How to Avoid Burnout When Life Happens

I’ve suffered from major burnout several times in my life–I guess I’m a little too ambitious for my own good.

The first time happened slowly over several years, beginning when I was in high school. I had left regular public school to do independent study, and began to get hyper-focused on academics to the exclusion of all else.

I had very little social life, my boyfriend lived in another state, and I mostly spent my time reading and writing. Not surprisingly, I fell into a depression. When I began to go deeper into yoga practice, this depression lifted significantly.

Unfortunately, a big move to a pretty isolated place severed me from my yoga community, and I again began focusing on academics and little else. I was beginning to get so tense and anxious that I didn’t even want to leave the house for the simplest things, like going to the grocery store. Of course, this only compounded the problem.

Eventually, everything came to a head and I began suffering from severe panic attacks. I was only 19 and already a year into graduate school, and everything on the surface seemed fine.

Then I started to lose interest and motivation to even do my academic work, which at the time was my whole world and identity. I started to realize how dissatisfied I was in my relationship, which was ipso facto my only relationship. This was all extremely disconcerting. I was so terrified by the panic attacks that I took them as a wake up call and sought emergency help; anti-anxiety medication.

Changing Perspectives

Before this, I never would have touched a pharmaceutical with a ten-foot pole, which gives you an idea of how severe the anxiety was. I was adamantly all-natural, vegan, GMO-free, organic–you get it. But even now, I’m so glad I was able to at last let go of all that ego and ideology do what I needed to do for myself.

I spent my winter break recovering at my mother’s house, mostly sleeping and eating and doing very little else. I could feel the medication kicking in and my nerves starting to recover. I finally allowed myself the rest and rejuvenation my body and mind had been craving for years and recovered fairly quickly. The medication was like a bridge from a very negative mindset, brought on by sheer nervous exhaustion, to a much more balanced and connected one. 

With the sense that I was coming back to myself, I realized that I was deeply unhappy in my relationship and in my life. Looking back now, it seems incredibly obvious — I was extremely lonely. It’s very difficult to sustain a sense of purpose when you aren’t part of a community to share it with.

To remedy all this, I left my relationship and made a move from the isolated forest town I lived in to a vibrant college town. I continued my studies with renewed commitment–and best of all–passion. I was making tons of friends, and remembered what my bubbly, quirky social personality was like for the first time since high school. It was like discovering an old friend had come back from the dead, except that the old friend was me. 

After only 5 months I was ready to stop taking medication. Of course, being young and still totally out of touch with my limitations, I decided it was also a good idea to go to Europe by myself for three months at the same time. I figured I could keep up my exercise routine, healthy food choices, and self-care–which had become so essential to me in those last five months–while traveling. Serious face-palm decision.

I stopped my meds abruptly (big no no) and took off. At first I was mostly fine, though I did feel more stressed than usual taking off for the trip. I eventually started having night sweats as the medication left my system, which was pretty scary. Still, I felt like “myself”, so I pressed on with my trip. Here comes burnout number two.

Know Your Limits and Respect Them

Constantly moving from place to place on a continent you are unfamiliar with by yourself can be an extremely stressful experience. Add to that plenty of alcohol and a very erratic sleep schedule and you have a recipe for disaster.

At first, I easily made friends and traveling buddies, but the more stressed I got the more I wanted to be alone.

I started withdrawing again, started feeling exhausted and wondering why, and my solution was to push on because I “shouldn’t” feel this way. I kept thinking that I “should” be able to handle this, and my solution was to force myself to do it until the tiredness, irritability, and tension “broke”. That’s exactly what happened, but not in the way that I wanted.

The previous panic attacks reached a whole new level, and this time I was in Europe–alone. Still, I forced myself to stay the entire three months because I somehow thought it would make me stronger. This extremely misguided understanding of exposure therapy was the opposite of what I needed.

When I came home, I went straight to my parent’s house. I was supposed to start another year of grad school at a new school that was more rigorous, more suited to my academic interests, and would more likely lead to a top PhD program. I only had a week before orientation.

When I went to meet my academic advisor, I was very literally a nervous wreck. What I should have done was go straight back home and repeat the whole recovery cycle over again, just like I had when I first started having panic attacks. I didn’t.

I dropped out of school before the semester started and suffered through a couple years of extreme anxiety, this time determined to figure out how to recover by myself, without meds. There’s that ego again.

The strange thing about fear and panic is that it can cause you to really distort your perception of the world and yourself. I somehow thought that this was all my fault, and that if I could just find a way to be stronger I would be fine.

I eventually got to a point where I felt “just okay”. I felt okay enough that I could get by, and that’s how I lived for several years afterward. I was tired all the time. I found it difficult and exhausting to do basic things like wash the dishes. I was hyper-sensitive and on-edge. I even found it difficult to sit still and relax. Yet I was getting by.

Moving On, Letting Go

Recovery didn’t truly start to take place until five years later after a lot of bumps in the road. Once I finally found myself in a stable lifestyle, a job with regular hours, and a strong community, I started to come back to myself again just as I had when I was 19 and had finally allowed myself the rest that I needed.

The false idea that we should be able to cope with life at all times is not only a very dangerous one, it is a very lonely one. Humans were meant to be in community, to work for a common goal, to rely on each other for a sense of security, friendship, and camaraderie.

We are meant to rest, to enjoy silence and stillness, to experience time outside of our daily to-do list. We are not meant to “do” non-stop, or to be productive at all times. Letting go of this very American and very masculine idea allows us to give ourselves the love and care we actually need and crave.

The tricky part is that once our nervous systems are agitated, we become somewhat addicted to that state and find it very difficult to slow down and even reap the benefits of self-care.

That’s another reason it’s so vital not to lock yourself into an idea of what self-care should be. If you can’t sit still and your mind is racing, don’t torture yourself with meditation or a massage.

Be kind to yourself and find the edge between your level of agitation and the next most relaxing state. Sometimes that’s going from a day of phone calls and meetings to vegging out watching TV. If you were going to your first yoga class, you wouldn’t expect yourself to be able to do the splits or scorpion pose. Give yourself that same compassion when you’re stressed, exhausted, or anxious.

Caring for ourselves the way we would care for a friend or the way we would care for our own child leads us to rest, recovery, self compassion and healing.

Find what the equivalent of “mom’s house” is for you, and give yourself permission to enjoy it without judgment or doubt. You deserve it, your friends deserve it, your children deserve it, and this big crazy world does too.

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