‘Bouncing back’ from burnout

Stress vs BurnoutRecently I saw a magazine article entitled ‘Bouncing Back from Burnout’ and I laughed so hard my lunch nearly flew out my left nostril. Why? Because you don’t ‘bounce back’ from a state of exhaustion – you crawl back very slowly, on your hands and knees, pausing only to weep hysterically on the shoulder of a sympathetic friend, family member or passing stoat. In this sorry state you’ve got less ‘bounce’ than Henry VIII attempting the pole vault.

I should know – when I reached the point of no return when it came to my health, I wasn’t just burned out. I was charred to a crisp. I was wired but exhausted, angry, inexplicably driven and hyper, sleepless, and my emaciated reflection resembled something that could have been Voldemort and Gillian McKeith’s love-child. It took a long time for my body to reach such a critical state. A long period of self abuse through poor diet, high stress levels, inadequate rest and far too much adrenaline – and it’s taking a long time to recover too. I’m learning patience, the importance of balance, how to say no, as well as how to relax properly – and I won’t be walking, skipping or bouncing back to my old, toxic lifestyle. Not ever.

I’m currently chugging about eight vitamin supplements a day, and even this concentration of vital nutrients speeding towards my ailing internal organs won’t make palpable changes to my health for a little while. My nutritionist still thinks it will take at least three months of this regime before I start to see any positive transformations whatsoever. I’m in it for the long haul, whether I like it or not.

The same goes for exercise. Currently I can manage about four lengths of my local pool before the lifeguard starts to look nervous that I may drown in less than a metre of chlorinated water. If I can extend this feat to eight lengths before Christmas, I’ll be happy.

The article I read recommended taking a few consecutive days off work to cure this thing we call burnout. ‘You may even need an entire week,’ the writer posited, gravely. Man, if I could heal my wrecked body and mind in just seven days it would be like Christmas, all my birthdays and Chris Hemsworth declaring his undying love for me, all coming together at once in wonderful and wildly unrealistic symmetry.

Slowly slowly, catchy monkey, as our colonial friends used to say. There are no quick fixes for burnout and exhaustion. Now I’m not interested in trapping any monkeys but I am keen to change my life and reclaim my health for the long term – which requires a gentle, focused and sustained approach to change. Subtle changes, but change nonetheless. What I eat, who I spend my time with, how often I relax and what I realistically expect from my life have all seen alterations, on top of which I’ve had to seriously commit to seeing through these habit changes consistently – even when the trudge back to good health feels like a gruelling and thankless task along the road to nowhere.

It took me a very long time to really get to grips with the somewhat lengthy time-scale I was dealing with for my recovery plan – such was the deeply ingrained nature of our society’s ‘now’ culture in my consciousness. Three months isn’t actually all that long to wait for change, but these days everything we need is but a click of the mouse away – and we want it all faster, bigger, cheaper and closer to our lazy, privileged backsides. My health wasn’t going to come back to me at the speed of an Ocado delivery – expectations had to be seriously adjusted.

Our ancestors dealt with death and danger every day as they battled to survive fierce predators, vicious climates and scarce food supplies. These days our fight or flight response is more likely to be triggered by a shortage of organic quinoa than the appearance of a woolly mammoth and yet somehow, as purported cases of ‘burnout’ sky-rocket across the globe, we’re managing to wear ourselves out even more than ever through 24/7 emailing and burning ambition. When an immense tiredness comes along that we can’t instantly dispel with caffeine, we’re flabbergasted – and a five-point-guide to ‘bounce back’ within the week is about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

There’s no bouncing back from burnout. These expectations of bouncing, swerving and speeding our way through life at 100 miles an hour are what make us sick in the first place. When your body tells you it needs a break, it’s time to listen – there’s no magic pill or wonder cure that will have us back on our feet tweeting, internet shopping and making business calls within days.

Instead of feeding us unrealistic quick fixes for our fatigue, the media needs to get real and tell us what we don’t want to hear. That recovering from burnout requires large and sustained lifestyle changes or the only bouncing we’ll be doing will be straight into an early grave.


Chronic fatigue or lazy-itis?


Having conquered an entire four lengths of the swimming pool (followed by a lengthy wallow in the jacuzzi), my doctor now wants me to try lifting some light weights to build up muscle density. She said I can even start at home with canned goods.

Four years ago last month I ran the London marathon. Twenty-six-point-two miles of sweat, back ache, wild cheering crowds, being overtaken by obscenely fit pensioners and the occasional camel – it was one of the greatest days of my life. Today, I risk ending my days trapped underneath a pile of baked bean tins. A lot has changed.

Has my attitude towards exercise taken a dramatic turn over the last four years? Have I suddenly become terminally lazy? Survived a terrible car accident and lost the use of my limbs? None of the above. Relentless fatigue simply arrived in my life after a period of battling depression and anxiety. I started needing a nap just to get through the afternoon in one piece, my daily threshold for physical exertion began to comprise a simple walk to the corner shop and, at it’s worst, I was bedridden and seething with bodily aches and pains. All for no apparent reason.

