It wouldn’t be a blog post about burnout without a reminder that I’m not a medical professional and that these posts are not meant to provide medical advice or be used as a tool for diagnosis. I’m discussing my experience with burnout and I hope that if you feel you are going through any sort of mental struggle in which you think you could benefit from professional help, that you will reach out to a doctor and get that help.
My road to recovery
Burnout is a form of exhaustion, which meant doing absolutely nothing was the best thing I could do to recover. In practical terms, it’s incredibly hard for most people who have families and/or jobs that can’t wait to literally do nothing for an extended period of time. Okay, for even one day.
Still, the best thing for exhaustion is to get rest.
The body can’t recover without sleep. It just can’t. With exhaustion and burnout, the body is pushed to the max and it needs to come down from that. There are a myriad of research papers and studies on the impact of sleep on the body and they’re written by medical professionals which makes them a better resource than if I were to try to summarize that information here.
Resting an injured body part is actually easier when you have something like a broken leg. You and everyone else can see it’s injured. You get a painful reminder when you do too much and it’s expected that you’re not going to go out and run a marathon on a broken leg. When it’s your brain that’s taxed out and unable to function properly, we suddenly have all these reasons why we can’t rest.
Exhaustion meant that doing more was further damaging me and my body instead of helping me.
I had to tell myself that I was sick and injured to be able to give myself permission to rest. It’s extraordinarily difficult to spend half or most of the day sleeping when by all external indicators, your body is healthy. I had so much guilt during this stage of my recovery, but it was the absolute best thing I could do for my body.
I could go on for an hour about how mental health is physical health, but again, since I’m not a doctor, I’ll hold off. So now, let’s get back to what I did to recover from burnout.
I cut back on my physical exercise, which was again very hard for me because I use exercise to control my generalized anxiety. I also have some back/joint/etc. issues that flare up if I don’t do enough physical activity during the week. But, while I was burned out, I cut back to doing yoga only, and mostly restorative yoga (you know, adult nap-time) for the first month of recovery. Very gradually, I upped my workouts after many months until I was back to pre-burnout hours of exercise each week.
Breathing exercises are really helpful
Did you know that there’s a muscle that connects to human hips, via connective tissue, to the spine and diaphragm? It’s the psoas, and I’m bringing it up because it’s a prime example of how the physical can impact ‘mental’ state. Here’s the thing, people tend to sit a lot these days. And they end up with tight hips, and sore backs, and other funky body issues. To counter this, we’re often told to take breaks and stretch. Stretching and breathing are both critical to maintaining a healthy body and a healthy mind.
Get back to the burnout. I hear you. I’m getting there.
In recovering from burnout, I had to learn to stop my body from entering that fight or flight response so quickly and so often. Breathing and stretching were quick, effective ways for me to tell my body that I was safe. Here’s why. I mentioned in my last post that the body is responding to constant stressors at work the same way as it would respond to a physical threat. But the cool thing is, I can tell my body to chill out by triggering the release of anti-stress hormones. Learning to do this requires recognizing when you’re starting to stress out and taking action to calm down.
Enter the psoas. When stressed, instinct has us fold in on ourselves in a protective manner. We shrink and take up less space. And in doing so, we contract our cores, giving less space to the diaphragm and our lungs. We also tend to take shallower breaths. But we don’t have to. We could elongate our body and core, stretching open our chest, rolling back our shoulders. Creating space so that we can take deep breaths, slowing our breathing and getting more oxygen. And this tells the brain, I’m safe.
Whew, that got kind of science-y again. But having a doctor (and later a physiotherapist) explain all this to me, made me feel less silly about taking breaks and doing breathing exercises. When I first started trying to incorporate deep breathing into my routine, I felt like an idiot. And this is coming from someone who has had a pretty consistent yoga practice for over a decade. Having the knowledge that I was overriding my brain’s fight or flight response made me feel kind of like a bad-ass. I was taking control. And taking control, when I felt like I had none, was empowering.
There are great apps out there for guided breathing. I downloaded one called Breathe + that allows me to adjust how quickly it cycles through breaths, guiding me with shifting colors. This means when I’m nearing a panic attack, I can start off with shorter breath cycles that I can actually manage to follow, and then up the length of my in and outs until I’m able to get those full beautiful breaths that really help calm me down. A friend of mine has another app that displays a growing and shrinking geometric shape, which is gorgeous and I also love it. When I was going back to work after burnout, I would sometimes take a short break, go into a room by myself, and use the app to keep myself from feeling overwhelmed. It’s quick, and you can feel the tension leaving your body as you take these deep soothing breaths.
I mentioned stretching, right? Of course I did. Find stretches that work for you, but since I spend my days at a computer, the stretches I used were ones that opened my chest (since I’m usually hunched at a desk), pushed my shoulders down and the shoulder blades flat on my back, and opened up my hips. I also really love spinal twists. Some days my back, and thus also me, just can’t relax without them.
