Key takeaways
  • Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged and excessive stress
  • Signs may include constant tiredness, impaired performance and productivity, reduced cognitive function, detachment, feeling increasingly negative,sleep disturbances
  • Strategies for recovering from burnout involve prioritising quality rest, scheduling enjoyable activities, setting clear boundaries, seeking professional support, focusing on nourishing food, cortisol level testing, and herbal and nutritional supplementation

‘Let’s take another blood pressure reading in a few minutes’ said my GP. I stared at her in disbelief. ‘My blood pressure reading is high?’ I asked. I’ve always had low blood pressure. Not that I measure it often, but it has always trended low. When another reading several minutes later also came back high, my GP looked at me and said ‘How about you have a week off work? Actually, why don’t you have two weeks off work?’  

This suggestion made me feel weak at the knees with relief, but I was also perplexed. Why was I feeling like this? Why was my blood pressure so high when I had just taken a week’s annual leave (organised at the last minute, as the thought of having to face the following week at my job as a lecturer and clinical supervisor for an educational institution was completely overwhelming)? 

What I can see now, which I couldn’t quite see or articulate then, was that I had reached a state of burnout. 

I hadn’t considered the term ‘burnout’ was applicable to me because I didn’t have the classic high-pressured job associated with burnout such as being a police officer, paramedic, nurse or medical doctor. 

I hadn’t recognised that the extended Melbourne COVID lockdowns during winter and the shift in my job to teaching for long hours on Zoom without adequate breaks, were silently taking a toll on me. Burnout had been slowly creeping up, while I tried to mask or make light of how I was feeling until there I was sitting in a GP’s office with abnormally high blood pressure and a strong aversion to return to the work environment. Burnout isn’t necessarily dramatic, it can be dull and tedious - a slow burn that ends in a fizzle rather than a bang.

What is burnout and how do you know if you have it?

Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged and excessive stress. It often occurs in response to chronic work-related or personal stressors.  

Looking back now I can see some of the classic signs of burnout in my personal situation. I was having a lot of trouble sleeping and constantly felt stressed. Something as simple as receiving a text from a loved one felt overwhelming, and it would often take me a day or two to respond. I was irritable with those closest to me and found little joy in normal activities. The signs and symptoms of burnout can vary from person to person, but some common indicators include:

  1. Physical exhaustion: Feeling tired and drained most of the time, even after a good night's sleep. There can often be reduced physical stamina
  2. Emotional exhaustion: Feeling overwhelmed and emotionally drained. Often accompanied by a lack of interest towards things that once brought joy or satisfaction
  3. Impaired performance and productivity: Reduced cognitive efficiency, and difficulty in maintaining focus and decision-making abilities
  4. Cynicism and detachment: Feeling increasingly negative, cynical, or indifferent towards work, colleagues, or personal relationships
  5. Insomnia or sleep disturbances: Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up feeling unrefreshed
  6. Isolation and withdrawal: Social withdrawal from friends, family or colleagues and a tendency to avoid social interactions
  7. Increased irritability and impatience: A shortened fuse and heightened irritability, even over minor issues
  8. Physical symptoms: Headaches, muscle tension, digestive problems or other physical complaints may arise

You may have noticed that some of the symptoms of burnout sound like symptoms of depression. This has caused some debate as to whether they are one and the same thing. Often people who turn up to their GP with burnout symptoms will receive a diagnosis of depression rather than burnout. This can lead to a series of management problems, as the prescription of antidepressants are unlikely to improve symptoms of burnout. Having said that, depression may accompany burnout and there is often an overlap of symptoms such as insomnia and anxiety.

Strategies for overcoming burnout

Recovery from burnout is not simple or a straightforward linear process. In many cases time away from the workplace is needed. In a caring role this is often more difficult to organise.  In my case, I took a few weeks away from the workplace and spent time doing very little. As it was during one of Melbourne’s COVID lockdowns, my options were limited. I spent time sitting in the sun where I could find it, and walked slowly through our local parklands, spending time in nature and away from my computer screen. 

Within a few months, I decided to leave the educational institution for which I was working and found myself undertaking functional medicine training and working at Melbourne Functional Medicine. It was going back to the basics and focusing on the four pillars of health (sleep, eat, movement, stress) that really helped in my recovery.

Even health professionals need to be reminded to go back to the basics and get the foundational aspects of health right. I focused my attention on my nervous system and implemented more practices that were soothing rather than stimulating. I made sure my diet was supportive of my health and not placing unnecessary stress on my body. I took supplements to support my adrenal glands and nervous system. 

Strategies to help overcome burnout may include:

  1. Rest and restore: Prioritise quality sleep and allow yourself ample time for rest and rejuvenation. Resting is not mindlessly scrolling on your phone or being slumped on the couch in front of the TV, rather it is an activity that directly works to calm your nervous system. Make rest an intentional activity such as spending time in nature, practicing yoga nidra, or taking a bath
  2. Schedule activities in your week: Make time in your week for those activities that bring you joy, whether they be creative or physical pursuits, hobbies, or spending time with loved ones
  3. Set boundaries: Establish clear boundaries to protect your time and energy, both at work and in your personal life. Learning to say ‘No’ can be challenging, but can be very empowering. Embrace the concept of JOMO - the Joy of Missing Out
  4. Seek support: Consider seeking professional help, such as therapy or counselling. Many people who experience burnout have perfectionist tendencies which may require counselling to manage
  5. Nurture your body: Focus on giving yourself nourishing, wholefood meals. Preparing healthy foods is one of the first things we let go when we’re stressed. Chronic stress depletes our body of nutrients, and if we’re not fuelling ourselves optimally, nutrient deficiencies can develop
  6. Undertake functional testing to assess your cortisol levels: Experiencing burnout is likely to have disrupted your stress response and the production of cortisol over the day. It’s difficult to know whether you’re producing too much or too little cortisol without testing. A  DUTCH (Dried Urine Test for Comprehensive Hormones) or Adrenocortex stress profile are two common functional medicine tests which can help you understand the effect of burnout on your body
  7. Herbal and nutritional supplementation: Herbs called Adaptogens are wonderful at supporting a stressed body. They are also rejuvenating and tonifying. Other herbs called Nervines are supportive and restorative to our nervous system. Both work well to support a body experiencing burn out. I.e. a period of prolonged stress 

Recovery from burnout is still a work in progress for me. Those of us who have experienced burnout retain almost a muscle memory of the experience and need to be vigilant not to create the same environment and set of circumstances that led to the development of burnout.

Remember, recovery is a gradual process, so be patient and kind to yourself as you incorporate these strategies into your life.

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Vicki van der Meer
Vicki offers exceptional, results-driven healthcare, expertly treating thyroid issues, menopause, stress, and gut health with extensive clinical experience.
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{ "datePublished": "Sep 01, 2023" }