It was 2014 and I working long, hard hours. My children were aged 18 months and five, and sleep deprivation was my constant reality. I worked four days compressed into three, entirely my choice but not really a choice (childcare costs are extortionate).
I wasn’t supposed to work Mondays, but on one particular Monday a project of mine was threatening to go off-course. If I left things until I was next back in the office on Wednesday, I’d have a big mess to clear up.
So I had my laptop on, squeezing in a quick firefighting call whilst my daughter pottered around. Or demanded things of me. Or both. I put the phone down and looked at the time, and realised there was no way I would make my Pilates class. Well, what could I do? I didn’t have time for Pilates, I would just have to skip it.
Eventually I cancelled the Pilates classes altogether. I didn’t want to waste my money, as for one reason or another, I seemed to miss more classes than I could make. That one small thing that helped me, relaxed me, reset me, was cut out of my life with little consideration.
It wasn’t just a cancelled Pilates class. I didn’t see much of friends any more, I never took time out for myself, and I didn’t relax – partly out of fear that if I did, I wouldn’t be able to get up again! I was continually, chronically stressed and exhausted, and I accepted this as being part of life right now.
Fast-forward a few months and I was burned out and broken down. I have already written about this, there is a ‘My Story’ page on my blog and I’ve recently posted on Instagram. I took time off sick from January 2015, six months later I tried to return, and eventually I had to leave my job altogether.
During the time I was off sick, I was determined to find ways to get better. One of the first things I looked into was mindfulness meditation, and I bought a book called Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. I knew from the title alone that this book would help me, and it did.
In Chapter 11 (P 211) something stood out for me that seemed so profound, and so relevant, that I wished I’d known about it months or even years ago. The book described the exhaustion funnel, and I recognised my own experience with eerie accuracy.
What is the exhaustion funnel?
The exhaustion funnel is from Professor Marie Asberg, an expert in burnout at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
The circles at the top represent our life when it’s full and balanced, but as we get busier we give up the things that don’t seem important – to focus on what we see as essential. As the stress continues, we give up more and more, and the circles get smaller. Our life narrows, we are merely surviving.
To quote from the book: “The funnel is created as you narrow the circle of your life to focus on solving your immediate problems. As you spiral down the funnel, you progressively give up more and more of the enjoyable things in life (which you come to see as optional) to make way for the more ‘important’ things such as work.”
“As you slide ever further down, you give up even more of the things that nourish you, leaving you increasingly exhausted, indecisive and unhappy. You are eventually spat out at the bottom, a shadow of your former self.”
When I read this, it was a lightbulb moment. I realised that I had unknowingly allowed myself to become exhausted, vulnerable, and ultimately unwell – because I never allowed myself to stop, step back, gain perspective, or relax.
When you’re under severe pressure, it’s so hard not to spiral down the exhaustion funnel. It seems to make perfect sense, to streamline your life and cut out what’s superfluous. But one way to look at it is, it’s like staying up late every night to cram more work in. It may work for a while, but it’s soon going to catch up with you. In the long term, we’re not meant to live a life where we never stop.
Five steps to avoid burnout
Looking back at my experience with the benefit of hindsight and all I have learned since, I can attempt to reverse-engineer what I should have done differently. I believe in my heart that these things would have made a big difference.
Who am I writing this for? Anyone who is hearing warning signs.
You’re tired, you’re irritable, you feel like you can’t cope. Everything feels too much, your emotions are all over the place (whether that’s tears or anger). You’re running on a treadmill, a hamster on a wheel. No matter how much you do, people are always asking more of you. You go to bed tired, you wake up exhausted. Every day feels like more of the same, and your life is painted in shades of grey.
If you can relate to any of this, here’s what I wish I’d have done differently. I did eventually do all of these things, but the key is in the timing. You have to stop, and seek support, before you break.
Throughout, I’m going to share the fears and stumbling blocks that held me back from seeking support, and describe what those looked like from the other side. All of the reasons I pushed through with my head in the sand and refused to seek help, initially, were BAD REASONS!
- Recognise that pushing through is not the answer
I remember when I was frantically busy, stressed, stretched, exhausted. My response was invariably to push through. What else could I do? We couldn’t have survived on one wage, I had to work. And my stressful job, with all its faults, was my best option.
What other workplace would allow me (albeit begrudgingly) to work four days compressed into three? Where else would pay me a good wage without an exhausting commute? (Where I live, ALL the good jobs are in Leeds, a three-hour round trip. This job was 45 minutes away door-to-door.)
I thought about whether I could find a less stressful job nearer to home, maybe term-time only or school hours. But I could never make the sums add up, childcare would have annihilated my earnings. And honestly, I didn’t want to give up on everything I’d worked so hard for, to throw my career away. At the time, this felt crucially important to me.
