Burnout can creep up on us all slowly. I think of the phrase “death by a million papercuts”. Perhaps I chose to write an article about burn out this month because I have been pushing my own boundaries lately. I have been picking up a lot of extra shifts to work lately for a variety of reasons. That has left me with less time for anything else in my life. Every time I tried to say no to friends, family, my boyfriend or dog over the last month, I have felt incredibly guilty, and put the pressure on myself to make it up to them.
Giving Up Self-Care
This means that I have started giving up time for my self care to try to meet my friends' needs. I don't want to be someone who chooses work over people, so if I am working more, I don't want that extra time to come from the energy I should be giving my people.
Giving Up Cooking and Healthy Eating
The first thing I gave up, to make more time, was cooking for myself. That one was easy enough because I don't like cooking very much. Even more, I really don't like grocery shopping, and meal prep. If I don’t have healthy food ready to eat, I have a tendency to say yes to sugar and comfort food more often. This is especially true when I work a night shift and my body craves any form of energy as I deny it sleep. That is the second thing to go.
Giving Up Sleep
If I am stressed, I don’t sleep as well. Sleep is the only time that our bodies and minds really get to recover and repair. Relaxing with a good book, or vegging and watching TV are not the same kind of shut down and repair that sleep is. The only thing that might offer similar reparative powers is meditation which I also just didn't have time for.
Giving Up Physical Activity
Next is physical movement. If I am already tired, not eating well and don't have much extra time, it's pretty easy to justify trying to lay in bed for a few more minutes instead of making a workout happen. When I am on my feet at work all day, I am physically tired by the end of it, even without getting a workout.
None of these things I gave up were conscious, but instead it starts with a meal here or there, pushing my bedtime back a bit, or skipping a workout. Those moments of pushing off the self care “for today” add up until it becomes an easier habit to not take care of myself, and then it becomes even harder to find time to reintegrate the care.
Symptoms of Burnout
This all manifests itself in many ways. Of course I am tired, but I am way more tired then I would be just from working a lot by itself. Because I am tired, my mind isn't as sharp, so decision making about things like (should I have the cupcake or not) is harder. I resent my friends and family for asking for more from me. Instead of realizing that they miss me and can't wait to see more of me, I feel like they are frustrated and expect more from me than I can give. Basically, even some of the good and positive things in my life feel like more stress. You can see how this all becomes a bit of a death spiral.
It is not a bad thing to push yourself at work, or to go through a short phase where you are giving more than you have to reach a goal. The big problem is that it is too easy to get into bad habits and too hard to maintain self care.
Getting It All Back Slowly
Just like my food choices, time for exercise and enjoyment of people didn't fall apart all at once, I can’t fix it all at once.
For me, it will start with making a conscious effort to do what I need to to go to bed on time and get more sleep.
With the energy from a good 8 hours of sleep I will make time (even minutes) to deep breath and start my morning with even a small moment of mindfulness. This will help me make better food choices.
If I don’t have the energy for a big long workout, I will stretch or do a shortened version.
Finally, I will trust that my friends and family love me enough that they wouldn't want me to give up my self care to squeeze them in. I will make time for them, but not at the expense of my own energy.
There are small steps every day, I can measure my short term success on how many of my self care goals I achieve that day, and in a month from now I can measure how different I feel.