Healing the brain I fried — lessons from a year of burnout recovery

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

Feeling tired, overwhelmed or stressed? What about irritable or forgetful? Do you feel like you’re the battery of an old smartphone that never really charges to 100% anymore, even overnight? If any of these seem uncomfortably familiar, you might be on the path to burnout. Been there, done that and there was definitely no T-shirt — just a darkness that had become my new normal. Read on for how I bounced back from burnout, and what you can do to avoid my experience.

Exactly a year ago this week, I stepped away from the operations of the business I co-founded in 2012. It had been my life for 7 years — often the last thing I thought about before I fell asleep, the first thing I thought about when I opened my eyes, and even in my dreams.

Until December 2018.

Two weeks earlier I had received a long-waited ADHD diagnosis that confirmed what I had already realised months earlier, and the keys to our new house outside of Amsterdam. Those two weeks also coincided with the finishing line of a stressful client project that had technical issues — all of which I tried to manage in a chaotic house full of decorators and moving boxes. It tipped me over the edge — I was exhausted, easily overwhelmed and frustrated, as well as increasingly short tempered and irritable. Every day at work was a bad day.

The turning point

I realised something wasn’t right — I needed a proper break. At the same time, I received a warning about my blood pressure which was dangerously high for someone my age and family medical history, so my doctor strongly recommended a complete lifestyle change and removing every shred of stress from my life.

When I stepped away from my business and switched off emails, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Who was I without work? At first, I just slept — I was so exhausted that over the autumn of 2018 I had been falling asleep sitting up, in the middle of the work day which I had tried to combat with increasing amounts of caffeine, creating a vicious cycle of sleeplessness and exhaustion. Being tired had been my experience of life for so long I couldn’t remember a time when I constantly exhausted — it had become my normal.

Four months later I sold my share of the business to my co-founder after realising this would take much longer and I needed to change everything in my life — even if I didn’t know what that would look like. Fast forward to December 2019, and I’m back working — not at the same pace or intensity as I was before, but I have regained my passion for behavioural science and my ability to think.

So what is burnout, exactly?

Burnout comprises of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion which manifest as fatigue, cynicism and inefficacy. You’re always tired, increasingly disengaged from your work, as well as feeling incompetent and unproductive — no matter how hard you try.

It’s a common misconception that burnout is simply about working too long or too hard — in reality, burnout results when the balance of deadlines, demands, working hours, and other stressors outstrips rewards, recognition, and relaxation.

The key components that contribute to burnout are workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values and when one or more of these is chronically mismatched between an individual and his job, burnout emerges. It affects your cognitive functioning by disrupting creativity, problem solving, and working memory as well as your body’s neuroendocrine system (the HPA axis) which controls cortisol — and subsequently things like cardiovascular activity and immune system.

In short, my brain and body were fried.

The exact reasons for burnout are always very personal and specific to an individual’s situation and personality. For me, important component was the combination of being an entrepreneur and having an ADHD brain. Being an entrepreneur is stressful for most people — some research suggests that you can be more at risk of due to being passionate about your work and operating under high uncertainty. Adding in the ADHD hyperfocus and relentless drive accelerated my pace but my crucial mistake was neglecting my health.

As I wrapped up my final burnout coaching session yesterday, I thought it would be good to reflect on what has changed in the past year — first, the lessons, and then my advice to anyone who feels like they might be on the same path.

