I wrote this article to communicate my experiences in what happens to the body and mind when you stop listening to and recognizing signs that something’s not right. In the last three weeks. I have overheard numerous conversations including the words ‘burnout’, ‘depression and ‘struggling’ – so, I thought I would share this in the hopes that it will resonate with you and perhaps offer some insight and help if you’re experiencing some or all of these symptoms. At the least, I hope it offers some relief knowing you’re not alone, and that the hard times do pass.
What is burnout?
I’ve researched ‘burnout’ and its associated symptoms, to a deep and detailed level. I’ve spoken to doctors and psychologists, and others who’ve been through the same thing. While everyone has their own triggers, there are very common traits and effects that for me anyway, feel scary, debilitating and at times hopeless.
The best description of ‘burnout’ I have found is as follows:
Burnout is a state of total emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Burnout is often, but not always related to one’s job and occurs when your level of overwhelm exceeds your capacity for managing it.
I would add to this that the stress and triggers may not always be obvious until it’s too late.
My experience with burnout.
While I don’t intend to assume anyone else’s situation I would like to offer a brief insight into my experiences. I think it’s important to give hindsight, having been on the receiving end I have now a clear set of warning bells that dictate my personal and professional level of acceptance for stress.
Nearing the end of 2020 I woke up one morning with a headache. I didn’t think much of it, but this headache was different, it was deeper, and all over my head, this headache would last almost 3 months. Following the headache came a wave of slow and steady fatigue that took hold without me even noticing. It was enough to make me feel off, but not enough to really concern me. Then, one morning I woke up and I couldn’t get out of bed, even rolling over required effort. I struggled through a shower and a day of work, falling asleep multiple times. This went on for a few weeks. I assumed I’d been overdoing it at the gym or that I wasn’t eating enough. I tried everything to shake the fatigue and headache. Nothing helped.
I decided it was time to see the doctor. I had full blood tests done, literally everything they could test for they did. I tidied up my diet, stopped training at the gym, and worked fewer hours. There were days when I felt better, but I’d always fall back into the mornings of struggling to just get out of bed. I had more tests. I had convinced myself that I had a brain tumor due to the ongoing headache. Weeks turned into months and the relentless fatigue turned into depression and anxiety. I was sad that I felt awful, and I was scared that I was sick, which triggered anxiety and panic. I lost interest in doing everything I love because I had no energy to do it. I stopped working mostly, and the work I did do was rubbish. My creativity was gone and I got to the point where I really didn’t care. I didn’t talk to anyone about how deeply I was really struggling, I would shrug it off by saying I was tired or sick, and continue my routine of staring aimlessly at my computer, and napping. I canceled and avoided meetings and social events, and thought that if I just kept resting alone, it would go away. This went on for what felt like a very long time.
By now, Christmas was coming, I wasn’t excited about the holidays, I hadn’t been working so I didn’t feel like I deserved a break. What started as a headache, was now ongoing, and overwhelming anxiety, depression and fatigue. I’d actually gotten used to it.
I was due to go to an end-of-year business/Christmas party/lunch. I was dreading it. Everything in me was anxious about sitting there, smiling, and dying inside. The morning of the lunch, I went to walk my bin up my driveway and the world just closed in on me. I’m unsure if I fainted, or just gave up but I found myself sitting on the driveway in tears. I think this was the point where I realised something was really wrong and I had to do something about it.
I got in my truck and drove down to the emergency room. I told them I’d passed out and didn’t know why. They took me straight through, I think they were a bit worried. I again did full blood and urine tests. The doctor gave me a full physical, checked my results then asked me a very strange question – “If you saw an old lady crossing the street, and there was a car coming, what would you do” I actually laughed, for the first time in a long time, wondering what he was on about. But then it occurred to me that he was asking about my mental state. We sat and chatted for about 40 minutes, he said physically I was fine but suggested I needed to talk to a psychologist and address my lifestyle and how I deal with stress. He said I seemed sad, like deeply sad and as I thought about it, I was. I was sad that for the last few months I’d thought I was dying, I was sad that I’d been too tired to clean or cook properly, and most of all I was terrified not knowing why. That was the day I learned what the word ‘burnout’ truly meant.
How did I recover?
For me, the Christmas/New Year period of 2020/2021 was a period of starting over, internally. I still didn’t tell many people the specifics of what was going on, but I put work aside for a month. I forced myself to get back into a more healthy routine, I stopped napping, and I started talking to my amazing psychologist (Ampara Bouwens) about what had been going on. I reconnected with the things I loved, spearfishing, my camera, good food, family, and friends. What I didn’t do was drink or party much, I stopped putting pressure on myself, I learned tools to cope with stress, I learned what actually stresses me out, like deep, painful stress, I learned to breathe and I accepted that I was healthy physically, and let go of the sadness around being really sick.
Slowly but surely, the fog of the fatigue began to clear, my headache got better. My energy came back, I smiled more, I started listening to happy music again, and I found my creativity again. In the space of four weeks, I feel like I stopped everything, then slowly and carefully reintroduced the things I love to remind myself why life is awesome! I wrote a quote on a mental health blog I used to have, a few years ago that said “Drown in the things that make you smile” – this became my guiding light.