And that’s the biggest problem for those suffering through the phenomenon GPs are labelling TATT (Tired All The Time) when the blood tests come back clear. Call it chronic fatigue syndrome, ME, hypoglycaemia, systemic candida, burnout, breakdown…whatever you want – most people that feel exhausted all the time for no logical reason simply don’t get a clear answer. And in the absence of a scientifically rooted conclusion, the chronically tired are often just shipped off for psychiatric treatment. If in doubt, it must be all in the head.

And because there’s such a vast grey area circling my condition, the demons of self doubt are never too far away. I’ve often wondered if the problem really is ‘just in my head’? Maybe all those judgey and intolerant people on the outside are right – I’m just lazy.

However a vast proportion of the population that wakes up exhausted after a full night’s sleep every day says otherwise. It’s estimated that around 250,000 people currently live with chronic fatigue syndrome in the UK, and countless others are struggling with persistent, unexplained tiredness and exhaustion.

There are a whole host of possibilities for what’s causing the body to struggle – vitamin and mineral deficiencies, digestive problems, food allergies, inflammation, infection, trauma – but the problems are invariably subtle, chronic and only identifiable on a trial and error basis. Some complicated combination of factors has run the body down over a long period of time – and while chronic exhaustion isn’t necessarily life threatening, it’s certainly life limiting.

I’ve done a hell of a lot of reading over the last year or so, and self education has been key for my burgeoning recovery. The internet is a great starting point for self-help literature, but beware articles written by those that think you’ll spontaneously combust if you eat a non organic grain of rice. It seems there’s a growing population of experts out that that have identified the source of all worldly problems – and it is gluten.

I’m hopeful that in the future the medical profession will be better informed about mystery fatigue ailments. It has to be – unexplained tiredness seems to be mushrooming in modern society. After all, what sort of future can our children look forward to if instead of working together to create a better world, we’re all having a snooze? Until then it’s up to those with tangible experience of chronic weariness – us – to talk and write about our experiences and better educate the wider public. After a nap.



Going public about going private


“So,” said my GP, peering at me expectantly. “What do you want to do?” in a tone that suggested I might have the foggiest clue as to how my exhaustion and inability to cope should be fixed. It was that precise moment, as I resisted the urge to throw my chair at him, that I completely and utterly lost faith with the NHS’s capacity to deal with mental health issues.

After a further fortnight of sleepless nights and listless, exhausted days I did what anyone who can beg, borrow or steal money off family would do. I sought private health treatment. And that was the day things began to change for me.

Within 20 minutes of meeting a new doctor I heard the words ‘my diagnosis is’ and ‘this is what we need to do’. Someone was finally taking control for me, and I literally wept with relief.

It’s not that she has access to vast libraries of information that the NHS is cut off from, nor that I have three-hour long appointments with her – my new doctor simply takes me seriously and instils confidence in me that she knows what she’s doing. I may have to sell a kidney to pay off her bills but to me that’s a small price to pay for renewed hope.

Depression is a physical illness but I have yet to come across an NHS doctor who even vaguely entertains the idea that it may have physical causes, beyond the bog standard thyroid and diabetes tests that are carried out. I’m currently being treated for poor digestion – something I seem to suffer from that stops my body absorbing essential nutrients and causes me all manner of problems. Don’t get me wrong I’m still taking antidepressants and following all the usual protocol for poor mental health, but this is the first time in four years of suffering that any medical professional has moved beyond throwing pills at me and sending me to therapy. All the CBT in the world won’t get you far when your body lacks the basic nutrients required to fight everyday stress.

It’s not a relief to see a doctor that doesn’t look at me quizzically before muttering “shall I refer you to a psychiatrist then?” when I desperately try to assert that my fatigue has non psychological roots. It’s life saving.

I know that, in essence, our health service does wonderful things and it’s under enormous pressure at the moment. I know that not all GPs are ignorant about mental health in fact many are fantastically clued up. But in an age where stress is such a large part of normal life, the two-pronged ‘medication vs psychotherapy’ approach to depression treatment isn’t always enough. Sometimes we need to dig beneath the surface to seek out the niggly little ailments that are contributing to poor physical and mental health so that we treat the root cause of depression, not just the symptoms.

How not to be a dick to your loved ones


It’s amazing how much energy I expend these days in the simple act of trying not to be an utter penis to the people I love.

You wouldn’t think it would be too difficult to be nice to people. Unfortunately I spend so much time locked inside my own head that sometimes it’s a genuine herculean effort. And I’m exhausted, which doesn’t help.

How do you tell your best mates that you’d rather cut your ears off with a spoon than spend the evening with them? Not because they’ve done anything wrong, but because you just need some time alone.

