Why is the shampoo in the fridge and where’s the milk?
I’m stood staring into the fridge, feeling confused as I sift through my hazy memory of unpacking the shopping yesterday evening.
I realise the milk is in fact in the (almost) empty shopping bag on the floor. I put the nicely chilled shampoo in the bathroom and have a bit of a giggle to myself about my inept unpacking abilities.
It feels good to be able to laugh at life and myself.
Apart from being funny this was also a clear sign of how worn out I was and my struggle to concentrate on even the most mundane of tasks. I’d been noticing a few other signs of exhaustion and was keeping a mental list and making some plans for rest and relaxation.
It’s taken me a while to get to the point where I can spot these signs and symptoms as they crop up and make adjustments to my work, life, selfcare balance as I go along in order to look after myself.
This prevents me from getting to a state of total overwhelm and burnout.
But it wasn’t always like this.
A few years ago, I was sat with friends on a Saturday morning. Everyone was chatting and laughing over warm frothy drinks but I felt like an onlooker, detached from body and looking down on myself and the group as if I were a creepy, voyeuristic angel watching from above.
I saw myself just sat, staring blankly out of the window, not seeing anything, my mind racing, thinking about the week ahead and just trying not to cry.
I felt totally overwhelmed and trapped, stuck in a hopeless situation.
As everyone was leaving one of my friends asked if I was alright. That was all it took. That simple question asked in a well-meaning and empathic way, opened the flood gates and my tears flowed out.
I just couldn’t cope with the idea of attempting to repeat the week I’d just had. It was too much. I just couldn’t do it.
But what choice did I have?
I had responsibilities, things I had to do, people to see, paperwork to organise, multiple jobs and life roles to juggle.
All these things that (seemingly) only I could do. And that’s how I felt about it at the time. I had blinkered vision.
My perspective was clouded by stress and despair.
Over the previous weeks and months, the pressure had been mounting and my resilience had been dwindling. I felt chronically stressed, racked with self-doubt and ordinary tasks and situations had come to feel impossible.
I had been feeling increasingly anxious. It took hours to get to sleep at night as my mind was whirring away with worry. At work, I’d been needing more ‘toilet breaks’, in order to let out some of my tears before attempting to carry on with the day and hope that no one noticed. I was stressed, overwhelmed, over-worked, exhausted, sleep-deprived and barley functioning.
It took for my friend and several family members to cajole, encourage and persuade me that my level of overwhelm and stress wasn’t reasonable or sustainable and that I needed to take a break.
I needed to take time off.
I had no idea that this was burnout and I certainly wouldn’t have felt justified calling it that.
What would other people think, that I was being over dramatic and self pitying?!
I was told, “Work will survive without you, you know”. This (of course) turned out to be true. It seems so obvious in hindsight but at the time my perspective was completely skewed by stress and I needed help to see the situation for what it was. I was really grateful for the firm but kind support.
But oof! The guilt I felt when I rang work to say I was off sick due to my mental health.
The irony of this as a counsellor and therapist wasn’t lost on me but at the same time, I had a feeling of shame.
I felt I would be letting people down and that I should prove myself, my needs and bad state of mental health in order to justify taking the time off.
I did take time off. I intended just to take a week or two but I found that it took weeks to truly relax, unwind and let go. This was a time of confusion, guilt, upset and loneliness. I felt lost.
It shocked me how bad things had gotten before I took the self-care action I had needed for some time.
But eventually I began to feel calmer and more relaxed. I was able to let go of worry and begin to accept where I was at and what my needs were. I took my time in making some big decisions to redress my work-life balance. It was a tough time and I needed support but I’ve learnt how to maintain the equilibrium in my life. I don’t always get it perfect, but I keep an eye on it and I’m making little (and sometimes big) tweaks all the time.
I learnt a sharp lesson and now I take stock as I go along, keeping an eye on the signs of low energy and resilience and exhaustion. So, what am I looking out for?
How does burnout affect people?
Difficulty Sleeping: Perhaps it’s taking longer to switch off your whirring mind and the sense of pressure. You can’t quiet the inner critic or chatterbox.
Emotional exhaustion: You may feel ruled by out of control emotions that are more raw and extreme. Perhaps you’re crying a lot, getting overly angry or snapping with little provocation and more than what is normal for you.
Feeling Anxious: Situations that are a normal part of your everyday life may fill you with worry, nervousness and anxious tension. Fear and self-doubt can be paralysing and make that Tuesday morning meeting or evening social gathering feel insurmountable.
Exhaustion: You may notice yourself feeling overly exhausted, beyond what you deem reasonable. Your body and mind are so in sync that your body is carrying your stress and emotional overwhelm in a physical way.
Physical signs: sore and achy muscles, headaches and even increased susceptibility to catching colds and other bugs are a sign of your exhaustion.
Poor concentration: this one speaks for itself. No matter how hard you try, it’s a real struggle to concentrate on your work, reading, or even watching the TV.
Change in appetite: Tiredness and overwhelming emotions can be a trigger to overeat. For others, under-eating is also a sure sign of burnout.
Low motivation: having a loss of motivation and interest to do the things in life that bring you enjoyment and fulfilment like seeing your friends, attending a sports group or going to a social gathering is another common trait of exhaustion, overwhelm and burnout.
Alienation from work-related activities: you may be feeling increasingly stressed and frustrated at work or a sense of numbness or isolation from colleagues.
In the next blog I’ll look what burnout is and what causes.
Do you recognise some of these signs and symptoms of burnout?
Are you struggling to cope?
Through counselling I can enable you to process your emotions and difficulties in a way that feels safe, helping you to feel more resilient, better able to cope and able to make the changes you may wish for.
Counselling may feel like it should be a last resort but therapy can also be a great preventative measure and enhance your wellbeing as it enables you to develop greater awareness and resilience.
Call me now and find out how I can help you.