On World Mental Health Day - do we need to take burnout (and our minds) more seriously?
There’s a wonderful definition of burnout that comes from the science of rocket flight. It depicts a beautiful, soaring moment of triumph and achievement - when the rocket reaches the pinnacle of its flight and the burners that have powered this furious scent finally can turn off. And the rocket, now in orbit or having got to where it needs to be, drifts, riding apparently effortlessly the remaining momentum of all that supreme effort, floating into this new space of achievement, and the chance to survey the achievements of that intense season of fire and flame and push.
Of course, real-life burnout is not like that at all. But this is often what we think - hope - dream - may happen in our seasons of being pushed to the limit. The reality is MUCH more brutal.
I remember a conversation a long time ago, with a highly successful businessman. He came to see me out of the blue, wanting to tell me his story. And it began with him telling me about an amazingly successful life and career. The model family, the high powered job, the house in Kent, the nice car that was parked outside our church building where he had driven to meet me - he had all the trappings of success. Sure, his work schedule was intense, starting every day before dawn with the drive into London, finishing late in the evening as he worked at his desk at home having come home to see the children before they went to sleep and then returned immediately to work. But, he explained, in his industry that was normal. And he accepted it without question.
Until the day when, out of the blue - in his words - ‘something broke.’ He told me, calmly and without emotion, how he had driven that day, not to work but to the coast, with every intention of ending his life. He felt, he said, quite calm, but the thoughts and plan were clear in his mind. He just couldn’t do it anymore.
Thankfully he didn’t go through with his plan. And his visit to me was to tell a story of God intervening, of clawing his way back from burnout - and how his chance discovery of a book I had written on this very subject had been part of that. It was an amazing story full of God’s grace and rescue - but the path back from burnout was not an easy one.
In this season the word ‘burnout’ is being bounced around a lot as we talk about certain people and professions under pressure. But do we take it seriously enough? Burnout is often dramatic, impactful and devastating. It represents a moment when your capacity to continue under extraordinary pressure and demand, physically and/or psychologically, is simply exceeded. You cannot go on anymore, not because of some emotional weakness or lack of backbone, but because you are human and you have limits.
We talk of stress so often as though it were something emotional. ‘Stop stressing’ we say - as if stress is about an emotional overreaction to a moment that can be controlled. But stress is a biological reality related to the demands placed upon you in a moment - anything that requires your body or brain to act, react or adapt to a situation. So stress is not even necessarily negative - in fact, many of the statistically most stressful life events are the most positive, but ones which require a lot of adapting or change - think about getting married, starting a new job or having a baby. Stress could also be linked to something you LOVE - it doesn’t have to feel negative - the buzz and demand of an exciting job, pushing yourself hard to study or train, juggling several different roles or responsibilities at once, volunteering in something you are passionate about in your spare time. Or it is so often something you cannot avoid - natural demands of life or the ‘sandwich’ moments where you are responsible for both still relatively young children and elderly parents.
Your stress system manages short term or ‘acute’ stress relatively well - think those mad moments or life’s little dramas. In those moments a complex physiological system coordinates a host of responses - immediately grabbing and focusing your attention, flooding your body with the things it needs to physically be able to react - be that fighting or running away, switching down less important ‘housekeeping’ things like digestion. And so, stress is intrinsically linked to two key emotions: anxiety and frustration. These emotions operate on the same physiological system and are part of your brain’s mechanism for warning you things are going on that might become significant, so you might need to act. By triggering your stress system they too grab your attention and prime you just in case you do need to do something.
Problems develop when stress is not acting like this - when the things you are managing are not acute ‘in the moment’ needs, but long term challenges you need to keep a handle on and juggle or manage. The more of these you have in your life in one moment, and the longer they persist the more this activation of your stress system becomes not acute but chronic - long term. And neither your body nor brain was designed to work like that.
