Monday, 23 November 2015

Burnout: knowing when enough is enough

This is a topic that I find has reared it's ugly head throughout my life: as a school student, at
university, in my professional career, and (sadly) watching it take over other people's lives: students, friends and colleagues alike. But what exactly is it? - Essentially, it's stress, your body's 'fight or flight reaction' to certain situations.

Stress: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Some stress is actually good for you, as when we are under stress we can achieve more as our body is primed to fight any situation via the surging of adrenaline and a general feeling of just being more alert. And once the 'stressful task' has been completed, you're often left with a sense of euphoria as you start to relax - you feel good about what you've accomplished. Think about when you've had a deadline to meet (like a work project, or coursework, or even a show) - actually getting everything done on time can be stressful, but when it's all finished you feel great. This kind of stress is good for you.

When you start to push yourself to the limit is when it all starts to go wrong. Stress pushed too far becomes 'distress' which is pretty bad for you. You know you may have bitten off more you can chew if you find yourself getting emotional about everything you have to do (or even just the littlest thing), or you become really irritable, or you're not sleeping as well you used to. This kind of stress is what I call 'instant stress', and it usually comes from a sudden need to get more done, or many deadlines all converging, and, I'll be honest, I've been there. 2nd Year of LIPA I got to a point where the coursework just all piled on, and I was doing 12-hour days with two massive deadlines looming - I hit my breaking point. Bad though it was, however, it's a situation you can recover from pretty quickly, or find a way to resolve if you recognise you pushed yourself too far. In the case of my 2nd year at LIPA, I voiced my concern at not being able to complete the deadlines on time, and it turned out I wasn't the only one feeling the strain, and as a result the tutors spaced the deadlines out to give us all more time. You have limits, and actually, hitting a point of distress can be enough to make you realise you need to pull back a bit, or that something in your life needs assessing/review. However, distress needs to be kept in check, because frequent bouts of it can lead to physical aliments like high blood pressure.

The ugly side of stress is burnout, when your distress goes so far you just cannot cope, in any area of your life. This kind of stress is usually accumulative, and develops slowly over the course of a few months or more. You become mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted, and find yourself unable to meet any demand that comes up in your life - essentially, you've left the fires burning too hard and too long, and now there's nothing left: you have no energy, your immune system may be shot (so you get frequent colds/flu), you may have started binge eating, or not eating, and as a result you've retreated back in on yourself. Most of us have days where feel overloaded or unappreciated (remember that 'distress' I was talking about?), but it's not an all encompassing feeling. Burnout is pretty serious. Left unrecognised and untreated can lead to much more serious health concerns like depression - The good news about burnout is that, because it's accumulative, it can be prevented way before it even appears.

So How do you prevent Burnout:
- Look after yourself: Let yourself get the right amount of sleep, treat your body to healthy and nutritious food, go for a decent walk to clear your head and get some exercise endorphins. There is always time to look after yourself. If you think there isn't, then you're on your way to burnout - you can't look after anybody else if you're broken, so make time for yourself

- It's okay to say no: You don't have to say yes to everything that people ask of you. Know your limits and take the time to really think if you can effectively commit. It can be really flattering to be thought of as the 'go-to-guy', the reliable friend who can help other people out at the drop of a hat - but also remember that people want things done, and they want them done well. If you're taking on too much you're spreading yourself too thin, so you're going to end up giving half-assed results. You essentially end up letting people down by not wanting to disappoint them. If you really can't do it, SAY NO - there's always someone else they can ask (honestly, there always is) You are not superman/wonderwoman - As much as we all like to think we're a superhero sometimes, we're not. We're humans. We have breaking points.

- You can ask for help: Don't ever feel like you have to go it alone, especially if you're struggling to meet demands, or are beginning to feel overwhelmed. Asking for help is the most sensible and mature thing you can do when you're struggling, and it can mean asking someone to help you share the workload, or just meeting a friend for a drink and having a bitching session to get your frustrations out in the open. Talking about what's stressing you out is key to not letting things get on top of you, I think. If you're worried that talking about things is going to somehow get to any higher-ups (and potentially get you in trouble), then try this: Get a notebook, and just start writing. Empty all your thoughts into the notebook until you have no more. When you're done, don't read it. Either leave it unread in the notebook or rip it up / burn it / throw it away. Just getting frustrations out of you can be enough to calm things down and give you new energy.

Create a 'Work-Life Balance' - learn how to prioritise: We all hear this phrase all the time, but what does it really mean? I read a story once that I think laid this concept out perfectly, so I've provided it below for you all to read, and take in:
When things in your lives seem almost too much to handle, when 24 hours in a day are not enough, remember the mayonnaise jar and the two cups of coffee.
A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.
The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with an unanimous "yes."
The professor then produced two cups of coffee from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.
"Now," said the professor as the laughter subsided, "I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things — your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite passions — and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car. The sand is everything else — the small stuff.
"If you put the sand into the jar first," he continued, "there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you.
"Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your spouse out to dinner. Play another 18. There will always be time to clean the house and fix the disposal. Take care of the golf balls first — the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand."
One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the coffee represented.
The professor smiled. "I'm glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there's always room for a couple of cups of coffee with a friend."

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