When I imagine burnout, I think of an athlete collapsing over a finishing line, for instance, Jonny Brownlee being carried by his brother Alistair to the finish line as his legs buckled from under him in the final of the Rio 2016 Triathlon.
We will always remember those famous images of Jonny Brownlee’s face engulfed in pain and heartache and his brother taking his body weight from under him. We so desperately wanted to see him get to that finish line and complete what he’d started. We couldn’t bear to watch him fail and so willed him and his brother on to do whatever it took to get to the end.
Burning out is seen to be something heroic – pushing ourselves beyond our physical and mental limits. We are so often judged by going ‘above and beyond’ that we don’t stop for a second to recognise our limitations – we just wait until it’s too late.
In our last post Burnout Pending, Fran spoke about how to recognise the signs of burnout and how to stop it mentally manifesting into something worse.
I wanted to let you know what happens when you ignore those signs and exactly what ‘beyond burnout’ looked like for me. Socially, I was doing great. I was seeing friends, bouncing from one social engagement to another, cracking jokes and getting the party started wherever I went. ‘No’ wasn’t in my vocabulary. If I didn’t have time, I would make time. I would spend every moment I could living life to the fullest because y’know, you only live once and all that. My mind was like a bubbling cauldron of ideas, that would come and go so quickly that my brain couldn’t keep up. Here was an idea, I’ll act on it, and pop, like the bubble – it's gone. What was I doing again? Oh yeah. I was acting so spontaneously; my friends would find it hilarious. I accidentally pressed the emergency stop button on a train when I thought I’d made an old lady miss her train. I was so caught up in the moment, and the panic of what I was doing that I did not even slightly think of the consequences for the other 300 people on the train whose journey I’d disrupted. I was waking up so tired that coffee was becoming my solitary diet. Must. Have. Coffee. Cannot function without coffee. Boom! Double espresso shot and I was back on it. My body felt tired but my mind was wired. As long as I could think, I could function. Headache - that’s fine – that’s what paracetamol is for. Who needs sleep? I would fall asleep mid-conversation with friends after I’d invited them round for dinner. I’d wake up 3-4 hours later, in my living room with a blanket slung over me. But, then I’d go again. I’d wake up so restless that I’d have to get up and do something, but my mind flitted from one thing to another so quickly, I never really achieved anything. Then, out of nowhere – I crashed. Not in a way you’d expect, my whole body reacted. I experienced the worst panic attacks I’d ever had repeatedly on and off for around 12 hours. I was so tired, but I couldn’t sleep, I began hallucinating, my mind still wouldn’t switch off. I was so beyond burnout, that the embers of what energy was left was truly burning until it truly went out. I was diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder a day later. It took almost 3 months to fully recover. The ASD manifested into 3-week episode of Psychosis. I had pushed myself so far beyond burnout that my brain literally decided to create a new reality for me to cope in.
I’m incredibly lucky that my family and friends intervened very quickly after my diagnosis. It took a lot of work to understand what signs I missed that could’ve prevented this. It took the help of my family, a temporary relocation back to my hometown, the early intervention team in Blackpool and a job resignation to start to get my life back on track. A year later, I can finally talk about this experience knowing I’ve come out of the other side and here were the lessons I learnt: 1) Sleep is Key Whenever you're at risk of burnout, the first step is to make sure you get some sleep. Don’t constantly fight tiredness with caffeine and alcohol – it will only prolong the crash. Listen to your body when it’s tired and let yourself rest; your mind will thank you later.
2) Practice Saying No If you’re the type of person who struggles to say, no, practice. If you uncomfortable saying no – practice delaying the decision. ‘Can I get back to you on that?’ has been my most used phrase of 2020. It gives you time to stop, think and evaluate – do I really want to commit to this? 3) Remember You’re A Human Being, Not A Human Doing Let yourself just ‘be’. Set yourself a time of day to just stop and do nothing. Human’s weren’t made for 24-hour news and communication. Turn off your phone, turn off all notifications and just take in your surroundings. Centering yourself in your environment and letting your thoughts flow naturally without distraction will help to take back control when you need it most. Finally, I write this blog post as a warning that burnout is not heroic. There is nothing more important than your mental health and no job, relationship or situation is worth risking your mental health for. Look after yourself and be your own hero. Love always, Lauren