Think of the level in this system as a bit like the water level in a pool. If the baseline is around your ankles, you can move around easily. And additional demands on you are like waves in that pool - no problem when the water level is low. Now imagine it rises slightly. At knee level you are still well within your capacity to manage. Moving around gets a bit more tricky but you can cope. By waist high the day to day practical things you normally don’t notice are starting to become tougher. And a big wave might be a problem - but so long as nothing too dramatic happens you will be ok. But we all have a crisis level. When the baseline is at or near your neck - right on the edge of your capacity to manage - life starts to feel very uncomfortable. You are acutely aware that even the slightest demand might push you under. And even the normal demands of day to day life become very hard.
The truth is, many of us live life far too close to this overwhelm space. 21st-century life is busy and demanding, and many of us love the buzz. It’s easy to feel that time spent resting or relaxing is time wasted, or to use any ‘down’ time doing things which whilst distracting and/or cathartic, remain physiologically demanding for your body or brain - think high-level event training or racing, playing video games or getting involved in other groups or responsibilities in church or elsewhere. These are all great things to do - but the cumulative effect can be a gradually creeping up baseline on our stress system.
And in this season an unusual, specific (I won’t say ‘unprecedented’ …!) challenge has hit most people. Lockdown and the realities of pandemic living have raised everyone’s stress level almost universally, as we manage constant change, new life routines, and for some, relentless additional demand, responsibility or stress. The emotional load of loss and constant triggering of emotions like anxiety and frustration add to the raising of our physiological stress baseline, and many people have spent some or all of the last 6-7 months living on the edge of overwhelm.
And boy do we notice it. Life on the point of overwhelm does not feel good. When in this space your mind goes onto a kind of emergency setting, and it really does change how you see and react to the world. Aware of the huge demand, your brain starts to close down your rational analytical centres, so processing becomes much more limited and thinking clearly hard. Instead your mind simplifies how it interprets situations, tending to assume very binary categories: a situation is either good or bad, you are either right or wrong, someone is either on your side or against you, a task is either a success or a failure. Your ability to recognise the grey areas life actually operates in is lost. The problem is, spotting negatives is generally more important than positives, so your brain is biased to do this - and these two things combine so that when living on the edge of overwhelm the world can feel a pretty grim place. And your own perception of yourself suffers too - so not only are you under intense pressure but you start to doubt your own ability or performance. It can feel like everything you do is rubbish, or a failure. And the people around you? Your beleaguered mind interprets even the most innocent of comments as attack, acutely defensive, meaning suddenly many conversations feel like conflict and full of additional stress.
Meanwhile as your ability to reason becomes so limited, your performance really does suffer. And with your mind on the lookout for the next emergency, focusing your attention becomes very hard, so you cannot concentrate and your memory is shot. Often sleep becomes an issue - when your mind is on red alert it is not a moment to switch off and release you into sleep! And as you become more and more exhausted, these things fast become a vicious spiral it is difficult to find a way out of.
And so, increasingly, emotions like anxiety and stress feel very close to the surface. With your baseline so high even a little challenge could push you over the edge. You feel over emotional, fragile, reactive, prickly. Handling tricky situations badly makes you feel even worse and often guilt and fear is added into the mix - “what’s WRONG with me?” Your mind, desperate to find a way out of this cycle starts to throw out thoughts and possible solutions - but remember you are not reasoning well. So they are simplistic, binary and drastic. Many people start to experience thoughts of running away, or suicide, or just fleeting thoughts like “I cannot do this any more.” Finding yourself thinking and feeling like that can be terrifying - but it is all to do with where your mind has found itself.
Burnout is a complex set of experiences and reactions, and perhaps the most challenging thing about it is how hard some of those loops are to break out of. The cascade of one thing impacting another makes things even harder - with issues like insomnia often hitting us at the worst possible time, and the gradual erosion of our usual capacity to work efficiently and with our usual productivity heaping even more pressure in a time when things are already pressed. Add to that the reduced ability to problem solve or see potential solutions, and the result can be a ‘head down just keep going’ mentality, a kind of desperate keeping on in the vain hope that somehow, miraculously, something somewhere changes.
And sometimes it does. Symptoms and experiences like this are not unusual, and life can throw crazy seasons at us - whether it is work life going briefly crazy, or challenges or change in our personal lives. But this season carries an unusual and significant challenge in that it is NOT a short term crisis. 7th months into global pandemic, I am hearing more and more people recognising that they are somewhere on the burnout continuum, living and existing with the reality of overwhelm most days, struggling to pick themselves up and keep going somehow, and with no real plan or idea how on earth this is going to change.
