Melbourne Functional Medicine
Vicki van der Meer
Medically reviewed by:
‘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.
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:
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.
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:
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.