I’m a list person. I always have been. I get a perverse sense of joy from crossing off tasks. I talked about creating lists to help recover from burnout in the podcast I did with Kitty, so I’m not going to recap that all here. I will say this, you can use lists to limit yourself and create boundaries so that you don’t over-do. I’m going to talk a little more about lists down below.
I talked to various people who went through burnout, and they all told me the same thing. In the beginning of recovery, they didn’t have a lot of energy. Once they felt rested, they found they still didn’t have what it took mentally to do their usual tasks, but they were bored. And they wanted something to do.
We all inevitably turned to the mundane.
For me, I cleaned my tiny apartment every single day. It didn’t need it. Cleaning wasn’t about cleaning at that point. Clearing off counters, dusting, putting things away, they were all simple tasks that didn’t require too much mental capacity (I mean, I was cleaning the same 80 square meter apartment daily. I wasn’t doing deep cleaning here). That was week one of the mundane. From there I ventured out. I walked around town. I wasn’t doing anything while walking. I wasn’t even really window shopping or reading advertisements. I just was walking. And it felt good to get out and move but to have no expectations or end goal other than to leave my apartment.
I baked. I find baking really soothing. It’s methodical and measured in a way that feels more structured than cooking, which I’m terrible at. And I like food, so there’s that too.
I bought some more house plants, which not only made my apartment cheerier, but gave me another fairly senseless task: watering.
Reconnecting and finding joy
One big part of being a writer is being a reader. And while I was burned out, I couldn’t read. So I adjusted my goal for this year by half of what it was last year, and I was patient with myself. I changed the kinds of media I was consuming. I also changed the format.
What do I mean by that?
Well, I spend probably too many hours a day looking at screens, whether it’s my computer, my phone, or my e-reader. When I was burned out, not only was the screen hard for me to look at because of sensory overload, but also because of the association of the computer screen and my job. That meant, I didn’t do screens for a short period of time. Really at all, if I could help it. And as I got back into reading and writing, I found it was easier to concentrate on a book if it was a physical book instead of an e-book. The same was true when I picked back up with my writing. It was much easier to write the good o’fashioned way with paper than to use my computer.
For books, big epic fantasy and sci-fi stressed me out in the beginning. They felt too real, but also they were dense books. They required my mind to hold entire new universes together for the stretch of 500+ pages. Meanwhile, graphic novels helped me out by showing me instead of asking me to do the visualizing. Middle grade fiction was easiser to follow probably because it’s simplified both in story (usually, not always) and vocabulary. Romance novels gave me a light world with guaranteed happiness, and dialogue that broke up dense paragraphs. Non-fiction resonated in a way that fiction wasn’t in that moment. I haven’t entirely figured out that one yet, except maybe it was just different enough from my usual go-to picks that my mind was more accepting of it? I gave myself permission to break from routine and slowly I was able to get back to what I loved. (Bonus, I found some really great stuff out there and expanded my horizons.)
As I continued to improve, I still struggled to read. I struggled to follow even short tv shows. But I was able to do more complicated mundane tasks, like re-alphabetize my movie collection. I was getting out and meeting with friends, but with an agreement that I wasn’t going to talk about work. It was great. We got together and we talked about everything but the one thing that had led to burnout. This probably doesn’t sound huge, but for an expat whose friends were all coworkers, social gatherings usually ended up in conversations about work. Now, they didn’t.
Writing was harder at first. But then, bam, it came back big time. When it was gone, I was so scared that I’d never write again, which I now laugh about. I didn’t have hard deadlines I had to worry about missing, but I do set my own deadlines that I’m a stickler for, so I had to adjust those and my expectations.
Burnout had a serious impact on my sense of self-worth. Creatives already go through this cyclical pattern of feeling amazing and like their work is going so well, to the lows of feeling like a fraud or like everything you try to do is garbage. I had to force myself to be nice to myself.
I created a post-it note that I put above my desk that said “I am enough” and I forced myself to read it aloud at least once a day. That part was kind of key for reasons that have to do with how people process visual and audio information. Not entirely important right now, but I didn’t do this because I enjoyed standing in my home office talking to myself. The first week of doing this felt dumb. Really dumb. By the end of a month, I was grinning while I said it and I felt lighter, happier, like maybe what I was saying was true.
The path forward
It was slow going and I was lucky enough to have burnout leave, which meant I was off work entirely for a number of months, and then I gradually worked up to 40hrs a week. If you’re trying to recover without leave, give yourself time. Be patient.
My doctor had told me upfront that recovery is not a straight line up. I had great days where I was convinced I had fully recovered, and then I had days where I thought I’d never recover. This can go on for months past when you’d expect it too. I have a friend who recently went back to work full time after being out on burnout leave, and she said that she had a great day at work followed by a really social and productive weekend, and by the end of it, she realized she’d done too much. She’d pushed too hard.
Part of recovery is learning your boundaries, and then respecting them. Recovery is saying that it’s okay to do less. Even when you’re no longer ‘burned out’ because changing your habits is how you avoid burnout in the future.
Burnout as a creative
I’ve written about this before, but I think I should go over it again briefly. My creativity comes in waves. I’ll have a surge of activity and inspiration followed by dark days of nothing. And there are always excuses for why I just ‘can’t’.