But wait, it happened again…
Fast forward to now, 2022. It happened again. In late January, I started feeling tired a lot. It’s almost like when this happens my brain blocks logical thinking, because once again my thought process was, something’s wrong, I’m sick. A week later, I was back to the struggle of even getting out of bed. Back to the loss of interest in almost everything. Back to being lazy with cooking and cleaning, and back to the doctors for tests. Hello depression and sadness, again.
I’d been spending a lot of time alone, the comfort in isolation perhaps not so healthy. I’d been eating a poor diet, including a lot of sugar. I’d put A LOT of pressure on myself to build my project Eat What You Kill, my Podcast, Fuel Media, and my Photography Business. I’d been relying on medication to manage anxiety and I think like everyone else, the years of covid lockdowns and stress all caught up with me. So, I made some big and immediate changes.
The hardest, and probably the most needed was getting truly healthy. I cut all inflammatory foods from my diet, I stopped eating processed foods, and instead now just eat meat, vegetables, and lots of good fats. I avoid sugar, wheat and gluten – I do have the odd GF pizza, because, well, pizza is epic! This change was hard, really hard actually, but along with getting my energy back, a lot of other health issues, aches and pains disappeared, which I’m still surprised by.
I know now that when your body is in a constant state of inflammation, through food, through stress, and through your environment, eventually it’s going to push back. For almost 13 weeks I sent a photo of every meal I had to my good friend Krista, she kept me accountable and helped me really make some big changes. I am forever thankful for your help Krista!
I started Crossfit again, I still have to push myself to train with the classes instead of alone (my comfort zone), but with the changes in my diet, I no longer crash after workouts, I feel stronger and faster, and most importantly, happier. I’ve started seeing my psychologist again and I’ve made an effort to get out hunting and spend more time away from the comforts of home.
It’s now April. The year started in a really hard place, again, but now I believe I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. I’ve halved the dose of anxiety medication I take and I have a super clear picture of what burnout means to me – what causes it, and how to deal with it. I take pride in knowing that if and when it happens again, I need not slide into the cycle of depression and anxiety, but instead use it as a reminder to slow down, or a notification that something needs to change.
Symptoms of burnout:
Everyone will have their own triggers but through my experiences and research, these are the most common symptoms I can offer. If you’re experiencing any or all of these, with no medical reasoning, perhaps this article will connect with you.
- Fatigue and constant tiredness/lack of energy
- Sleep problems – sleeping too much or too little
- Negative mindset/loss of interest in things you usually enjoy
- Change in appetite
- Procrastination/inability to focus
- Depression and anxiety
Ways to turn things around…
I outlined above how I recovered from burnout, twice. But I understand that we are all different, we have different situations, interests and lives. To offer further clarity on my above story, here are some tips and tools I’ve used and learned over the years:
Watch for the symptoms, and recognize when things aren’t as they should be. Seek help from your doctor to rule out anything physical.
Reach out to others:
Tell people you trust how you’re feeling. That act in itself will reduce the pressure and stress that comes with carrying it alone. Connect with your family, friends co-workers and GP.
Employ the help of a specialist:
Find a specialist or psychologist you really connect with. They can offer experience and assistance that friends and family often can’t. I personally believe everyone can benefit from seeing a psychologist even just a few times a year or as required.
Reframe how you look at what you’re feeling:
Change your thoughts from ‘I’m sick or ‘what the hell is wrong with me’ to… ‘ok, there’s the bell ringing, what needs to change?’
Evaluate your priorities:
What do you NEED to be doing, what can be put aside, and what can be done differently? Is work always the top priority? Or is your health more important? Are you doing enough of what really makes you happy?
Evaluate your lifestyle:
Are you spending your time around positive uplifting people? Are you working in a positive environment? Do you fuel your body with nutritious food or eat to satisfy unhealthy cravings? Are you engaging with others or isolating yourself?
Make exercise a priority:
Move with intention for at least 30 minutes a day. Whether it’s a walk, a swim, or a workout, exercise will help alleviate stress and offer a bit of a reset during your day.
Sleep and rest:
Make sure you get enough sleep and rest. This is often a hard task when life is giving you a kick in the butt, but work on a healthy night/morning routine and ensure you’re spending enough time in bed sleeping or resting
Learn to breathe:
For me, learning to breathe properly has been a game-changer. Slow, steady nasal breathing, day in and day out has really helped my stress and anxiety levels. I’ve learned breathing patterns that optimise my performance through everything from a workout to a panic attack. Find what works for you, practice, and it will become the new norm.
Burnout is a scary, confusing and uncertain thing to experience. It’s something we should all learn to monitor and be aware of. Three years ago, I didn’t know what the word truly meant. Now, I see it everywhere, I hear is spoken about on the news and on other podcasts, it’s something that the world is slowly shining a light on.
If you’re going through the cycles of it, please know it does pass. Use it as a self-awareness indicator and adjust accordingly. Don’t do it alone, it sucks. Talk to those you trust and ask for help. Find comfort in knowing you’re not alone, in fact, I believe the last few years have been a trigger for many. Be kind to yourself and day by day things will get better I promise.
By Tim Kavermann
Tim Kavermann is a Brand Strategist, Photographer and Designer based in Auckland, New Zealand.
Currently splitting time on two brands and projects – Smokai and Eat What You Kill.
Visit Tim on Instagram or online at www.kavermann.co.nz