Almost every day I see someone posting about stress related illness. I meet people who I see are close to hitting the wall and burning themselves out on a regular basis and it makes me sad. Why do we struggle with this and for what purpose? How can you come back once you hit the wall and what do you do to come back?
25 years ago I hit the wall. I burned myself out and spent a year in rehab. It was so bad that I once went to the store to buy milk, but had to stop halfway home and call a friend to drive me home. I lived 10 minutes from the store. This experience is one of the worst I have ever experienced and the effect of it will never go away.
This is why I react when I see people do the same stupid thing as I did and work yourself to the brink of exhaustion. No one will ever thank you for getting burned out and the road back is very long indeed. The worst part is that it is almost impossible for anyone to understand the way getting burnt out feel, so it is hard to find someone to talk to.
How to burn yourself out
Working hard is not the same as burning yourself out. Working hard is for me how you should work. It is when working hard under constant negative stress happen you risk burning yourself getting burned out. The tricky part with this however is that everyone have different things we respond to with negative stress. This makes it hard to know when you are risking your health and when you are just working hard.
Stress is when we trigger our natural defense mechanism called "fight-or-flight" or stress response. This is one of our strongest subconscious mental responses and as such it is often something we are not even aware of. In short it is the way our mind defend itself from harm. What we protect ourselves from varies from person to person and it is triggered differently in different people.
You can for example be a person that handle chaotic environments such as restaurants well, but get stressed over meetings with authorities or economic problems. Other people can be very sensitive to uncertainties and require structure and order to avoid stress. Since this is individual it is very hard to know when you are hurting yourself from stress, or even what type of stress that is harmful. There are symptoms however that you can look out for to help you identify these types of issues
These symptoms are borrowed from WebMD.
Emotional symptoms of stress include:
- Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
- Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
- Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
- Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed
- Avoiding others
Physical symptoms of stress include:
- Low energy
- Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
- Frequent colds and infections
- Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
- Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
- Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
- Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
Cognitive symptoms of stress include:
- Constant worrying
- Racing thoughts
- Forgetfulness and disorganization
- Inability to focus
- Poor judgment
- Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side
For me the most common symptom is low energy. I call this "the hole" as it feels like you are trapped in a dark hole mentally. I get this quite often and that is because of my duality in personality where I am both extrovert and introvert. That means that I spend a lot of energy being extrovert at work, but then I need time for reflection for my introvert side to balance that out.
Not having enough time for reflection at work is one of the most damaging things you can have. This is why the word NO is so important as well as the ability to dedicate time for reflection. Many organizations adapt a policy called No Meetings Day, which basically locks time from being used for meetings. This is so time can be spent on work and focused reflection.
I have a theory that the reason why so many poor decisions are made in organizations is because everyone is constantly running. With no time to reflect decisions are made in the fight or flight mode. The problem with that is that when you are in that mode you suppress your prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is often referred to the "modern brain" since this is where our ability to plan and take long term decision. This area is also responsible for empathy, which is why some managers appear to be assholes.
How to avoid getting burned out
Balance you energy
The first thing I suggest you do right now is to make a list of things that give you energy and what drain you of energy. This is your balance list. This list will help you understand how you are doing mentally and you should update this often in the beginning. For me for example it cost energy to go to parties and I gain energy from writing or watching movies. For you it can be that it give you energy to go to parties and it cost energy to write reports. It all depend on your personality and there are no right or wrong answers.
Do you have time to do your work?
The second thing you should do is to look at your work. Do you have enough time to do your job? If the answer is no, then you will burn yourself out sooner or later. This is why many people in stressful jobs jump between employers as the time constraint trigger the fight or flight response. You either get into conflict with your employer or you leave if the stress get to much. So if you are in a situation when time is not enough, then you should talk to your employer to reduce the workload. If that is not possible, then find new employment if possible.
