It was about two years ago and I was standing on my friend’s front doorstep with two bottles of wine tucked under my arm because who was I kidding? We hadn’t seen each other in a year and she’s one of my oldest and dearest friends. Of course, we needed two bottles of wine. I rang the bell and heard her feet thundering down the stairs.
She opened the door, that bright, beautiful face beaming at me. Her smile dropped almost immediately.
‘Heeeeeey!’ She said awkwardly and hugged me. ‘You look great!’
Her reaction was odd but I ignored it as I poured us each a glass of wine and settled down on her couch.
Midway through our first bottle, she plucked up enough Dutch courage to say ‘Are you okay? Your face looks kind of weird.’
I panicked slightly and said ‘Why? What do you mean?’
She touched my cheek and said ‘It’s kind of puffy and your skin looks a bit grey. I’m only saying this because your skin usually looks great, I’ve never seen like this before.’ With a look of intense concentration, she prodded my face and said ‘Oh look! It kind of deflates if you press it and release it. Cool.’
I jumped up and went to the bathroom to look in the mirror and she was right. My face looked awful and it wasn’t ‘cool’ in the slightest. My skin was grey, and my face was a lot rounder than usual and I hadn’t even gained weight. My already deep-set eyes looked like my skull was trying to suck them back into my brain. Despite carefully applying my ‘fancy’ version of my makeup routine, I looked like shit.
The most alarming thing was that I hadn’t even noticed. I thought I felt (and looked) like I always did. I’d been going to the gym, eating well. Getting a solid 7 hours of sleep per night. My workload was huge but that wasn’t anything new. There were some difficult clients giving me grief but nothing I couldn’t handle. Mr Smaggle had just had surgery on his sinuses and was recovering really slowly but that was fine. It wasn’t ideal but things like that happen and you just power through. I was drinking more alcohol than usual but I was travelling a lot and catching up with people so my drinking was more circumstantial than anything else.
Going through my current routine, I realised I was headed for a burnout. I was getting up at 6, going to the gym, working all day while caring for Mr Smaggle and then catching up on more work at night. I’d fall into bed and repeat the same routine and I’d been doing this for months. Weekend days were spent caring for Mr Smaggle and weekend nights were spent drinking too much wine with my girlfriends to ‘relax’ and then I’d feel crap for the next few days before repeating the process again the following week.
My face was telling me something.
Sure enough, when I got back to Melbourne a few days later, I got the flu. I big whopping, awful, can’t move/eat/breathe type of flu, which is extraordinarily unusual for me as I rarely get sick. I lay on the couch for four days.
After those four days, I made some adjustments. I ended my working relationship with a client that just wasn’t worth the grief. I decided to go a month without alcohol. I pulled back on my exercise routine and went 3 days a week instead of 5 and made sure to finish work at 5.30pm every afternoon. Within a week, I started to feel like myself again.
If you think you’re heading towards a burn out (and if you clicked on this article it’s likely you are) here are a few signs of burn out you shouldn’t ignore…
1. You’re freaking exhausted
Even if you’re getting a full eight hours of sleep every night (or however many hours you need), you still need to have rest and relaxation time. This might mean skipping pub trivia on a Tuesday night or cutting back on how many extracurricular activities you allow your kids to do so you’re not spending every night of the week being a chauffeur. As a very social person and an extrovert, it pains me to say this but when you’re heading for a burnout, you need to be spending most evenings in your own home. It’s not forever, just until you get back to your old self. I’ll occasionally drop off the social radar for a month or two to stop myself from totally losing the plot. It doesn’t mean you aren’t fun or cool anymore, it just means you need to do some self-healing before you end up in a really bad place. That includes weekends. There’s a weird stigma where it’s considered slovenly to stay at home and rest all weekend. We’re supposed to be shopping at organic markets, going for hikes and hosting themed dinner parties but I call bullshit on that. If you’re barrelling towards a full-on burnout, spend some quality time with your couch and have a cup of tea at least once every hour. That’s an order.
2. You feel constantly agitated for no damn reason
Recent (and not so recent) studies show a clear link between burn out and depressive disorders. If burn out behaviours remain unchecked, they can lead to major depressive episodes which by definition last longer than 12 months. Yikes. The first signs of this shift are often unusual levels of anxiety and feeling agitated in situations where you previously didn’t feel agitated. If you’re really struggling with anxiety and feeling constantly agitated, start looking at ways to readjust your life. Talk to your boss about lessening your workload, talk to your partner about sharing the home responsibilities or book a session with a counseller to nut out what the real issues are. Constant agitation and feeling out of sorts aren’t great signs, so make sure you tell people you’re feeling that way and seek some solutions before it gets worse.
3. You continually make poor health choices
I grew up as a dance/theatre kid which meant I’d go to school all day, and rehearse or perform nearly every evening and weekend. By the time I was a teenager, I could slam through a week of 16 hour days without any trouble at all. The thing is when you’re working that hard there’s very little room for anything else. Exercising takes time, preparing healthy food takes time. Sitting still for a few hours and realising that your body is really struggling, takes times. When I was 19 years old I was at uni full time, working part-time and that year I performed in 5 musicals. I felt like I was on top of my game but I was living off frozen Lean Cuisines, Red Bull, jelly snakes and alco-pops. I also barely exercised outside of whatever dance routines I was doing for whatever show I was in. Gross, but I literally didn’t have time to make better health choices. The solution to this problem was to work fewer shifts, do fewer shows every year and use that extra time to exercise and eat healthy food. I’m pleased to say that well over a decade later, the habit of prioritising my health hasn’t left me. I still have occasional lapses where I drink too much or skip the gym too often but I know when I start doing this, it’s because I’ve let my life get out of control. If you don’t have time to make healthy life choices, the only solution is clear up more time in your week to allow for these choices. You also need to prioritise these choices. This might mean avoiding alcohol from Monday to Thursday, turning down that extra shift at work, leaving that dinner party early because you have to go to the gym in the morning. You can obviously still have fun, just keep it manageable most of the time. Side note: I fully endorse going wild every now and then and dancing on table tops and going skinny dipping in the middle of the night but keep these events to a few times a year if you want to be able to function like an adult human.
4. You’ve stopped experiencing joy in your life
Personally, I get a lot of satisfaction and joy from being productive. If I have a busy, fulfilling day where I ticked off everything on my to-do list and then I got to sit with Mr Smaggle on the couch and read a book with a cup of tea, I’m the happiest person on the planet. Except when I’m in burn out mode and nothing brings me joy. It’s that state of being you get into where you’re almost on autopilot. You’re doing all the same things – going to work, going to the gym, hanging out with friends – but you’re not really there or experiencing it. If you’ve gotten to the point where the things that bring you joy no longer register positive feelings, you need to look at why and how to fix it. Start with ditching anything in your life that isn’t totally mandatory and create some space for yourself. The joy won’t come back straight away but if you give it enough time and space, eventually it will come back. It’s like trying to get a timid animal to eat out of your hand. It’s all about time, space and patience.
5. You’re not performing well
The first reaction to having too much work to do is usually to work more. Which sounds so ludicrous when you see it written down like that. If you’re working harder than you ever have and you can’t seem to get ahead, something has to change. Look at what work you’re doing, where you want to be and figure out if all that work you’re doing is actually contributing towards what you’re aiming for. For example, if you’re trying to get promoted at work in a particular area, make sure you’re busting your butt on the right kind of work to get you noticed in that area. Otherwise, it’s like flirting with some guy when you’re really interested in his brother. Make sure you’re concentrating your efforts towards the right stuff.