An Embodied Guide to Recovery from Burnout

Burnout as a widespread issue

Do you ever feel so exhausted that you’d like to curl up and hibernate?

Have you felt the kind of tiredness as if you’re dragging yourself through life, days merging into one another, with a mantra on repeat: ‘I’ve got to just keep going’ (like those images of people crawling through a desert to find water and therefore, survival)?

It’s not just physical tiredness, but also an emotional numbness, an opting out or avoidance of the people and the activities you used to love. You’re trying so hard to keep going but secretly you’re asking yourself: ‘Is this is? Is this really what my life is? Is this how I’m meant to live? Surely there is something more than this, where I can feel alive?’.

Chronic tiredness, fatigue, exhaustion, burnout. These are massive issues in our society. I’ve come across crazy statistics about the percentage of the population who feel they’ve experienced burnout. The scariest quote I’ve come across is that chronic burnout increases risk of death in Under-45s by 35%. Eek! Specifically, it increases the chances of coronary heart disease, diabetes and depression (Ahola, Väänänen, Koskinen, Kouvonen, & Shirom, 2010).

I support people to recover from burnout, prevent relapse and to reconfigure their lives to something juicier and more fulfilling. I help people slow down and reconnect with the stuff that gets pushed away whilst we’re too busy rushing around trying to get things done. A lot of it can be painful – we push things down, numb, keep going and then we slow down, and we’ve got to learn to actually feel some of that stuff. I work with the body to support this integration. I work with people who identify as being heart-centred (they feel deeply and probably put their needs aside to support others. They have probably worked some sort of ‘helping’ role or they take on that role within their family).

My burnout journey

Why do I do this? It is my own journey, and I know that there is hope for a better life, and I’m proof of that. My story begins with me as a socially anxious child. I wouldn’t speak in front of anyone in public. A lot of emotions got suppressed and held down, and all that fear impacted on my nervous system. Later going into the helping professions as a social worker, I piled a load more trauma on top of the stuff already there. I began to not feel good. I burnt out and then recovered three times, in different ways, and was on my way to a four episode when I realised my ‘recoveries’ weren’t working, they were just a sticking plaster over deeper rooted issues.

My first burnout was a slow decline due to a toxic working environment. I struggled to put in boundaries and was sucked into issues within my team. I gradually sunk lower and lower. I struggled to get out of bed and felt caring for myself was an effort. All my energy went into maintaining the basics of getting my job done and just about feeding and looking after myself. I felt numb emotionally, but then I started crying a lot (at home alone so nobody knew). It finally got too much at work, I cried in front of a manager and was sent home for three weeks, moved to another team and offered counselling. What a relief! It took a long time to feel fully better but just that switch out of a toxic environment made an immediate difference. I thought I was depressed, but my mood lifted almost overnight when I ‘escaped’ that team.

During my second burnout I became an emotional robot, on autopilot and ‘going through the motions’. I switched off and was numb. I probably looked ok from the outside. I felt stuck. I felt dread at the thought of going to work, and I would cry in the car driving to work in the mornings. I lived this way for about a year whilst fulfilling a contract. I handed in my notice on the first possible day I could, and I started to recover immediately, although it took about a year to be able to feel things fully again.

Five years later, it happened again but this time my body gave up on me. I was so fatigued that I found it physically hard to get up in the morning. I would get lactic acid building up in my muscles after one or two stairs and brain fog that meant I lost simple words and the end of sentences. I blamed myself for being ‘rubbish’ and unable to cope. I lost confidence in my body’s ability to do things. My GP sent me to a gentle pilates class and to a psychologist. These things helped me get into tune with my body and its messages. It was trying to tell me in any way possible that what I was doing was killing me. I switched roles at work, worked less hours and nurtured myself back to health through diet, gentle exercise, and meditation.

Then, two years later, I recognised it was starting again. All the signs were there but enough was enough and I quit my job. I probably stayed six months longer than I should have. I took a year off, went travelling and did lots of personal development to figure out why I was falling into the same pattern repeatedly. I tried out various practices to tune in with my body – yoga, meditation, dance, breathwork. I was lucky to be able to do this, with a supportive family who could support me financially.

Why didn’t I learn more quickly? Looking back, it looks so obvious, but I was so conditioned in certain ways of thinking. I couldn’t prioritise my own needs, or even recognise them, and I wasn’t able to set boundaries or say no to others, feeling I needed to please others and what I imagined they expected from me. Combined with societal values (protestant work ethic, the productivity vs laziness trap), along with my own identity as a ‘helper’ – motivated more by supporting others than supporting myself – it took a while to be able to override all of this and start realising that the direction I was heading in didn’t have good outcomes for anyone.

What I learnt from burning out

This is a brief account of my burnout and recovery journey. What have I learnt? Slowing down and tuning in to my body has made a significant difference. I’m more grounded, calmer, and able to notice quickly when I’m feeling stressed, anxious or irritated. I have a much greater self-understanding and can prioritise different life choices as a result.

My main life learnings are as follows:

  • We do not need to kill ourselves, just because society demands we live a certain way. We can choose to live differently, more in alignment with our values and our needs as human beings.
  • Tuning in and listening to our bodies is powerful and helps override conditioning. Our bodies never lie (whilst our minds lie to us daily).
  • It takes time to change, to learn and to recover. Be patient with your personal evolution. Go even slower if you can. Make it your practice and do it with an attitude of experimentation.
  • At this slower pace, time and space seem to open. Don’t panic! Lots of emotional stuff can come up and you can learn to deal with it, to sit with it, process and integrate it. Get the help you need to heal. Be kind and gentle with yourself.

How I support others to recover

I tend to work with people in three stages:

Stage 1 is Recognition.

Deepening self-awareness of your body, your thought patterns, and behaviours. Recognise what you’ve been doing and feel it in your body. Learn to tune in and slow down. When tricky emotions and thoughts come up, learn to recognise them. What do they feel like? What do you notice happening? Can you start to recognise what you are feeling and where you are feeling it in the body? What pace do you need to go at? What has been working for you? What has led you to where you are now?

Stage 2 is Learning & Practicing.

Develop a tool kit of embodied tools and techniques that support you, so when you know you need to shift a difficult emotion or thought, you have ways to do it. Then practice them! This is important, but I personally find being held accountable and being kept motivated really helps me with this stage. It’s important to note that this is not a quick fix stage. Be patient and take as long as you need.

Stage 3 is Make Different Choices.

You know that you’ve been following patterns of conditioned thinking and behaving that haven’t worked for you, and you’ve got to a point where you understand this and have started to learn ways of stepping out of these habitual ways of being that haven’t served you. This is the stage where you clarify your direction, your dream, your goals and make the choices in your life that nurture and support you. This is where you create the life you want to live.

It’s fair to say that these stages aren’t linear, and I still find myself fluctuating between all three. It’s an ongoing process! Be as kind, as gentle and as patient as you can be with yourself. If it’s taken you a while to get into such a burnt out place, it will take time to recover and evolve into a happier and healthier place.

 

A great place to start with this process is by attending my online, weekly sessions, aimed at tuning into the body, deepening self-awareness then learning and practising tools to help you shift emotional state. Stages 1 and 2 above! You can find out more about them here: Weekly Sessions – Aware Conscious Living

I look forward to connecting with you soon.

Ruth

 

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