Do not forsake reflection due to social demands
Thirdly, and this is mostly for my introvert peers out there, make sure you do not forsake reflection in order to be socially accepted. I know many introverts who feel obligated to go to parties or be social when they should spend time reflecting. This is especially problematic when you are young or when you invest heavily into social media. Do not be afraid to shut down, even if you feel that people think you are weird. You are not weird and everyone that actually matter will not only understand, they will support you in that decision.
Reflect and listen
This is important, because it is when you stop to reflect that you can see the signs of you being in danger of burning yourself out. For me I write things like this and as I write I reflect on my own state of mind. For you it can be a walk in nature, mindfulness or just having a cup of tea on the terrace. Also listen to what others are saying. If people ask if you are ok, then stop and reflect instead of instantly respond that you are ok. I actually had members of my team ask me this a coupe of years ago and it led to me taking a few days off as I was getting burned out
What do I do if I burn myself out?
Ask for help!
This one is the most difficult one for many. Asking for help is for some strange reason considered to be a weakness, but it is in fact a strength. The ability to ask for help prevent many, many issues in life and I think it is also a prerequisite for personal growth. So do not be afraid to ask for help if you start to feel some of the symptoms above. Go talk to a doctor and also consider talking to a therapist as the injury you have sustained is a mental one. Only the symptoms are physical.
Accept that you are injured
Being burned out is not something you can "get over" or "snap out of". It is not you being lazy or weak. It is a mental injury as well as a physical one as your long term exposure of stress hormones have damaged your central nervous system. You need to treat this as a physical injury and by this I mean that you need to give it time to heal. Just as you would not keep running on a fractured leg you should not continue working in the same stressful way with a stress related injury. Let it take the time it need for you to heal.
Talk to someone who understand
This is extremely difficult to do, not just for you, but also for the people around you. Many who get burned out are people that naturally work very hard. To these people it is difficult to handle the situation as it conflict with their self image. As people around you do not understand and tell you to "get over it", that affect your self image even more. For this reason you should find someone to talk to who has been in the same situation as you have. Understanding that you are not alone and that this is not something you can just get over will help with those feelings.
Fill up on positives and cut away all demands
Nothings feels as heavy as having things that you must do. It can become paralyzing to the point of giving you panic attacks just to meet someone for coffee. So try to cut away on all things that you feel must be done and focus on things that fill you with energy. If you feel like meeting someone or doing something social, make sure that you give yourself a way out if needed. When I meet with people who have suffered a stress related injury I always tell them that if they need to cancel they just send a text. No explanations or excuses are needed. I also advice them to tell others that they are meeting that if they can not make it they will send a text and that they don't need a text back. Most people will understand that and it reduce a lot of the stress.
Drugs is not the answer!
When stress related injuries happen your instinct is to avoid the pain it brings. Most turn inwards naturally and avoid people to protect themselves. For some this is either not enough, or they can not handle the social demands. So they turn to drugs to take the edge of the pain and to hide from the world in a sense. An increase of substance abuse, regardless if it is alcohol or drugs is not actually helping however. In fact since your mind is already experiencing depression and low self esteem combined with a reduced capacity of your rational thinking adding drugs and alcohol will only increase the risk of self damage such as suicide.
Know that you will be ok
Depression often comes with stress related injuries. Self doubt and the sense of being worthless is common. These things can lead to thoughts of suicide as you see no way out of your situation. This is why it is important to get help early because no matter how bad your situation is and how deep into the darkest corners you find yourself I promise you that you will be ok. Just like all injuries they will heal in time and just like all pain it can become unbearable if you carry it alone. So ask for help and know that the pain you go through is temporary and will eventually fade.
You will be ok.
Take care of yourself out there
Getting burned out is becoming more common these days as we sacrifice empathy on the altar of efficiency. So take care of yourself and balance those energy levels. Talk about it often with friends and family and reflect on your current state of mind regularly.
No one will ever thank you for working yourself into the wall. Surprisingly enough most people will appreciate you for saying no if you have to much to do. Saying no takes courage and it has nothing to do with weakness.
You are an amazing person and you deserve a wonderful life. So take care of yourself and make sure you never hit that wall.