When it’s more than really-stressed-out

By Melody Thomas

Featured in Capital #69
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Helpless, hopeless, unmotivated, detached, and depressed. Melody Thomas has burnout.

She shares what’s helping with her recovery.

I’ve got a theory that Wellington summers run one-on-one-off, so when last year’s was great, I was already bracing myself for a letdown (granted, I couldn’t have predicted the summer gale-force winds, sideways rain, poo in the harbour, or the skies turning orange from Australian bushfire smoke). To be fair though, I’ve been feeling a little pessimistic in general, because at the end of last year I went and gave myself Burnout.

The reason I’ve capitalised it is because before I got burnout I’d read the word and thought “oh yeah, we’re all burned out, bloody capitalism”. But burnout and really-stressed-out aren’t the same thing. Burnout is what happens when stress accumulates over weeks and months (maybe years) and, because there’s never enough time to stop and address it, a person mentally and physically implodes.

Here’s how to know if you have burnout: Whereas stress is typified by over-engagement, moodiness, or a short fuse, burnout feels like disengagement. Your emotions are blunted, you don’t care any more, you’re numb. Thinking about something you need to do, even a small thing, might give you the urge to curl up in a hole in the foetal position. You’re plagued by headaches and/or muscle aches, constantly exhausted and/or sick, increasingly cynical, and unable to focus on your work as you usually do. You feel helpless, hopeless, unmotivated, detached, and depressed.

These are all feelings I’ve been unable to escape for the past few months. Before I realised it was burnout, I’d diagnosed myself at different times with an iron deficiency, chronic fatigue syndrome, a thyroid condition, a hormone imbalance, and even peri-menopause. But I’m finally beginning to see a way out the other side, thanks to a bit of time and space over summer and a couple of really good books: Burnout, by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, and The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron.

The first is aimed at “every woman who thinks ‘I am not enough’,” and uses a whole lot of scientific research to help you understand and then dismantle the systems that lead to burnout. The second is a 12-week self-directed course in “discovering and recovering your creative self”. I’m 100 pages into the first and two weeks into the second, and the overwhelm has already greatly decreased. These are the things that have made the biggest difference:

Getting more sleep.

It’s so obvious I’m almost mad at myself for not figuring it out earlier but I just haven’t been sleeping enough. After putting the kids down, making lunches, and doing a quick tidy I would inevitably stay up too late watching Netflix, get myself tied up in knots thinking about work, or decide that 10pm was the perfect time to bring up a highly emotional historic argument with my partner. Recently, I make sure all screens are off by 9, I read for half an hour, do a five-minute meditation with the Headspace app, then melt off into a deep, restful sleep. It’s incredible how different I feel the next day (and I don’t always manage it, but more and more often I do). If getting more sleep sounds wonderful to you, but far too difficult given your kids’ ages – might you be able to nap during the day? Catch up on the weekend? I know it’s hard to prioritise sleep, but think about how your kids stubbornly refuse nap time even though it’s so obvious that’s what they need – go to bed, you idiot!

Regular exercise.

Me and exercise have never gotten along well. My main motivations for doing it have always been to lose weight (aka thinly-veiled self hate) or because I felt guilty for not doing it. In recent years I’ve realised that I love to exercise – so long as there’s variety in what I’m doing. For me this means yoga, hiking, bike rides, dancing, and a low-key “bootcamp” some Mum friends roped me into. In Burnout, exercise is highlighted as the #1 way to work through backlogged stress. For people who hate to do it or have no time, they even suggest lying on your back and tensing each of your muscles in turn (really hard), then relaxing them.

Time for myself.

This might be the hardest one to manage of all. There’s just never enough time in the day, and even when you find a window it’s so hard to choose something you enjoy over the To Do list (and to do so guilt-free). But it is absolutely true that investing time in yourself reaps rewards for your whole family. If you’ve forgotten what “me time” even looks like, can you take a moment to do this simple Artist’s Way exercise: Write a list of 20 things you enjoy doing, with an estimated date of when you last did those things. Now pick a couple of your favourites and see if you can’t squeeze them in in the next couple of weeks.

Recovery from burnout is slow. I might be through the worst of it (who knows!), but the road to recovery is long, and when work gets intense again it’s going to be really hard to keep these changes up. But the alternative – burnout, exhaustion, depression, recurring illness – isn’t really an option. Slowly but surely, I’m figuring out that I deserve a life that is balanced, fulfilled, healthy and nurturing. I hope you know that you do, too.


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