Progress and Burnout?
Progress is a word I never linked to burnout recovery until I ended up with a burnout earlier this year.
Progress was lacking at first, requiring faith. Progress was bumpy afterwards, requiring acceptance. Progress has become clearer as I look back, providing hope.
In this blog post I aim to share my burnout recovery process so far, from March to November this year. Hoping that it informs and inspires you for your own process or that of those close to you.
It has become quite long, so I have tried to make it as organized as possible, so you can skim and skip to the parts that resonate.
Here below is a simple index to make it easier.
Part 1 – Introduction: What is Burnout?
Part 2 – My Burnout Recovery Process: What Helped/ Hurt in each phase?
Part 3 – Pointers to Progress: A list of milestones and methods that worked well.
This is not a psychological or professional description, I am also taking off my ‘coach cap’ here. My intention is to share with you from the heart about some stops along this journey, in the same way that travelers in a foreign country would exchange travel tips. 😉
Part 1: Introduction (What Is Burnout?)
Before We Begin: What IS Burnout?
Burnout is basically when your body collapses in some way, shape or form.
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.
This brings many stress-related symptoms which differ per person but the common denominator is: absolute exhaustion.
Especially at first, you may need a nap after simply making breakfast. Normal activities take more energy and our bodies need to recover from months or years of over-…everything.
This website gives a good overview of signs and symptoms. I also remember reading that a good indicator of being burned out is when you actually google: ‘burnout symptoms’.
Symptoms creep up over time, that’s why I’m sharing an exercise below to become aware of your personal ‘stress signals’.
This exercise consists in listing your physical, mental and emotional warning signs of stress overload.
You can use the traffic-light-model for a simple overview:
Green = Everything is fine.
Amber = be aware and slow down.
Red = Boundaries have been past, rest is required).
Next, see if you can find activities to destress for each phase.
Why Am I Sharing My Process?
I wrote this blog post for you if you ever wondered what it’s like to have a burnout, how to support someone who is in burnout and how to prevent it.
First and foremost though, I wrote it for you who are currently experiencing (pre-)burnout and need a reminder that you’re not alone, you didn’t do anything wrong and there is nothing wrong with you- along with ideas as to what could help/ hurt in terms of recovery based on personal experience.
Because yes, everything I share here is from my personal (not professional) point of view, experience, professional support, conversations and research during this burnout as well my last burnout ten years ago. My intention is to provide any information or inspiration that helps you have hope for healing, provides peace and perhaps speeds up the recovery process just a bit 🙂
What It Looked Like For Me
So yes, I had my own list of symptoms which I finally took to the doctor not guessing that I was already well into a state of burnout. Although it feels vulnerable, I want to be transparent and will share my three main symptoms:
1. Exhaustion Physical, emotional, mental.
2. Mild depression Needing to fight negative thoughts from the moment you wake up.
3. Several stress-related complaints E.g. insomnia, muscle-pains, increased anxiety.
As you will notice in this blog, I am not sharing about any cause/s of this burnout. I decided early on that I want to focus on forgiveness not finger-pointing towards myself or others, growth over grudges. 🙂
Knowing the cause does not always promote healing. Knowing our personal pitfalls on the one hand and our potential on the other hand- that’s powerful.
“Although this process isn’t fun, I don’t wish it on anyone
But even in this burnout place, there is a special grace
Yes it does take time to heal, allowing what I need to feel
Trying not to go-go-go, taking things nice and slow.”
Phases Of Progress
I re-wrote this blog post several times because I wanted it to be useful and easy to read. So it is organized in a way that you can simply scan and select, i.e. you can skim some sections and skip to what’s relevant for you.
I will start by sharing three stages I observed in my recovery- which by the way is not a straight line, sometimes it’s skipping back and forth between stages. They are not official phases, just observations. They are personal, not general. They do hopefully give an impression of what burnout recovery can look like.
1. Slowdown and Stillness
The first phase is about resting as much as possible with as little stimuli as possible. Simply said: Eat-rest-sleep-repeat. 🙂
2. Release and Rebuild
Slowly energy starts to increase, irregularly, but still. More activities are possible and focus is on releasing stress and increasing positive feelings.
