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How do I know the signs that you’re headed for burnout?

Well, picture this…

It was early 2015, I had invested my emotions in a relationship that was never going to go anywhere, I had a job I was working at for long hours and was extremely pressurised (sometimes 60, 70 and sometimes even 80+ hour weeks). It was the job I’d worked for and the relationship that I’d dreamt of (all butterflies and intense feelings).

Fast forward to June of that year and I was unable to get out of bed.

I’d been diagnosed with chronic daily migraine, my relationship was unhealthy and utterly disrespectful and my job filled me with fear and loneliness. 

You see, one day I drove to work and was simply unable to get out of the car. My body was fighting me and I was ill all the time. I remember telling my doctor that I felt like my body was toxic, that I was poisoning myself and I didn’t know how to make it better.

Like many of us out there I wanted the great job, the passionate relationship, the good money, the nice things, the lovely ‘perfect on paper’ life. Only in reality the great job was sucking my life away, my relationship was damaging my mental health and the good money and nice things never cared for me the way I needed to care for myself.

The ‘perfect on paper’ life was in fact a facsimile of a life. Something I was creating for others to look at and not for me to live in. With hindsight I realised I wasn’t just headed for burnout.

Turns out I WAS burnt out. 

If you’ve never really thought about what burnout is other than ‘having enough’ then this article by Alexandra Michel is a great place to start to understand the psychological science behind burnout. Burnout and the Brain

The main gist of this article is that this is an actual condition that is the result of chronic stress and it shows that this level of chronic stress actually changes the brain. With hindsight I know that this is exactly what happened to me back in 2015.

One of the most hideous moments for me was when my face drooped, my speech slurred and I was rushed to be checked for a stroke. Luckily, this wasn’t the case but my body was manifesting my stress so physically that I still experience some ongoing issues to this day.

Let me be brutally honest. I wasn’t sure I had enough left to come out the other side and in the worst times, I wasn’t sure I wanted to because there wasn’t much left in the shell of me. I look at the picture below, in the height of burnout in 2015 and I can see it, if I wasn’t just headed for burnout in this then I was fully there.

I still find it difficult to look at now, it makes me so desperately sad. I’m not there anymore but it has taken time. If you want to know more about where I’m at now check out my about page.

Amy Johnson in 2015 Suffering with Burnout

I don’t claim to be an expert in burnout. I write about it because it’s such a shocking experience. Even when you know you’re ‘off’ you don’t really associate it in this way.

Since my experience with burnout I have systematically taken steps to change how I work, how I live and who I surround myself with so that I never have to experience that kind of battle again. I started a business and now work for myself, I ended my unhealthy relationship, I prioritised my health over my income – it’s not been easy nor did the benefits show overnight but I can honestly say I am here today because of it.

Here are my personal top 5 signs of burnout and what I do about them.

  1. Tired to the bone. When I am leading into burnout one of the first things I experience is constant tiredness. The kind of fatigue that no amount of naps seem to help. The more tired I get the more unable to cope with my feelings I become and I drown them out with social media, mood swings, over eating and complaining about how tired I am.
  2. Illness. I have a chronic condition that was severely exacerbated during my worst times, now I know that my body is a physical manifestation of everything that’s going on so am aware of it changing. When I am nearing burnout I get ill a lot more, headaches, colds, breathlessness, achy joints, sickness, my periods worsen in intensity and my chrinco condition flares up in all its ugliness
  3. Procrastination. I am a huge believer in the power of positive procrastination. Taking a long walk can often lead to great ideas or clearing the garage instead of creating that workbook can make my mind fire off all the great content thoughts but when I find myself delaying everything, snoozing the alarm, putting off getting dressed in favour of a 3 hour bath, getting sucked into that 3pm channel 5 movie to the point of avoiding everything else, day after day after day, I know it’s not positive procrastination but pure avoidance because it all feels too much – burnout is creeping in
  4. Anger and frustration. As a generally placid person the fact that I want to slam my forehead into my steering wheel whilst screaming when the person in front of me has the audacity to park in a way that I find irritating is a sure sign of being overwhelmed. When I want to throw things in anger or cry in frustration that I already wore my favourite top and it needs washing before I can wear it again is utterly compelling evidence that I need to step back before the burnout gremlin takes my brain for a spin.
  5. Insomnia. Considering how exhausted I feel when burnout is there my sleep is one of the first things to go. I either cannot fall asleep for love nor money or, more often than not I wake up after a couple of hours of really heavy sleep unable to return to the land of nod. This is a particular form of torture that becomes self perpetuating and has extreme ramifications

Burnout is not the result of weakness, lack of intelligence or being bad at something. It’s a very real condition that we have built into our cultures by making people think there’s a preferred lifestyle and that to get it you need to do do do do do.

If you’re not doing, you aren’t productive. If you aren’t productive you aren’t successful. If you aren’t successful you can’t have that ‘perfect on paper’ life that’s splattered across every possible thing we can consume.

What’s even worse is that it’s such an insidious thing we don’t even realise that’s what’s happening.

Burnout can happen to anyone and at any time, what causes stress is different for everyone. That being said, just 18 months later I went from that to this and now, heading into 5 years down the line, many changes, focus on building a life and business that is designed to support me and embrace me I have gone from strength to strength:

Amy Johnson Smiling and Content

In order to reduce the likelihood of experiencing burnout I do these 5 things:

  1. I make sure that I am aware of myself, my feelings and my needs. I do this by journaling, taking time to be kind to my body, doing things that aren’t always fun but always help (drinking water and exercising) 
  2. I track what is making me feel consistent levels of stress. When I realised that my job was part of this and even dropping my role or my hours wouldn’t solve this because the job at it’s core would stress me out I changed it. I was lucky enough to have that as an option, if you don’t it may be time to discuss other options with your boss.
  3. I stop thinking of everything and focus on getting just one thing done. Reducing that to do list or simply scrapping it altogether for the time being can really help my sense of self and satisfaction
  4. I take vitamins and supplements, eat well and I am a huge advocate of speaking to your GP if it’s bigger than you can manage by yourself right now. You’d do it for a broken leg, take that same care with your mind
  5. I choose very wisely who I spend my time with and what I spend it doing. I choose to reduce my time on social media, I reach out to and lean on the support of people who are incredibly supportive and understand me.

Of course that list is not the be all and end all, your situation is unique to you and, over the years you will add things to that list as I have. If you want to hear more about my experiences and my tips to have a better whole life, whole business then sign up for my mailing list – I’d love to see you there!

Catch you later,

Amy x