Spring is the season when university students push themselves like crazy to finish course work and exams so that they can enjoy the summer. Because Athabasca University students do not follow a traditional course calendar like other universities, they seem to constantly push themselves to their limits. AU students are known for being master multitaskers; they handle the pressures of their studies while working their day jobs, taking care of their families, and working their way through their long to-do lists. But there is a flipside to constant pressure and stress that nobody likes to talk about until it rears its ugly head: burnout.
I found myself staring this truth in the face recently, as I sat in my GP’s office, on the verge of tears and feeling desperate. I’d been going a million miles an hour for months, rarely taking a day off and feeling proud that I was able to push through the tiredness. I thought this was a good thing to do because I was working toward my goal of finishing my degree. I also had to deal with the death of my mother, a house move, and helping my son with his struggles in school. But even though was racing through life like a Formula 1 car, I ran into trouble. I crashed, and it was sudden, and it was spectacular.
I felt like I’d hit both a mental and physical wall. I was exhausted, to the point where I just didn’t know what to do next or how I’d cope anymore. After a heartfelt chat with my doctor, I was signed off work and told that I needed to take some time to recover. Even though it wasn’t like I’d broken my leg or suffered any outward signs of trauma, she said I was experiencing a great illness and I needed to get better from it. And though this diagnosis was a huge relief—that this wasn’t “just in my head” and my concerns were being taken seriously—it also created another flood of emotions. I’d never been in this position before, and it was completely new territory for me. What would happen to everyone and everything else if I weren’t there to take care of them? I didn’t know how I got to this point, and I had less of an idea about what to do next.
Burnout is one of those vague psychology buzzwords that has come to mean a whole bunch of generalities in the same way that “stress” and “depression” have been misappropriated and trivialized so that their true meanings have been watered down. But this is exactly why burnout needs to be taken more seriously. It is a consequence of severe stress and the toxicity of modern life. It is also sneaky; it can take many years of going at a fast pace before a person realizes they are in trouble. It is an epidemic that is getting worse, according to medical statistics. There are the consequences of it that are unseen, such as losing a lot of productivity and inner joy; then there are the outer consequences like affecting close relationships and even triggering long-term health issues. It is difficult to know which effects are worse.
The result of coming face to face with burnout was the realization that, in a perverse way, the “busy-ness is good” mentality I’d built up led to me becoming fueled by stress and weirdly addicted to it. But, like any other drug addict, I had to realize that the only way that I would recover was to be humble and admit that what I was doing was no longer working. I needed to change. In the same way that the universe has certain parameters in which it operates and one cannot mess with the laws of physics, people also have their own sets of limits and certain rules must be obeyed. Constant stress, lack of sleep, bad nutrition and punishing work schedules will eventually take their toll on both body and mind. It is when people get smug, thinking that they can ignore these limits and keep on pushing themselves to the max without consequence that burnout happens. And when it does, it is as traumatic as any physical health crisis, like a heart attack or cancer.
The burnout situation I’ve found myself in has been hard on my family as well as myself, but I know I’ve been lucky. I caught it at the first real sign of trouble, rather than continuing to deny what was happening to me. Health and wellness professionals have been placed in my path to help me heal, and I’ve graciously submitted to their expertise. Like other mental conditions such as depression, each person’s journey to recovery will be personal and unique to them, and It’s important to seek out proper medical care rather than just going it alone. But here are a few things I’ve learned so far.
Asking for help is the biggest and most difficult step. It was so difficult for me to make that appointment with my GP. It also was difficult to have the conversations with my husband and with my employer. But I admit that the was most difficult part was to first allow myself to face up to what was really going on. I was also scared, to be honest, to have these talks with people because I was afraid of the reactions I’d get. I haven’t exactly posted the nitty-gritty details about what I’ve been going through on social media, but I’ve confided in close friends. The positivity and support I’ve received has been a great help. More importantly, I’ve learned to continually ask my inner self what I need at each moment and to learn to trust and listen to my intuition. The answers might not be immediate, but taking the time to reflect and check in with my inner self often results in surprisingly clear guidance.
One of the ways that severe stress manifests itself is in an inability to breathe deeply. The chest is tight and breathing is shallow and even physically painful. Buddhists who meditate say that it isn’t down to a total emptying of the mind, which is a myth of meditation, but that it all comes “back to breath” and allowing thoughts to come and go. Slowing down and calming the breath can have an amazing effect on both physical and mental health. Taking this further, learning to meditate is a great tool to manage stress. I found Dan Harris? book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story gave me some great insight into learning to become more mindful. There are also some other great workbooks and CDs about meditation and mindfulness out there; the trick is finding what resources are a good fit.
Burnout is the result of the prolonged absence of self-care, so recovery hinges on learning how to re-introduce it. This is easier said than done for people who have got used to pushing their needs aside for so long. I’ve had the air plane analogy “put your own oxygen mask on first” quoted to me many times just lately, but there is truth in it.
I realize that if I keep putting my needs on hold, I will render myself incapable to care for anyone else. Self-care can be on a large scale, such as taking a sabbatical, retreat or vacation, or undergoing a course of psychotherapy. But there is great power in the simple things like taking a bubble bath, going for a walk around the neighbourhood, or sitting down to enjoy a cup of tea. Self-care is also found in making positive choices such as drinking enough water and watching one’s nutrition. Lack of sleep is also a symptom of severe stress and burnout, and learning how to get a good night’s sleep can be a difficult yet important lesson in getting one’s body and mind back on track. The small acts of self-care are as important as the big stuff because the steps to recovery often build on the little things that turn into healthy habits. Self-care takes other forms too, such as learning to adopt healthy personal boundaries and learning to say “no.”
I am still recovering from burnout. I cannot say that I am at the point of thriving just yet, but I am slowly climbing my way out of the dark hole I fell into. I wish that I would have never got myself into this situation, and I hope that others never find themselves dealing with what I’m going through. But in a way, I see burnout as a gift. I see it as a place where I can begin again and make a pact to treat myself better from now on. Perhaps, like other illnesses, burnout will leave me with a scar or two, but I’ve been reminded that health is not something to ever take for granted.
Carla is an AU student who lives and writes in Calgary, Alberta. Say “hi” to her on Twitter @LunchBuster.