I would sit outdoors on the stairs and cry during my lunch break. This may sound the intro to a drama series, but it actually happened to me. As I believe happens to many people out there. During a short period of my life, this was my reality every day of the week. I was so unhappy and stressed at my job back then, that crying over my lunch break was the only thing offering a sense of relief. At the time, I used to tell myself that it was not that bad. That what I felt was just stress and exhaustion. I had a job I indeed hated - though needed to pay the bills. Throughout the day I would convince myself I needed to work there, that there was no way out. At night, I'd barely sleep obsessing about ways to leave that job behind - a few of them overly dramatic. This cycle only led to increased stress and incredible lack of energy, both physical and mental. What I was unable to see, blinded by my own distress, was that it was not a matter of tiredness and weakness. I was way over my breaking point. I was experiencing a burnout. And there I was pushing and pushing beyond my limits, sure that one day I would wake up and magically feel like myself again. How does this story end after all? I remember my husband came to grab lunch with me one of those days. Suddenly, I felt the tears rolling over my face and I immediately lowered my head ashamed of my own sorrow. Truth is I live to help others, though I am terrible at asking for help. My husband convinced me to reach out to my therapist who prescribed me a 6-month sick leave, until I could get back on my feet.
For most of you this may sound as way too personal story to share here. While I write these lines, I still have a memory of the pain I felt back then. I feel it is my duty to share this story with you. One the one hand, as there are many of you struggling with your own burnout experience and I want to make sure you know you are not alone. On the other hand, to raise awareness about this state which must not be taken lightly as it may happen to any of us.
Below let us focus on 6 strategies to avoid burnout – a state of emotional, physical and mental distress due to prolonged stress that can easily be disguised as overall exhaustion.
1. Exercise regularly: It is not only about your bodily health, but also your overall wellbeing. Exercising regularly allows you to get rid of the tension you accumulate throughout the day and the week, while it recharges your energy. There are plenty ways of exercising. Perhaps you enjoy the close contact with nature, meaning that jogging or riding a bike is a great opportunity to move your body. Or maybe you are more of an indoors person, so going to the gym to lift some weights, attending a group class, or going for a swim sound like good options. At the end, no matter your sport style or kind of job you have – sitting behind a computer all day, driving around, taking care of your children – exercise keeps you in shape on all levels.
2. Practice good sleep habits: When I first joined some online communities focused on personal development, I was surprised with how many people wake up at 5 or 6 am to start their day with intention and positivity. I remember thinking, how many hours do they sleep? Yes, I love sleeping and I still do even after being a mom. In some cultures, it is quite usual to go to bed later, maybe around 11 or 12 pm. If you are lucky you get to sleep 6 hours straight – unless your kids wake you up 2 or 3 times throughout the night – perhaps a bit longer if you are working from home. I also hear many people saying that they can easily sleep only 4 hours and be themselves the next day. My question to them would be: What do you mean by being yourself?! Inefficient and unproductive?! Our brains and our bodies need to rest, at least 8 to 9 hours every night. It is a no-brainer! So, be kind to yourself and go to bed early.
3. Schedule free time: Oh, I would love to have free time! – I hear it so many times. Why don’t you then? I guarantee you that it is your choice, though you must act like you really want it. One of the best ways to make sure it happens is to schedule it in your agenda (online or in paper). It may sound weird, but the same way you have all your work and personal-related appointments there, you should book the time to do whatever you enjoy doing. For some people it may be catching up on reading or enjoy a warm cup of coffee, for others it can be meeting up with friends or going for a long walk. You do not have to justify it. It is your free time! And you surely deserve to have some time of your own. But do not leave it to chance, otherwise other people’s plans will overcome yours, until they become your priority all the time.
4. Unplug and change scenery: Not the same as having free time. Unplugging is about disconnection from your usual reality. It means moving away from your daily routines allowing yourself to shift perspectives. If possible, it means also physically changing places. Travelling being one of the options, where you go to other country or city mingling with new people, different cultures, appealing smells and tastes. In case you do not have the chance to travel, no need to discourage. Maybe your family has a country house somewhere in the mountains, or a friend has a place where you can stay for a couple of days. Best way would be to do it alone, though this may not be available to you. Then, take a family vacation bringing your kids along for a new shared adventure. Often, we get stuck in the same routine unable to appreciate our surroundings and be grateful for all that we have. Once in a while, take this chance to unplug – including from social media – and connect with the beauty and peace all around you.
5. Find the joy: Feeling stuck in a job you do not like or that it is mostly stressful, or perhaps being unemployed may well be your reality right now. When the stress starts to pile up, this sensation of stuckness remains like an unrelenting Groundhog Day. Before you notice, you start taking everything for granted, including the overall emotional exhaustion and distress. This quickly becomes your – and only – known reality. How can this vicious cycle be interrupted? You must keep your eyes, mind, and heart wide open reminding yourself of the beauty and joy. Looking closely at your day, you can surely find joyful moments. It may be those 30-minutes by yourself in the morning, talking to your kids while dropping them off at school, a lunch break with your spouse or a colleague, listening to your favorite podcast or audiobook on your way to the office, cooking a delicious dinner for your family. Joy is one of the most precious gifts life offers us and one we so often forget to be grateful for. Regardless of how tough your day gets, there is always something to be joyful about.
6. Reach out for help: It is not uncommon to refuse help when we most need it. Sometimes because we do not recognize it, other times because we are too stubborn or proud to ask. But we all need help occasionally. Whatever you might be telling yourself, you will not conquer it alone. Look around and acknowledge your support network - your family, friends, colleagues, neighbors. You are part of a community to whom you can reach out. If you are thinking asking for help will make you seem weak, do not give it a second thought. Believe it or not, the community you belong to would be nothing less than honored to offer their support. The same way you would provide yours without hesitating. Ups and downs are part of our journey, so if we feel ready and empowered to help when we are on the top, why not let others help us when we are at our lowest?
Burnout may happen to anyone. It can be related to your job, but not exclusively. You can also be a stay-at-home parent and experience burnout symptoms. Overall, it is about a prolonged exposure to stress which can come from an outside and/ or inside source. You may ignore the symptoms; it does not mean they will go away. If anything, the pressure keeps piling up like a pan of hot water whose lid can jump any time. When you refuse to listen, your body will make sure you do when it has gone through enough. Do not let it come to a breaking point where the climb is long and steep.
A certain amount of stress can feel quite reinvigorating, pushing you to give your best. Though no dreams are worth such extreme exhaustion as a burnout. Follow these and other strategies that help you keep your wellbeing on track while still pursuing your ambitious goals.