So, I pushed on, pushed on, and pushed on. It was gruelling, but it never occurred to me that I would break. I was strong, I was doing this for my family, I would get through it and when the kids were older and both started school – THEN I would find a better balance, perhaps even a new job.
So, if anyone reading this feels trapped by circumstances – I get it, I completely, totally, utterly get it. But there is one piece of the jigsaw puzzle you may not be considering, which a therapist pointed out to me (very kindly. If it comes across as harsh on paper – it wasn’t delivered that way).
If you lose your health, you won’t be able to do your job.
Yeah. There’s no arguing with it really, is there? Because yes, you’re doing all of this to pay the mortgage and the bills. You won’t want your family to end up on the street. You feel you have no choice but to push on through.
Except that if stress ends up making you so unwell you can’t work, the cruel irony is that all of your hard work and pushing through means nothing. A job is no use if you’re not well enough to do it, and sadly sick pay doesn’t last forever.
It’s a harsh reality check, but it really does help to keep this in mind. If you weigh the risk of damaging your health into the equation, you might just make different decisions.
Does speaking to work, or taking time off, feel risky? Does talking to a doctor feel uncomfortable and scary? If you look at the other side of the coin, and the risk you are putting yourself under by pushing on through – the other risks might just look a little smaller.
- Go to a doctor, tell them how you feel, and be open to help of some kind
I had so many reasons I didn’t want to see a doctor.
The fear: Was this even a medical thing, would I be wasting their time?
The reality: Yes, it’s a medical thing! The effects of stress on your physiology are very, very real. Stress can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, decreased immune system functioning, physical illness, the lot. This is not something that’s ‘in your head’. This is something that affects every part of your mind, brain, immune system, physiology, body.
The fear: Will I be assigned a mental health label that I have to carry for the rest of my life?
I don’t know why this worried me so much, but all I could think about was that if I was labelled as suffering from a mental health issue such as depression, this would affect my life insurance and travel insurance. I’d have to declare it forever more. I didn’t want to be put in a box in that way.
Looking back, this fear was silly – but it genuinely held me back from seeking help. What I want to explain is that I was treated with respect and compassion.
The reality: I mentioned this concern to a GP and she said, ‘It’s fine, we can just put down stress-related illness.’ Now, I don’t think our health system is perfect, I don’t think GPs have the time or resources to address root causes, and I think psychiatric medications are over-prescribed as a quick fix, when people would benefit from other kids of support…
BUT one thing I can say from my experience is that every single GP I spoke to was compassionate and in my corner. In hindsight, I had nothing to fear in going to speak to them, and I will always look back on this as a positive experience.
The fear: I didn’t want to take antidepressant medications
This can be a controversial and emotive topic, and I’m not a mental health professional – so I don’t see myself as being qualified to advise anyone on what they should, or shouldn’t, take. However on a personal basis, I didn’t want to take any antidepressant medications.
My concerns are around the way the brain adapts when its serotonin receptors are flooded with too much serotonin, so they downregulate – meaning once you come off antidepressants, you experience much lower levels of serotonin.
I also had concerns about the efficacy of these medications. During my Psychology degree 20 years ago, I learned that antidepressants are no more effective than placebo. In the intervening years, evidence has gathered, and these drugs are no longer even being studied in clinical trials. The science has moved on, but medicine lags behind.
The serotonin hypothesis of depression is questionable, and the latest research points towards chronic inflammation as a causal factor. I believe in years to come, SSRIs will be seen as an old, ineffective solution. For me, the risks of the currently available medications outweigh the benefits.
There are other views, and other experiences – this is just mine. I have no medical training or background and I’m not here to advise or persuade anyone, I’m just sharing my own experiences.
The more important point I want to make here is that you might fear being pushed into something you don’t want, and want to offer some reassurance there.
The reality: I told the doctors I didn’t want to take antidepressant medications, and they respected my decision and didn’t put pressure on me. I was referred to a CBT therapist, although getting a referral wasn’t easy (I nearly wasn’t judged a severe enough case, which makes me wonder quite how severe things would have to be!)
And the CBT really helped. The therapist mentioned that they generally would want people to be on antidepressants at the same time as therapy, but I explained my reasons for not wanting to do this and he let it be. Again, consistently, my experience was of my views being respected.
The important thing is to speak to a doctor, understand what help and support is available, make a decision that feels right for YOU – and accept some form of support. What that looks like is your choice, but don’t hold back from seeking help because you’re scared you’ll be coerced into something you don’t want to do.
- Ask for support from family, friends, and your workplace
This one was so hard for me. I’m a very open person, and I didn’t struggle with speaking to my husband or close family, or friends even. But talking to work felt incredibly risky. I know how brutal workplaces can be, and I understand why people might not want to disclose things to work.
