by Annica Törneryd
“I actually think burnout is the wrong description of it. I think it’s ‘burn up.’ Physiologically, that is what you are doing because of the chronic stress being placed on your body.” ~Richard Boyatzis
Some years ago, when my mother told me that a friend of hers had experienced burnout, I didn’t really listen. Actually, I didn’t want to hear about it. I even felt irritated because she felt sorry for people who got burned out.
My opinion was that they were just being ridiculous and exaggerating.
It was an excuse, supported by a medical certificate from some doctor they knew well, so that they could stay home, plant basil in the garden, drink tea, and read good books in front of the fire. They were simply lazy folks who just couldn’t be bothered working.
Some lessons are learned the hard way. Others, really hard. A last few change you for life.
For me, burnout was life-changing; it turned my aggressive skepticism into factual knowledge. Almost annihilated by the beast of burnout, I’ve recovered, humbled and grateful to be alive.
The other day I sat down and flipped through my journals from the past years. It was overwhelming. I felt so heartbreakingly sad for myself, for what I’ve put myself through.
There was page after page of me worrying about alarming issues and symptoms I was experiencing, for a period of several years. There were lists of points I raised with my doctor, trying to figure out what was wrong with me. He kept saying the same thing over and over, but it was impossible for me to take it in.
He said, “Be careful, Mrs. Torneryd. You have all the symptoms of a textbook burnout.” My answer was always the same: “I cannot get burned out. It can’t happen to me; I’m not that type of person.”
Some of the points from my diary:
- When in bed, I can’t remember if I’ve brushed my teeth.
- I feel panic while driving; other cars are getting too close to me.
- My skin is a mess, and my hair looks dead.
- I’ve experienced three double-sided pneumonias over the past eleven months.
- I have constant ringing in my ears.
- Even when I sleep, I don’t let my head rest on the pillow.
- I wake up around twenty times per night (cramp, sweat, pee).
- I feel pressure over my chest, and I can’t breathe properly.
- My heart is very often offbeat.
- My intestines are destroyed; I look eight months pregnant ten minutes after every meal. I even pooped myself in the super-market—with no premonition.
- My gallstones are stuck in the bile duct, requiring surgery.
I was in a constant state of “I can’t do this anymore,” but there was nothing major I could change for instant relief. It was a combination of circumstances: the aftermath of bad choices, my workload, and my competitive character.
Every part of me—body, mind, and soul—was desperate to stop the life-drenching feeling of having nothing left in me to give or take from. I was wasted, worn-out, and destroyed.
Even so, I just kept going, repeating to myself, “When you’re down and out, there’s always 20 percent of your strength left” (a quote from martial art trainer). And I kept using my remaining strength over and over again.
People talk about “hitting the wall.” I hit that wall about five years ago—full speed, head first.
Since then, I’ve been forcing forward through concrete, screws, electric wires, and bricks. Then it happened: I made it through that thick wall, only to realize that on the other side was nothing but a fathomless, evil black hole. I fell until I crash landed, and then there was nothing left of me.
On the 17th of February 2014, my body collapsed. I had my first full-blown panic attack, immediately followed by a second one.
At first, it felt like my spine muscle cramped. I tried stretching and rubbing against a door post, in vain. I couldn’t breathe properly.
My lungs started pumping frenetically, and I could do nothing to stop it. It felt like I was suffocating. I seriously thought that I was having a heart attack and would die. Eventually, I passed out.
I finally accepted the message my body had been trying to communicate to me for years—I needed to make monumental changes in my situation, then and there, or I would lose my sanity, at the least.
For the first four weeks of my sick leave, I did nothing but sleep. It was not by choice. I simply collapsed—on the sofa, my bed, and even on the floor. I just couldn’t stay awake.
After the sleep marathon came sadness. I felt so incredibly sad, alone, and abandoned. I felt betrayed by society and my employer.
When I didn’t feel any more sadness, I started my healing journey to peace and acceptance and began reading self-help books. Every day I made an effort to rescue myself.
Eventually, a shift took place. Step-by-step, I built myself a ladder, careful not to go back to the wall I’d fallen out of, and I started to see the light at the top of that horrid black hole.
You don’t need to push yourself to this point—not if you follow these steps to avoid an imminent burnout:
1. Accept your limits.
It is not admirable to push yourself when your body and mind beg you to stop.
2. Clarify major energy thieves and avoid them.
Limit your contact with people who drain you, make hurtful comments, and complain. Pay your bills on time. Clean your home so you feel calm there, not stressed and surrounded by chaos. Eat fresh food and spend less time distracting yourself with technology.
3. Value yourself first.
Fear of rejection is also self-rejection; stop worrying about others’ opinions.
4. Get support and perspective.
Trust someone close with your feelings and challenges.
5. Ask for help.
It actually feels quite wonderful to receive.
6. Make choices that are good for you and make you happier, healthier, and stronger.
Get enough sleep to keep cortisol (the stress hormone) levels down, and don’t skip breakfast!
7. Get twenty minutes of sun every day.
This gives your body the Vitamin D it needs to function properly, though you can also get it from a supplement.
8. Get low-impact exercise three times per week.
When we exercise, the brain releases the “happy hormone” endorphin.
9. Don’t push yourself too far for the sake of progress.
Strive to improve, but never push yourself if you feel it’s hurting you.
10. Never ignore your intuition.
Listen to your body and do all you can to be kind to yourself.
Obviously, burnout is not some fake thing lazy folks pretend to have so they can stay home from work.
It is a force that can knock you out completely, making it difficult to deal with the simplest of tasks, like taking a shower or cooking a meal; and almost impossible to handle normal things, like leaving your home, shopping for food, and answering phone calls.
I officially apologize for all my previously judgmental thoughts on this area.
You don’t get burned out because you’re too weak. You get burned out because you’ve tried to stay strong for way too long!