How I came out on the other side of burnout
A year ago I was running on empty. I’d heard the term a lot – burnout – like it was just the latest buzzword in the ad industry’s lexicon. It’s a word that is thrown around flippantly like it’s a badge of pride, but no one talks candidly about. I didn’t think it could ever happen to me. I’ve always been “the strong one”. No matter how stressful life may have been, the stress could always be washed away with a good cry or vent session with a close friend or colleague. The mantra was always: this too shall pass.
These words were written on the wall in my office. They were a constant whisper to myself when the weight felt especially heavy. They were a joke shared with colleagues to make the days feel brighter. But, burnout – does it really pass? Or is it forever nagging at you, always there in the shadows, just waiting for you to inevitably fall into it.
The internet defines burnout as: “What happens when chronically high demands meet low to no resources or support. The final stage of chronic stress, burnout is a condition of accumulation, unresolved stress that piles up day after day for months and years until it drains all coping resources—emotional, physical, and mental.”
My subtle descent into burnout started after a few years of living and loving in Halifax, my adopted home city for 6 years. I had a hearty social calendar; I barely spent an evening at home and I loved it that way. I worked a high-stress job in advertising where my workdays often ended at 10pm, followed by a drink in hand and not enough sleep before doing it all again the next day. But being a driven millennial, I was hellbent on performing well and moving up. This went on for years, and I was blissfully happy.
I met a guy. He needed more than I could give. Then for an emotionally draining year I started to lose myself. I started to lose my “sparkle,” as my close friends called it. In the midst of trying to keep my head above water during the gut-wrenching break up, I turned my life upside down and adopted a dog, and the weight of my job was becoming heavier to carry with each day.
I can remember when everything started to change. When what used to be day-to-day stress started to feel different. And I remember that feeling was hard to explain. It was hard to talk about in any real way without feeling like I was being dramatic and/or participating in the humble-brag culture of “no, I work the hardest”. Even writing about it now, it feels like it’s impossible to pinpoint what differentiates me from being just another stressed millennial.
I remember waking up every morning and feeling the literal weight of the world on my body. My legs felt so heavy that I could barely walk myself to the bus stop on the corner to get to work. I felt like I had molasses running through my veins. I wasn’t sleeping. So I bought bamboo plants, I feng shui’ed my bedroom countless times, I used meditation apps, all in the hope I’d finally get a restful sleep. I cried constantly over the stress of having a sick dog – the work I had to miss, the travel logistics, and the costs adding up. At work, I just didn’t care anymore. The high stress days didn’t even get to me. I was numb to what used to be high highs and low lows. I was indifferent.
I went to see a few therapists. They gave me some advice, but overall they didn’t take me very seriously. This is when I became pretty self-educated in the idea of high-functioning anxiety, and how hard it is to get help when you suffer from it. Next, I went to see a naturopath, who gave me B12 shots and supplements. She taught me about mindfulness, and I was able to shut work off when I wasn’t there. I finally mastered the art of balance and protecting my time outside of the 9-5pm. I started going to the gym to get those endorphins flowing. I forced myself to go meet friends no matter how exhausted I felt. I felt like I was doing all the right things to try to get out of this “funk”. But, still I remained numb, going through the motions.
I knew I needed a change, so I decided to quit my job, pack up my life and my dog, and move back to my home province. Ironically enough, I went back to the big city in search of a quieter, less stressful life. But it’s not a quick fix. Once your coping resources have been depleted, it’s about more than changing your scenery and your situation to truly address what needs fixing. It’s about working from the inside out to rebuild those reserves, and that takes time.
Coming out on the other side of this has not been easy, and writing this has been even harder. It’s a complicated task to try to make sense of my narrative and how this all lead up to where I am now. Even harder to try to put the feelings into words. But, in the last year since starting a new job, rediscovering my old city, Toronto, and trying to find myself again along the way, I can boil it down to 5 key changes that, one year later, have finally helped me feel like me again.
1. Alone time Trust me, this comes as a surprise to this extroverted social butterfly the most, but as my sparkle waned so did my desire to always be around other people. When I first moved back to Toronto, I was living in the suburbs with my parents; I was basically forced to s l o w down, which wasn’t a bad thing. Spending a lot of time with myself while having the support of my parents in a lot of the day to day was exactly the “rehab” I needed. Having them even for the little things, like taking my dog out, was an immense help to lighten the weight on my shoulders that I’d carried for so long. During these months of rest, I took the time to understand my limits. I know that I need this alone time to focus on my own energy so I can be my best self. Reading, getting a manicure, taking the dog for a walk, watching Netflix, cooking, working out, writing… these are all “me” things that I prioritize now in order to recharge.
2. Sleep, sleep, sleep I feel my best when I’ve slept 9-10 hours a night. Sleep is when your body heals and recharges, and it’s usually the first sacrifice in the modern world of the hustle, FOMO, and needing to be “on the scene and seen”. While this ideal night’s sleep always felt great when I got it before — it also felt like a luxury in a sea of the more common, late nights. Now, I make it a priority. Especially on work nights when I have to be up early, with a decently long commute, and sometimes challenging days ahead me. Do I miss out on a lot since I am in bed by 9:30pm? Without a doubt. Is it worth it? Absolutely. I am running arms outstretched straight towards JOMO, and I’m not mad about it.
3. Naturopathy For the last 6 months, I enlisted the help of a pro. While a good portion of my time with my naturopath has been focused on addressing my skin, we’ve also worked hard to come back from this burnout. I take custom adrenal supplements to overcome adrenal fatigue which resulted from the chronic stress. I’ve also worked hard to adjust my diet, and through this process I learned just how much what you consume affects how you feel. More to come on this another time. Within just a few months I could feel myself start to transform back to pre-2015 Amanda. The lesson here is I definitely couldn’t have done this on my own.
4. Limit alcohol As part of my elimination diet, I had to cut out alcohol for a few months due to food sensitivities. This was definitely a daunting task that I wasn’t sure I could do, but it was way easier than I expected and now I don’t even miss it. I’ve definitely always been a casual drinker, whether alone or socially – there was nothing I loved more than having a cold beer or a glass of wine after a long work day, and there was no limit to how many work days I allowed this. There’s obviously nothing wrong with this, but for me, I feel 100% better physically and mentally now that I’ve reduced this, saving it only for social occasions. I sleep better, I have more energy to do the “me” things I need or to make time for friends, and I have more mental clarity.
5. Introspection Overall, this entire transformation required a lot of introspection and frankly wouldn’t have been possible without it. I had to check my intentions, get over a lot of ego, and basically redefine what my life looks like based on what I need. Moving to Toronto could mean a coveted job at a fancy ad agency, but did I really want to go back to the stress of billable hours, a lot of unpaid overtime, tricky clients, navigating the office politics, etc? While on the surface it would look “cool”, I knew that my capacity for that level of stress was nil. It’s also easy in a city like Toronto to get caught up in FOMO and feel like you need to be everywhere all the time, so making the conscious decision to not care about that kind of stuff has been a game changer for me. I redefined my priorities and redirected my energy into what I know I need, rather than what I think my life should look like on the surface to others, and it’s been liberating.
Of course, the key here is moderation and balance. I still allow myself indulgences and I break my own “rules” sometimes, but now that I’ve recognized what I need I can be sure I prioritize that. Once you start to feel normal again – because, trust me, you eventually will – you quickly realize how not normal the old way you felt was. And you’ll never want to mess with this balance and peace ever again. Now, I protect it fiercely which, honestly, isn’t a bad thing.