The thing is, workplaces have a legal obligation to offer support, and there ARE things they can do to help. There are processes they have to follow. There are occupational health schemes, often with counsellors you can speak to. Your hours could perhaps be reduced, perhaps you could work from home. There are a lot of possible levers to pull, and it’s important to explore these options.
Yes, you may feel like this will give you a black mark and affect your future prospects. But if you don’t speak to them and seek support, there’s a good chance that things will get worse. There are real benefits to speaking to work sooner, rather than later.
When it comes to those close to you, even if you’re OK opening up to people – it can be incredibly hard to ask for actual help. I had so many reasons I didn’t want to ask. I didn’t want to be a burden, I didn’t want to bring them down with me, and I often wondered if I was blowing things out of proportion. And deep down, I’m not sure I felt worthy of it.
The reality is, the people close to you love you, and want to see you well. They will feel so much better having tangible ways to support you through a difficult time. The likelihood is, you won’t fall as hard and you’ll make a quicker recovery if you can lean on those around you. That is beneficial to them, as much as it is for you.
And when you’re well and things are better, you will find ways to pay it back, or pay it forward. You just need to accept that right now, you need love and compassion, and perhaps some practical support such as creating time and space for you to rest, or cooking you meals.
- Figure out what you can take off your plate
I think the next step, once you’ve looked at the problem face-on and sought out support, is to take an honest and pragmatic look at what you HAVE to do, and what is optional.
The temptation is to cut out what looks like fluff. This would be my cancelled Pilates class, dropping your hobbies, not seeing your friends as much. It’s understandable, as you’re trying to make the most of what little time you have, and these things can seem superfluous.
If you look again at the description of the exhaustion funnel, you can see why this is absolutely the wrong thing to do. You need to keep going with the things that nourish you. You might want to swap intense runs for yoga, or you might want to be careful about who you spend time with and limit that to people you trust to treat you with care. That’s fine, just don’t drop everything and everyone.
If you’re a parent, that responsibility isn’t going anywhere. If you can get additional support with the kids, great. But if you contrast that with external obligations, perhaps you’re a member of the PTA – it’s OK to pull back, say no, put that on pause. Now is not a time for meeting every obligation to everyone around you. There’s plenty of time for that later. For now, protect yourself.
When it comes to work, I would encourage you to look at whether time off is an option. Whether you can take time off sick, or whether you can even use holiday – it might be incredibly beneficial for you to take some time out. This is particularly relevant if your work is part of the problem.
If you love your work, you feel well-supported there, and you would be lonely and miserable at home on your own – perhaps time off is not the best move. But if you’re crying out to stop and rest, listen to that. If you’re chronically stressed, your body needs time out to rest and recover.
Also, if you are having any form of therapy it can be quite difficult to combine this with work. I found CBT incredibly helpful, but for the day of each sessions and the day after, I always felt worse, and very emotionally raw.
Therapy is not an easy process, and my therapist advised me that it’s better if you are able to have CBT when you’re not also working. I have done it both ways, and going into work the day after a therapy session can feel like a very vulnerable thing to do.
- Figure out what you need to change, and what you need add in to your life
Steps 1-4 are about firefighting, and getting yourself in a more stable place. Step 5, really, is about the rest of your life. You might need to do a lot of digging to work out what’s at the root cause of your stress, burnout, depression, or whatever you are experiencing.
It could be to do with work, parenthood, money worries, your marriage or personal relationships, or quite possibly – all of the above. You might need to make some big life changes, and ultimately, for me, I needed to leave a very stressful job. But if you stop early enough, before too much damage is done, you will have more options than I did.
You also need to think about self-care. Not the pretty, Instagrammable form of self-care. Actually, it could be that too! Self-care is about listening to what you need, whether that’s time out, more sleep, long walks, a film that makes you LOL, meditation, yoga, or long baths and face-masks. If you take any medications, conventional or alternative, or even vitamins – it’s taking them consistently.
It’s eating as well as you can, but it can also be eating chocolate ice-cream. There are no hard and fast rules here, but it’s vitally important that you take some time to give yourself some love. This is a way of switching off your body’s chronic stress response, and it’s a way of giving yourself a clear message that you matter.
Step 5 is about adding in the things that will nourish you, calm your nervous system, add positivity and meaning into your life. It’s the yoga or spin class, the weekly coffee with a good friend, the new hobby, reading books you love. These seemingly small things create a buffer, and give you reserves to draw on when life gets tough.
The important thing is to create pockets of happiness and meaning, and build a life that is not going to break you down in the future. This can feel like a lifetime’s work, and perhaps it will be – but I promise you that things get easier.
With all my love to anyone who is in this right now.