising of our physiological stress baseline, and many people have spent some or all of the last 6-7 months living on the edge of overwhelm.
Aware of the huge demand, your brain starts to close down your rational analytical centres, so processing becomes much more limited and thinking clearly hard. Your own perception of yourself suffers too - so not only are you under intense pressure but you start to doubt your own ability or performance. Meanwhile as your ability to reason becomes so limited, your performance really does suffer. And with your mind on the lookout for the next emergency, focusing your attention becomes very hard, so you cannot concentrate and your memory is shot. Often sleep becomes an issue too. And as you become more and more exhausted, these things fast become a vicious spiral it is difficult to find a way out of.
Burnout is a complex set of experiences and reactions, and perhaps the most challenging thing about it is how hard some of those loops are to break out of. So are we taking it seriously enough? If you know you are running near to the edge take it seriously. We are all human. We all have a limit.
Know you are on the edge of burnout right now? Don’t just accept it and keep on - make some changes! Here are some practical things to think about:
1 - Recognise this is a sign your mind is totally overwhelmed. It is on emergency shut down. You cannot reason well in this state. Your thinking brain just isn’t working. You will need some help to get to a better place. Talk to someone you can trust NOW and ask for help.
2 - Know that because of that, things are almost definitely NOT as bad as they feel. The lack of options, the way you feel trapped, the hopelessness of your situation - these are all symptoms of a mind that can no longer see things clearly or problem-solve effectively. You’re probably seeing symptoms of that in other spaces too. Struggle to do something really simple like changing a lightbulb or work out how to get batteries out of something? That’s a mind that has no energy or capacity left to problem solve. Do not trust the things your brain tells you when you are in this place.
3 - This is a time to be kind to yourself. Do not feel any sense of judgement or criticism in how you are feeling - and if anyone tries to suggest it is your fault, ignore them. This is not a sign of failure or weakness. It is a sign of being human. You are an ordinary person under extraordinary pressure. Don’t be afraid of what you are feeling and experiencing but do take it seriously. It is possible to come back from burnout - maybe today you can take the first steps.
4 - Find space. This is the first and most urgent thing you need: to get away from anything making demands on you. Most people need a complete and total break. Remember some of those things may be positive - children, friends, things you used to enjoy. But if you are really close to the edge even those things may need to be out of your head even if only for a few days. So whether it needs you to book some time off work if you have holiday owing, or speak to your doctor and arrange to be signed off in order to avoid becoming seriously unwell, do it. Do NOT decide to spend your time off achieving other things that will stress you out.
5 - Find escape. This is about absorbing yourself in something that is NOT demanding but does help you feel more of a sense of satisfaction and productivity - and ideally also helps you relax. When did you last let yourself get totally lost in a brilliant book? Or read the paper cover to cover without being interrupted? Feel guilty for the release? Don’t. This is what you need and taking this shorter, planned time out for escape will hopefully prevent you ending up needing to take a lot longer out if you do hit full blown burnout.
6 - Find a new rhythm. Ultimately avoiding just heading straight back into burnout is going to require a change. And the good news is that this is not just about the absolute amount of stress you are under: it is all about how you manage it and the things you do to counteract stress both in the moment and in your wider rhythms and work patterns. Are there changes you need to make?
Recognise that working this out is a long process, so don’t put yourself under too much pressure. Think about what early steps you can take - and what steps might be necessary to make bigger changes.
Read the full article here.
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