Going through burnout and learning about setting personal boundaries meant I had to look at how I work creatively. It’s so easy to have excuses for why you can’t write, or draw, or whatever it is you’re passionate about. I’d spent the last decade fighting myself, pushing myself, and telling myself to ignore that voice that says “I can’t today.”
Being burned out made me re-evaluate the way I handle this little creative demon. And I’m still learning. I think the best thing anyone can do is talk to others about their experiences. (That nugget is applicable to all areas of your life, not just mental health.) It helps us to see that we’re not alone, and it helps us recognize when we’ve slipped into unhealthy patterns.
I push my creative friends. Or I try to. I am that annoying writer who randomly messages friends to ask them about their WIPs, about their goals, what they’ve done lately. I do it out love because I know when I’m making excuses and dragging my feet on a project, someone else’s interest in what I’m doing (or rather not doing because I’m avoiding it) sparks something in me. It makes me want to work harder.
Recovering from burnout required that I learn the difference between pushing myself because I needed pushing and beating myself up.
Critique Partners and Groups – Your Support Network
Having a good support network is so huge if you’re experiencing burnout. As a creative, this meant having other creatives I could talk to about what I was experiencing. Critique partners and groups, at least the ones I’ve found and have stuck with, aren’t just there to tell you when something doesn’t work in your story, or correct grammar, or focus solely on craft. I have some great CPs who have become my friends as well. While I was burned out, I backed off of my twice a month critique group. At first I just didn’t go, and then I gradually worked up to going, but not submitting my own material. I was just there to give feedback and feel connected to the community. But during that time, I had one CP who I talked to nearly every day. She helped me to remember that everyone feels lost from their craft sometimes, and that I’d get back eventually. Even better, she reminded me that it was okay to take a break for my health.
Your goals and deadlines – what you have to do
I’m not a full time author, meaning I have another job and I don’t make a living only on my writing. I also don’t have publishing deadlines right now. I set goals for myself each year, and deadlines for each project. I’m kind of type-A in this, so it works. I treat them like they’re real deadlines with consequences, even though usually the only real consequence is feeling bad about missing a deadline. Still, I had other responsibilites and deadlines I was working under when I went through burnout, and here’s what I did that I think might be helpful.
I asked myself: why do I have to do. Like literally have to do it myself, no one else can do it, and if I don’t do, I’m going to be in financial trouble, or trouble with some external person or company or whatever that is not just me. Am I being clear? Stuff like, feeding myself and my pets, paying bills, that sort of thing. The real basics to survival. And I did this looking only at one week initially, then after that first week, I did it for a whole month.
My first list of ‘have to’ items was stupidly long and a lie. There were things on there that were ‘nice to have’ and I scratched those off, or actually, moved them to the next month to be dealt with and thought about then. Then I looked at this list and I asked myself: what of this can I delegate? I’m fortunate because I have a partner who could (and did) take on some of my usual tasks to help lighten my load. Not everyone has this. I get that. But friends are often willing to help. Or if you’re in a financial position to pay someone to do them for you, you could go that route too. You might also have family who can step in. The point is, not all of the tasks I had on my list had to be done by me, and so I took them off and delegated.
Last thing I crossed off my list was the “have to” that came down to not wanting to let people down, but wasn’t something I could actually do without letting people down (because I wasn’t able to deliver the quality on the task that I’d promised). This was a tough one. Essentially, I’d volunteered work and I could no longer do it all. When you’re volunteering and working with other volunteers, everyone is VERY busy. I bit back my pride and I contacted the organizers and explained that I just couldn’t do it to the level of quality they wanted or needed and asked for help. I agonized over this for way too long because it turned out that they were very understanding.
My end list of ‘have to’ was really the bare minimum and it lifted a giant weight off my shoulders to see it cut down so much. It also allowed me to relax and rest because I could plainly see what needed to get done, and none of that extra stuff that wasn’t really necessary just then.
Honestly, the list is about priorities. And in doing it, you’re putting yourself at the top of the list and not budging from that position. It’s hard. It’s counter to everything I’d been taught growing up. But the longer I did it, the more comfortable I was with setting boundaries, knowing my limits, and putting my recovery first, which meant I was able to recover faster.
Right, right, but some of us have deadlines. Some of us have jobs that can’t wait, or won’t.
I hear you. But at some point you have to put yourself first, even if only for a little while. You have one body in this life. Take care of it. Take care of yourself. No one else can or will do it for you.
Ask for help
Perhaps the best way for people who have to continue working through burnout to get those small breaks they need in order to function is to ask others for help. (This is based solely on my observations. I’m sure a medical professional could tell you what’s best for you). It’s a scary thing to do, and I’m not saying rush to your boss and tell them everything. But even just telling the people closest to you that you need help is huge. People are surprisingly understanding and helpful.
Okay, I’ve rambled on now for too long about my experience recovering from burnout. I hope you find something in here that helps you in some small way. Or a big way. That would be great too.
Remember, be patient and kind with yourself. No one else can do this for you.