The Perils of Burnout
The Energiser bunny. A phantom of our childhood memories with his bass drum that kept going and going and going and…
Despite how we may fool ourselves, Energiser bunnies we are not. In fact, rest and recuperation are critical for both our minds and bodies to operate effectively. And even though we may be able to function quite well for a long time without a real break, eventually it will catch up to us in some form or fashion. And in this unprecedented time, many of us are right on the brink of burnout, without any real prospect of it easing up any time soon. I currently LIVE on that brink…
Superwoman, Amazon (you know, like Wonder Woman and Xena), Apocalypto (remember that Mel Gibson movie about the Mayans and the woman was in a pit trying to escape the tiger and gave birth while holding a baby and trying not to drown as the rain flooded the pit?)… I’ve been called many things. What I usually call myself is exhausted. And what I’m trying to learn is how to find some balance in this craziness of life. Between working from home, homeschooling, and trying to spend quality time with the family, who has time to pause? Raise your hands if you managed to have a life since this pandemic started. Please tell me your secret! And that’s just regular life. There are many who have unfortunately lost loved ones or a job or been ill themselves, which is a whole other kettle of fish.
Stress can manifest in many ways like sleeplessness, headaches, anxiety, difficulty focusing, mood swings and change in appetite. We do not want any of the above. This is definitely a do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do moment, so I’m talking to me too. How can we do this?
Painful, but true. This is one I can actually vouch for. The fitter and stronger I am, the better I feel, the higher my confidence. Added to that, exercise releases endorphins (feel good hormones) which help to improve mood (I can’t vouch for that part). Physical activity for at least 30 minutes 3-4 times a week does wonders for your cardiovascular and overall muscular strength. It doesn’t mean you have to always go to the gym. Be creative. Do you like to dance? Take a class. Try a new sport or go on a hike. Always wanted to tackle rock climbing? Go for it. Take the stairs, walk to the corner shop, cycle to the beach then go for a swim. Especially for those of us sitting in front of a computer all day, frequent breaks during the day to walk for a few minutes are important to keep circulation going. Staying active helps to improve another key aspect:
Guilty guilty guilty. Late nights and early mornings are unfortunately my norm. But I’m trying to do better. Sleep, just like rest days between workouts, are critical for your body to recover and repair itself. Stress in itself can harm sleep patterns and trigger a vicious cycle. But we can do better. Set and stick to a bedtime so you’ll get around 7 hours rest. Turn off devices 30-60 minutes before bed. Avoid caffeine and alcohol a few hours before bed. You can even try a routine to help unwind, like chamomile tea, a warm bath and some lavender aromatherapy.
As Barbadians, we live in paradise, so we really should make the most of it. Sunlight is important for vitamin D, which also improves calcium absorption by the body which we know is good for our bones. It can also help your sleep by improving regulation of melatonin production, which also helps to reduce stress. I’m not saying go and sunbathe, but 30 minutes in the early morning (before 8) or late evening (after 4) will do you well. You can combine it with some activity like walking or gardening. Sunshine also strengthens your immune system and helps produce serotonin which brightens your mood.
Laughter being the best medicine is not just an empty idiom. It increases oxygen to your lungs, heart and muscles. It boosts your mood and immunity and reduces pain. And there you have your medical excuse for Tik Tok addiction. I do not advocate this but I’ll send you my invoice.
An apple a day is not fluff either. Though I personally prefer mangoes. While that bag of cookies or piece of cake may be all your mind is begging for after a marathon meeting or an intense standoff, a diet perpetually full of high-sugar, high-fat and processed foods will do more damage than the temporary sugar high. You may even feel worse after the sugar high. Happily, there are many healthy versions or alternatives to our favourite sweet treats that do not taste like cardboard. Don’t let an occasional indulgence become a habit. Plus, healthy foods boost your immune system, lower blood pressure and some nutrients can directly combat stress. So be sure to get lots of vitamin C, Omega 3s and antioxidants.
Strong support networks are sometimes a luxury and not everybody has one. It takes time to build friendship and trust and work to maintain those connections. Those networks can be a very important source of strength to help share the load, listen and advise or just help you to escape for a few hours with an evening of fun and games. In person contact and relating helps us develop those close bonds, so make sure to spend time (safely) with your loved ones whenever we’re not in lockdown (not more please!).
Meditate and reflect
Focusing your thoughts on a specific thing for a period can help to bring mental clarity, increase awareness, practice concentration and increase emotional calm. Journaling and self-reflection are also promoted as positive practices to improve focus, self-awareness and learning which can complement meditation.
Relax and do you
Plan “me time”. Time to disconnect from the pressures, the pinging, the pleas. Time to recharge, reflect, rejuvenate. Time to do things to calm your body and mind, things that you love. Yoga, stretching and deep breathing can help to restore a sense of physical quiet, slow your heart rate, help your circulation, settle your mind. Do something you love! Spend a chill evening at the beach, read a book under a tree, have a spa day or aromatherapy, listen to your favourite playlist, take a quiet walk, do cartwheels in the park – so many options to choose from.
Just say no!
Remember that drug prevention slogan? Take it up again. You can’t do everything!! I’m lecturing myself here. Can it be rescheduled? Delegated? Lessened? Are there others who can help? Can this task be exchanged for something else I was already doing? If it’s no to all of these, and your plate is already full, we have to assess what is the real fallout of not doing it. Does it require a difficult conversation with your supervisor about priorities and limits? How will it impact the quality of the rest of your work? Does it mean they can’t have that thing this one time? Will your health suffer? Will your family life suffer? Is it worth it? If you say no, what will actually happen? Sometimes it’s not as dire as we imagine. Often there are alternatives that no one explores because it is expected that you will pick up the slack. You are in charge of managing your time.
Talk it out
Confessing shortcomings can be hard. It can make you feel inadequate, weak, incompetent, a whole mess of things. But being overwhelmed is not a sign of weakness. Realising you’ve bitten off more than you can chew is not failure. Being honest about our limitations helps us to get a realistic hold on the situation and better evaluate next steps. A good friend or counsellor as a sounding board can help to highlight things we may have missed or help us to process our thoughts and feelings or see possible solutions we didn’t think of. Even just verbally offloading (or screaming as you might) can help to lift that weight on your shoulders.
Burnout often leads to other psychological and physical ailments and increases your risk for unhealthy behaviours. If you don’t check in with yourself on a regular basis, you risk missing warning signs and putting yourself in a dangerous situation from which it would be difficult to recover. We’re all busy at the end of the day, but by managing your energy and time and hitting the pause button to check in with yourself on a regular basis, you can handle your busyness and become a happier, healthier version of yourself!