Reports and statistics back up the anecdotes, across all areas of life and work, with frontline workers such as medics and teachers exhausted, many more senior staff still having had no real break or holiday thanks to the ever-changing government guidelines creating chaos and additional strain during August. Homeworkers are reporting struggles due to the lack of boundaries between work and home space, and their inability to get away from work. Issues around online working and conferencing are also blamed for heightened rates of exhaustion and burnout, triggering a combination of greater strain as your brain tries to manage the social challenges of having a conversation with people as though you were in the room when you are actually not (this has been recognised to place significant additional strain on your brain, as well as to result in greater conflict and more emotive and hostile exchanges due to the sense of detachment people feel when on calls) and the loss of the non-work banter and social space that usually accompanies seeing people in a physical meeting.
And so burnout SHOULD be a prime concern in autumn 2020. But are we taking it seriously enough? “More than anything you guard, protect your mind, for life flows from it” warns Proverbs 4:23 (CEB). And this is good advice. Your mind is the filter through which you experience the world: your measure of reality, your decision-making tool, your emotional barometer. If we hit true exhaustion in our minds and emotions no part of life is left unscathed. But in general, our reaction to realising we are near the edge is NOT to do something, change something, rest, or get away from things and bring ourselves back to a safer space. Too often our attitude to the zone on the edge of burnout is to see it as a normal part of 21st-century life. So long as we haven’t actually gone OVER the edge, we think we’re ok. We tolerate and self medicate the physical symptoms - the headaches, stomach issues, palpitation, joint tension and worsening of conditions like eczema or irritable bowel syndrome. We manage the emotional impact, drink more coffee, hit the booze in evenings to try to switch off, and see poor sleep as just part of life. And we keep going - somehow.
But every day we do this we run two HUGE risks. The first is that one day we will run out of energy. We will cross the line. And anyone who has experienced burnout will tell you it is a fairly horrendous experience - physically and emotionally. It is possible to recover and fight your way back, but many people find that they never regain their old life completely. It takes a massive toll on you and your loved ones, and is often accompanied by mental health crisis, which can be very serious and sometimes, tragically, even lead to loss of life.
If you know you are running near to the edge take it seriously. No one thinks this could happen to them, but trust me - it could. It could happen to you, or to me, or to my best friend, or my husband, or that amazing leader who seems to have unlimited energy. We are all human. We all have a limit.
The second risk though is about life - real life, the way you are designed to live it. The bible speaks of life in all its fullness - a passion-filled, fun-filled, joyous life. This is not life on the edge of burnout. Living on the edge even if you do manage to avoid full-blown burnout means living years of your life in a compromise ‘just getting through’ state. Canadian church leader Carey Nieuwhof talks about the impact of low-level burnout “where the functions of life remain but the joy of life is lost.” Life on the edge of burnout is exhausting and relentless, a day to day slog with little fun or laughter. So many people have said to me recently “I just don’t feel like myself”. The tragedy is a brain that is exhausted or on emergency setting rarely experiences the positive things of life: fun, joy and laughter. It becomes increasingly hard to relax and things you used to enjoy may start to feel hollow or just another chore. You don’t get the full experience of being you. Your family and friends lose the real you. It is not what you are designed for. God dreams for better for you.
Know you are on the edge of burnout right now? Don’t just accept it and keep on - make some changes! Here are some practical things to think about.
What do you do if finding a way out of your situation feels impossible?
1 - Recognise this is a sign your mind is totally overwhelmed. It is on emergency shut down, like a plane about to land with all the lights switched off except the most essential ones. You cannot reason well in this state. Your thinking brain just isn’t working. You will need some help to get to a better place. Talk to someone you can trust NOW and ask for help.
