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Telling the difference between a bad day, a run of bad days, and burnout

Telling the difference between a bad day, a run of bad days, and burnout

How do I tell the difference between a bad day, a run of bad days, and burnout? 

And what can I do about if it’s the latter?

This week and next, WhyDev’s blog posts are focussing on self-care. You can read the previous post by Marianne on finding the sweet spot for self-care, and another post by Narayani Berkowitz on when she realised self-care was vital for her as an aid worker. 

For more on self-care, join WhyDev and Marianne for a Twitter chat on self-care on October 15 at 9 pm EDT/October 16 at 12:00 pm AEDT. Follow the hashtag #WhySelfCare. 

When I was working in Afghanistan, I woke up one day and realized that I had lost the motivation to go for a run, do a yoga practice, eat a healthy meal, or even – most shocking of all – go to work.

Somehow I hadn’t noticed my descent into a grey fog of fatigue and despair while it was happening. I had noticed some of the signs, but I hadn’t been paying attention to what they added up to.

One sleepless night here and there is to be expected, when you spend your day interviewing people who are reporting their experiences of rape, torture or violent bereavement, right?

Sisyphus-Image-01C
Some days feel like this.

One day of lethargy, or frustration, or even apathetic despair, is normal when your daily work resembles Sisyphus’s daily roll-a-rock-up-a-mountain effort, right?

So how can we tell when the occasional moment of fatigue, despondency or frustration has begun to transform itself into the larger pattern of what could be called burnout, or depression, or simply overwhelm and despair?

For me, this required first getting to know myself well enough to register what was ‘healthy’ for me. Next, I needed to become sufficently self-aware to notice when my behaviour, choices and daily or weekly patterns began to deviate from that healthy baseline on a regular basis.

Get to know your own healthy baseline

‘Normal’ for me might involve getting at least eight hours sleep, eating mostly fresh vegetables, doing an hour of exercise every day, doing at least 20 minutes of meditation, catching up with friends a few times a week, having a glass of wine most nights and spending at least three nights a week at home with a book – recharging.

For someone else – equally healthy and balanced – a ‘normal’ baseline might involve getting six hours sleep most nights, doing 30 minutes of gentle exercise three times a week, praying every morning, eating meat regularly and meeting up with friends most nights.

What matters is not that we all confirm to one idea of what ‘healthy’ looks like, but that we each know what healthy looks and feels like for us.

This can be as simple as getting yourself a notebook (I call mine ‘The Book of Me’ and it’s my real self-care bible) and keeping a note of some simple measures of what life looks like for you when you are feeling balanced and healthy. For example:

  • how many hours of sleep do I generally get?
  • how often do I eat, and what kinds of food do I choose to eat?
  • how much water do I drink?
  • how much alcohol do I regularly drink?
  • what kinds of exercise do I do, and how often?
  • how often do I choose to spend time with others?
  • how much time do I enjoy spending alone?
  • what sorts of things do I do purely for pleasure, how often do I do them?
  • how often do I communicate and/or connect with my family and friends?
  • if I have a spiritual practice (like prayer), how often do I pray?
  • how often do I laugh?
  • how often do I cry?
  • how often do I lose my temper?

If you are already feeling off-balance, it might help to remember a time when you were feeling healthy and make a note of what your usual habits were at that time. If this approach is very new, you might like to keep track of these measures over a period of time to see if they remain reasonably consistent, and to get a good idea of your own ‘healthy baseline’.

Track changes in your mood, habits and patterns

Once you have a good idea of what your healthy baseline looks like, you’ll have a better chance of noticing when things start to stray significantly.

In my case the big changes were:

  • I stopped sleeping. Over the course of several weeks I found I was regularly getting 3-4 hours of sleep rather than my usual eight.
  • I stopped exercising.
  • I started drinking more, more often.
  • I stopped cooking meals, and survived on snack food.
  • I stopped trying to explain how I felt, or what I was experiencing, to friends and family back in New Zealand – because they could never understand; and
  • I lost my motivation at work – and found it hard to concentrate on even the simplest daily tasks.

One of these changes might not have been cause for serious concern, but if I had been tracking them as they started to add up – and to be sustained over time – I might have noticed my downward spiral in time to get the support, and make the positive changes, I needed.

Call a friend

Sometimes it can be very hard to see changes in ourselves, especially if we are already beginning to experience the effects of chronic stress or trauma. Which is why it can be very useful to have someone on hand who you know and trust enough to tell you when you are deviating significantly from your healthy norms.

This is much more likely to work if:

  • You’ve had a conversation about what your respective healthy baseline looks like – so that you know you are being witnessed on your own terms, rather than on the basis of someone else’s ‘normal’; and
  • You’ve both agreed in advance that you have permission to tell each other if you notice a pattern of changes that deviate from your ‘heatlhy’ baseline.

What can I do when I notice a worrying trend?

It’s one thing to notice that my ‘well-being’ indicators are trending downwards, but it’s something else to know what to do when that happens. So here are some of the most, and least, useful things I did when I realized I was not doing well.

Not so useful strategies

My first instinct was to ignore the signs: ‘Head down, tail up Marianne’, I thought, ‘just keep working and hope things get better.’ That didn’t work.

Once I couldn’t ignore the situation any longer, my second instinct was to beat myself up about it: ‘What’s wrong with you Marianne? You have nothing to complain about. Everyone else is coping, why can’t you?’ That didn’t work either.

My third, not very useful, impulse was to ask for help from the wrong places, and in unhelpful way. I turned to a friend who, had I been paying attention I would have seen, wasn’t doing so well himself.

Useful strategies

The first useful thing I did was accept that I was struggling, and the next – and maybe most important – thing I did was start being a bit kinder to myself.

Accepting that it was okay for me to be struggling under the circumstances, and finding a way to meet myself with compassion even in my messy state, opened the door to every other useful thing I did for myself, which included:

  • Seeking help from a professional. When the staff counselor in Kabul said, ‘Honestly, I’d be surprised if anyone who had been through what you’ve been through wasn’t struggling’, I felt reassured by her expertise in a way no one else could have reassured me in that moment.
  • Letting some trusted friends (who were feeling at least reasonably stable themselves) know that I was struggling and asking for their support.
  • Taking a break – I took my scheduled R&R break and went on a retreat in Thailand, instead of rushing to visit family or postponing my break to get more work done.
  • Adding some core practices for emotional and physical resilience into my daily routine. For me, they were meditation and yoga.

Look after yourself (and each other) out there

The biggest lesson I learned from my experience of personal burnout in Afghanistan was this: only I really know how I’m doing, so it’s important that I know what healthy looks and feels like to me and I know what to do when the signs start pointing in the wrong direction. A trusted friend, however, can be a really useful support both in telling the difference between a bad week and a more serious situation and in getting the help we need to return to full health.

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Marianne Elliott is a writer, human rights advocate and yoga teacher. Trained as a lawyer, she helped develop human rights strategies for the governments of New Zealand and East Timor, was Policy Advisor for Oxfam, and spent two years in the Gaza Strip before going to Afghanistan, where she served in the United Nations. In Afghanistan, Marianne decided stories were her weapon of choice, and yoga was her medicine. She created the '30 Days of Yoga' course, and wrote 'Zen Under Fire'.

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