Currently I’m resting up at my parents’ house for a while, as the white-knuckle fear and soaring adrenaline edge of my moods seems to have given way to complete and utter exhaustion. I got so over-tired I stopped being able to sleep or eat, which for someone who can usually happily inhale all ten slices of a large Dominos pizza in one sitting, means serious trouble. I needed looking after.

After a few sleeping pill aided nights of rest I feel less like I’m stumbling through Dante’s seventh circle of hell, but as far as functioning like a normal human being goes, I’m not up to much. In the immortal words of Bernard Black; I can feel bits of my brain falling away like a wet cake.

So I find myself in the unfortunate position of trying to be grateful for the avalanche of love and kindness bestowed upon me by my lovely parents – who cut a holiday short to look after me – while battling searing rage and frustration at my situation, and frazzled, sleep-deprived nerve endings. Translation? I’m being a big ol’ bitch to those that care about me the most.

And as for my friends, I’m in touch with a select few over the phone and am keeping the rest at a distance with a metaphorical ten-mile pole. Because, the way I am at the moment, the only way to not be a dick to my loved ones, is to stay away from them.

Hopefully given time and further rest I’ll be less grizzly bear and more fluffy bunny. Until then, I’m staying in my box.

Surviving cabin fever

cabin fever

Sitting at home, so wracked with boredom you could chew your own arm off in despair. You’ve watched eight episodes straight of The Wire so gazing moronically at the TV isn’t an option, unless you’d like your eyeballs to dissolve in their sockets. Too exhausted to go out, yet too twitchy to nap or read a book, you pace restlessly around the living room, waiting for the sweet anaesthesia of sleep to release you from another excruciatingly dull day.

Is this familiar?

Depression and anxiety can disable you to the point that you physically can’t get out into the world. Staying active is a key part of getting better, but there are times when you’re so debilitated you can’t work or socialise so you end up alone for vast expanses of time. Despite the naively peddled misconception that depression sufferers are lucky to have so much free time to pursue their interests, being confined to your home is no fun.

When you’re barely functioning as a human being it’s hard to use all that spare time to, I don’t know, write a novel, take up tai chi or learn to play the nose flute. Sometimes just finding a way to pass the hours in a way that requires little concentration (you have none) and helps you to survive another day, is hard.

Depression makes it so difficult to focus. While trying to immerse yourself in an activity it’s easy to get distracted – whether from outside noise, intrusive thoughts or your own foot. When I’m walking the tightrope between being intolerably bored, agitated and having the attention span of a gnat, there are very few things that will keep me occupied and quell my urge to climb the walls like a tree frog.

But, I have learned a few tricks along the way to both promote relaxation and get myself doing something that doesn’t involve crouching in the corner of a room, rocking and singing to a pillow. Here are a few little things you can do to keep cabin fever at bay for those times when you really have no option but to stay at home:

  • Cook. I find that cooking demands just the right amount of attention to detail to keep your mind off how crummy you feel, but it’s not in the least bit stressful. In fact I generally feel very chilled out when I’m banging pots and pans around in the kitchen. Plus it’s a means of passing the time that culminates in one of my favourite activities. Eating. You don’t need to be Nigella to benefit from the calming effects of whipping up a culinary delight either – if your piece de resistance is beans on toast, that’s fine.
  • Get a friend round. If you’re lucky enough to have supportive friends, don’t be afraid to reach out to them. You might be surprised how happily someone that cares about you will come over to watch a film, chat or just pat your head while you bang it against a nearby wall.
  • Stay out of bed. This one’s so important. No matter how much you feel like just going to bed because there’s nothing else to do, get your butt out from under that duvet. You’ll just mess up your sleep pattern and make yourself feel worse. Be sure to maintain a strict 8-hour sleep policy and only go to bed when you’re truly tired enough to slip off into the land of nod.
  • Clean.  The tidiness of my home is a very accurate barometer for my anxiety levels. When I’m stressed and house-bound I take to the bleach and marigolds like Anthea Turner on speed. Not only is it a great outlet for all that pesky adrenaline, but you end up with a living space to rival an Ikea show home.
  • Go outside. Instead of getting into a routine of just being trapped between walls, make sure you check out the great outdoors once in a while, where the air is fresh and there are TREES and everything.
  • Yoga. Nothing like a bit of gentle stretching and deep breathing to get some oxygen circulating and calm a frazzled nervous system. You don’t need to start meditating in a cave or anything but this kind of gentle exercise is perfect for anyone looking for a little peace.
  • Write. This one’s very much rooted in personal bias, but writing about how you feel can be very cathartic. Even if it’s just a few sentences a day, or an angry stick man diagram, putting what’s in your head down on paper can be a very satisfying way to while away some time.
  • Music. Playing or listening to music is super relaxing. Unless it’s death metal, obviously. If you’re a grade eight trombonist, great, but if not even just switching on the radio or browsing spotify is a fast track to feeling mellow.

If you have any other useful ideas for getting through enforced cabin fever, please let me know!