One year ago, on an early Thursday morning in August 2018, I was diagnosed with burnout. I was shocked. I knew something was surely not right with me (hence I was sitting in the doctor's office), but burnout? Anxiety? Depression? That seemed too unreal, too far away.
In this article, I want to share more insights into what burnout is, how it is connected to anxiety and depression, shine the light on my own experience and how I am doing one year later.
Let's start with the easy stuff...you may have wondered: What is burnout? People use this word more and more in a day-to-day context, phrases such as "I am feeling really burned out today." are common in our world, no matter if you are working for a company or are a stay-at-home parent.
Burnout is the feeling of extreme physical and emotional exhaustion, it is the syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed (Definition: WHO).
The disease burnout comes from chronically too much negative stress and overwork and has been spreading over the past years. Based on numbers from Statista, it is apparent, that especially people living in first-world, highly developed countries are suffering from the effects of too much work and too little relaxation.
How do I know if I have burnout?
When I got to the doctor's office a year ago, I got asked to fill out a survey. I remember very clearly that when answering the questions, I was really surprised how often I answered "Nearly every day". Was there an explanation of how I felt? Did other people feel the same way? When the doctor finally shared the results with me, I was still a bit incredulous.
Another sign indicating that you have put too much on your plate recently is when you go on a two or three week vacation, you come back, and you still feel tired and exhausted.
Common signs for burnout are:
Overeating or no appetite at all
Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
Feeling depressed, down, hopeless
Little pleasure in doing things
Feeling bad about yourself
Thoughts of hurting yourself
Impact on your performance
If you are curious to check your own health score, I put together the exact same questions for you that I had to answer a year ago. If your score is higher than half of the total, you should consider taking some time off or seeing a doctor (or both).
What to do when the first signs of burnout are showing up?
See a doctor
Take time off
Talk about it with a friend
Talk about it with your manager
Depression and Anxiety? What does that have to do with burnout?
Emotional exhaustion is at the core of burnout, it's a combination of being in a depressed mood and feeling fatigued; symptoms widely known for depression as well. In some medical diagnostics, burnout and depression are therefore not separated and not regarded as two different diseases. The only clear difference between burnout and depression is that while burnout usually relates to work, depression spans wider, it affects different parts in a person's life such as hobbies and family as well. Even though, I would like to argue that if you feel down from work, it's hard to not bring these feelings into the other parts of your life as well.
Anxiety is another form of a mental disease, just as depression and burnout, and is characterized by a feeling of excessive nervousness, fear and worry. It is closely correlated to depression and burnout as we use anxiety to push through feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm, it basically keeps us going and helps us perform. When we are feeling anxious, a high level of stress hormones are released, which leads, amongst other things, to an elevated heart rate.
When my doctor initially told me that I am suffering from anxiety, everything made sense to me all of a sudden. I had been feeling extremely nervous over the past months without any apparent reason, I was sitting at my desk at work, doing some mundane tasks, but in my stomach I had a roaring feeling, a feeling as if I was just about to present to a large group of people. I couldn't sleep at night, because I felt so stressed. My heart was pounding like crazy, as if I had just ran a marathon, but I was just laying in bed...
How am I doing one year later?
I am extremely glad, that one year ago, I decided to step up for myself and take care of myself, even though I felt extreme feelings of guilt towards my work and my team. I felt like a fraud...I didn't have a broken arm or leg that I could easily show to my co-workers. I was dealing with a mental disease. Would people believe me? After all, I had always shown my strong side at work, and tried not to show what's really going on.
But I knew, I had to make changes in my life and I needed time to get a clear head. I took a 3-months medical leave in which I started to create new habits and routines, got clarity on what was really important in my life (my health and personal well-being) and it ignited a new fire within me, a passion for helping other people learn how to manage their stress to help them prevent what I had gone through.
Once I open up to people (which I usually do, it comes with the profession...), people tell me that they had been going through similar experiences. They tell me that they take two weeks or three weeks or maybe a month off to relax, often getting a prescription for anti-anxiety or anti-depressants help "relief the pain', not feeling fully recuperated when integrating back into work. This is a dangerous undertaking, as we usually get swept up in the day-to-day and fall back into old routines and behaviors.
A month into my medical leave, I was still far from being clear and healed...I still felt extreme anxiety and worry, and needed the additional time to break my old habits, create a strong morning routine, learn about the root causes of burnout and find new tools to manage stress.
I also chose not to take any medication that the doctor's offered me so easily, some anti-anxiety drugs or anti-depressants. I have never believed in drugs. What for? To numb my body into believing that everything is ok, to keep ignoring the signals? I have always been the firm believer that if you get sick, your body is trying to tell you something. So where do we end up if we just keep disregarding our symptoms?
If you have read to the end of this article and you have identified similar symptoms (maybe you did the Health Questionnaire and realized that a lot of symptoms speak for burnout), I encourage you to take care of yourself, see a doctor and take time off.
If you are sick, you are sick. No matter if you have a broken leg, or a mental illness.
Nobody will make this decision for you, nobody will take care of you, nobody will start stepping up for you except yourself. Only you know how you really feel, stay true to yourself. Only if you are well, if you know yourself and if you are connected to yourself, you can go back to being able to connect to others and deliver outstanding results at work.
More about burnout, how to create new routines
Podcast Episode: Burnout
Podcast Episode: Create a routine that sticks