2 - Know that because of that, things are almost definitely NOT as bad as they feel. The lack of options, the way you feel trapped, the hopelessness of your situation - these are all symptoms of a mind that can no longer see things clearly or problem-solve effectively. You’re probably seeing symptoms of that in other spaces too. Driven to the wrong place recently because you went on automatic pilot and forgot where you were going? That’s your mind too exhausted to think using an old routine instead. Struggle to do something really simple like changing a lightbulb or work out how to get batteries out of something? That’s a mind that has no energy or capacity left to problem solve. Do not trust the things your brain tells you when you are in this place. Running away, or ending your life may feel like a good solution - or even the only solution, but neither of these things is true and both are very extreme actions to take. Get help, get advice, and get someone who can think more clearly to help you.
3 - This is a time to be kind to yourself. Do not feel any sense of judgement or criticism in how you are feeling - and if anyone tries to suggest it is your fault, ignore them. This is not a sign of failure or weakness. It is a sign of being human. You are an ordinary person under extraordinary pressure. Don’t be afraid of what you are feeling and experiencing but do take it seriously. It is possible to come back from burnout - maybe today you can take the first steps.
How to start to get away from the edge of burnout.
1 - Find space. This is the first and most urgent thing you need: to get away from anything making demands on you. Most people need a complete and total break. Remember some of those things may be positive - children, friends, things you used to enjoy. But if you are really close to the edge even those things may need to be out of your head even if only for a few days. So whether it needs you to book some time off work if you have holiday owing, or speak to your doctor and arrange to be signed off in order to avoid becoming seriously unwell, do it. If you are able to (recognising many people are under local lockdown restrictions at the moment) book yourself an air bnb, or borrow someone’s caravan. If not, do what you can to put away all signs and reminders of work or demand. Do NOT decide to spend your time off achieving other things that will stress you out (No DIY unless you honestly will enjoy it!). If you can’t go away, get out and away for long walks, or drives, or dig out your bike and go for a ride.
2 - Find escape. This is about absorbing yourself in something that is NOT demanding but does help you feel more of a sense of satisfaction and productivity - and ideally also helps you relax. When did you last let yourself get totally lost in a brilliant book? Or read the paper cover to cover without being interrupted? Or watch an entire box set back to back in your pyjamas?! This is the time to plan things like that. Feel guilty for the release? Don’t. This is what you need and taking this shorter, planned time out for escape will hopefully prevent you ending up needing to take a lot longer out if you do hit full blown burnout. Remember that if you feel bad for not being there for people who you usually support or dropping responsibilities you usually hold: much better for them that you take a shorter planned break than break down.
3 - Find a new rhythm. Ultimately avoiding just heading straight back into burnout is going to require a change. And the good news is that this is not just about the absolute amount of stress you are under: it is all about how you manage it and the things you do to counteract stress both in the moment (think what you do after a really stressful meeting) and in your wider rhythms and work patterns. Are there changes you need to make? What could you ADD to help you manage and process stress better (think daily slots for relaxation, mindfulness based practice to manage stress and difficult emotions, good boundaries, clear start and stop times on your work) and are there things you need to STOP (eg checking work email out of hours, working extra hours or on days off because you are working from home anyway etc).
Recognise that working this out is a long process, so don’t put yourself under too much pressure. Think about what early steps you can take - and what steps might be necessary to make bigger changes? Might you need to work out how and when to have a tricky conversation with a boss? Think about some creative childcare solutions? Cover some tasks you currently do but could get someone else to (so many people’s sanity has been saved by finding a great cleaner …)?...
Some suggestions for further reading:
To find out more about burnout, stress and how to drop your stress level and refuel including many more practical tips, check out Kate’s book “Refuel: how to juggle work, life, home and church.”
Carey Nieuwhof writes powerfully about his own experience of burnout and experiencing suicidal feelings as a result in his book “Didn’t see it coming: Overcoming the 7 greatest challenges that no one expects and everyone experiences.”
If you are interested in mindfulness as part of a toolkit to manage stress check out https://christianmindfulness.co.uk
If you are in crisis right now there are places you can go to talk or find help. Call the Samaritans on 116123 - 24 hours a day, or text SHOUT to 85258. Or for urgent help call 111, or where someone is in serious imminent risk, remember you can call 999.