5 most important things I’ve learned about burnout

  1. Understanding that this will take longer than I think: At first I thought I could do recovery efficiently and read everything I could to figure out how to fix things quickly. After a while I realised that’s exactly how I’d ended up in this state in the first place — I’d hacked my way through two previous, smaller burnouts in that way and clearly it hadn’t worked. I needed time — time to do nothing but let my body and brain heal. Once I accepted that it’ll take the time it takes, I was able to let go and the process could fully start.
  2. Understanding it’s not slacking or being on holiday: Doing “nothing” and learning to just stop is crucially important — taking on extra stuff because you have the time now is a slippery slope, as is feeling guilty about your “slacking”. I needed to look after myself first and fill my own reserves again before I would have anything to give to anyone else. This is a mistake I’ve seen friends make — you need to drop everything that is not strictly essential and actively make space for recovery. Going on holiday may help, but in reality holidays are additional cognitive load for your brain and the best thing is to do nothing in familiar surroundings. A burned out brain is “bruised” — just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s less real than a broken leg.
  3. Surrounding myself with “healers”: after reading this piece of advice in an article about burnout recovery, I found a coach who understood both burnout and ADHD, and set about to repair the damage stress had done to my body with the help of a physiotherapist and a chiropractor. I’m still no springbok when it comes to fitness, but at least the 6 months of weekly sessions helped my muscles to go back to “normal” functioning and the process of healing my body also helped my mind.
  4. Accepting that body and mind are not separate: chronic stress affects both your brain and your body — for me it had raised my cortisol levels and generally pushed my body balance completely out of whack. I had to work on my interoception because not listening to my brain’s representation of sensations from my body meant I wasn’t aware when I was using up my body budget. I also understood how healing my body helped the vagus nerve which is, as I’ve found out, related to pretty much everything going on in our bodies — including burnout. Now that it’s no longer my “normal”, I can also see clearly how lack of sleep makes me irritable and miserable so I try to make sure I get enough with the help of an OURA ring that measures my sleep quality.
  5. Doing things that fill my reserves: in the time that I was not working, I did a lot of things that were entirely unrelated to work: I created a garden from scratch, got a second dog and did 7 dog training courses, took part in drawing and hand-lettering workshops (I was terrible but at least I tried) and completed a stand-up comedy course (I was better than I thought). Spending time in nature has been instrumental in my recovery — I walk our dogs every day in a forest or at the beach, and they have taught me so much about being present. I actively make time things that refill my bucket — they’re no longer things that I feel guilty about, because I understand they’re crucial for my well-being and productivity.

So if you’re on this path, what can you do? I’ve put together my personal top tips for anyone who feels that they might be on that slippery slope to burnout — but I would strongly recommend also reading the links at the end because there is much more to know than I can say here.

If you’re feeling burned out, this is my advice to you

  1. Make blocking time for fun and rest a priority: before, I sacrificed everything for work — now, I set boundaries and create tangible commitments to make sure I can’t slip back into old habits. Sign up for courses, or block time in your calendar for doing nothing. Stick to these commitments no matter what.
  2. Spend time in nature: don’t just take my word for it — a bunch of recent research suggests that it can truly help with your mood and wellbeing by e.g. lowering your cortisol levels (read more here and here and here). If you just want to read one thing to convince yourself, it would be this article. And when you can’t spend time in nature, bring it indoors with plants and sounds of nature. I know it sounds like New Age hoo-ha but it works.
  3. Make time for massages and find a physiotherapist: it’s not a luxury — your mind and body are connected, in large part through the vagus nerve (fun summary here, also more serious one here but plenty more if you google). Of course, massage and physio aren’t the only things that help — breathing exercises and meditation change feedback from your body through the vagus nerve to your mind (to reassure the brain there is no danger) which then helps your mind relax. I wish I had known about this before — I would have taken meditation much more seriously if I’d known there was an actual scientific reason why it works!
  4. SLEEP! Seriously, just get some more sleep. If you think you’re sleeping enough but mysteriously always feel tired, start tracking your sleep — either with an app, or something more precise like an OURA ring which is expensive but definitely worth it for the detailed insights on your sleep and body. The problem could be either the quantity or quality of your sleep, or both.
  5. Think about what matters most to you: When I realised the true risks of high blood pressure (it’s a silent killer) the choice was clear to me — nothing in this world mattered more than my husband and our life together. As much as I loved my work and the business I had built, it was not worth dying for. Put on your own oxygen mask first because otherwise you won’t be able to save the world, build your company or be there for your loved ones.

If you were motivated enough to read to the end, I’m guessing some of this resonated. In that case, please read the rest of the links — and take care of yourself.

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More about symptoms and types of burnout here:

Specific piece on entrepreneurs and burnout:

What burnout does to your brain:

How to start recovering from burnout:

Behavioral scientist — specialised in cultural psychology, interested in behavioral design. Side interests: dogs and ADHD.

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