3. Stabilize and Sustain
Energy levels are higher for longer, now it’s time to solidify success. Implementing new insights into new habits and perhaps into new life and career choices.
Each phase took about 2-3 months for me. Recovery is so personal though, it’s hard to generalize.
Nearly eight months in, I would say I am somewhere at stage 3. Progress shows up as having more energy, feeling more positive and emotionally stable , and some stress-related symptoms such as muscle pain have almost disappeared.
Part 2: My Burnout Recovery Process
So. All of that said, let’s dive into the process and progress of burnout recovery. Of course, this is all based on my personal experience. I do include tips and information that I have learned from working with/ reading research by professionals. But if you’re in a burnout yourself, I highly highly highly recommend to seek professional support as it so speeds up the process.
How It Started:
My personal burnout story starts ten years ago in 2012, when came back from Costa Rica after having lived there for two years. I worked at my first job in Amsterdam while living in The Hague and this commute turned out to be one of the many reasons for my first burnout.
Ever since, I developed a background anxiety of ending up with burnout again and was overly careful at times. This fear-based behavior was going to be the focus during my upcoming conversation in March, with the doctor-referred mental health practitioner (for my Dutch friends: praktijkondersteuner GGZ).
The session with the mental health practitioner (who I will from now refer to as: MHP) took place online during work on the tenth of March, supported by Human Resources which was so encouraging. Little did I know that the MHP was about to strongly recommend that I call in sick rightaway because of burnout (ripping off the band-aid and all) and go home to recover. Oooops.
This was not how I had envisioned everything to unfold.
The First DaysI followed the MPH’s advice and phoned the HR-manager with trembling hands. She responded with much understanding and advised me to leave work that same, last hour. As I arrived home, I went for a walk in the neighborhood park. It was a beautiful evening and I prayed as I walked (I found faith four years ago, which really helped me in this process). I sat down on a bench to watch the serene sunset and the first fresh insights started to sink in:
- I was going to reframe this recovery as a ‘time-out’ instead of a burnout (although I soon forgot and had to be reminded of this often)
- I was praying for God to use this period to really heal me, not just from this burnout but from the root removing what was still holding me back.
- I was going to be completely transparent towards everyone who asked, it seemed like the only way.
What helped? Being honest, open and transparent towards work as well as family and friends was the only way that worked for me. As well as prayer in my case, whichever way you find spiritual support.
What hurt? Denial. I had increasing stress-related symptoms for probably 1-2 years but had told myself that it would pass again. The MPH was all say-it-as-it is, which woke me up.
The First Weeks
What helped? The first 1-2 weeks I hardly saw anyone, apart from a friend who came to bring some food. I stayed in touch through messages and short phone calls, anything else would cause anxiety and exhaustion. After that, I was slowly able to see friends again, but had to learn to express that the limit this to an hour and the topic of work was still off-limits as it caused anxiety and stress. I also had to limit my walks to 15-20 minutes and do everything very slowly (‘granny speed’).
What hurt? Trying to think of the future, of when I would work again, being bummed about this burnout, wanting to rush recovery, well, basically thinking too much, or at all. Also, ahem, I tried a three-day juice fast to speed up the healing process- you can probably guess the result- not recommended.
The First Three Months
After the initial collapse, the recovery could really start. Although I still had a lot to learn. I am a little ashamed to admit that In my head, I resolved to beat the statistics and be better in three months at most, maybe sooner. The MPH who accompanied me those first three months, had warned me from the start that it would probably take three times as long as I thought. I kept hoping, but soon came to a new stage of my recovery: acceptance. This phase was initiated by the burnout coach with whom my brother connected me. I had to really let the situation sink in. Counterintuitively, it worked.
From there, I went through a lot of more stages. At some point, I started seeing a psychologist in order to get to the core of certain circumstances that contributed to my burnout and ensure, for as much as possible, to prevent it from happening a third time.
Mindset has been important for me, I made sure I did all I could to have a hopeful and grateful outlook- trusting that this will be for the good eventually (for my Christian friends: Romans 8:28). More concrete: weeding out the negative thoughts and replacing them with truth. In my case, I used the Bible as a barometer (more below under ‘mindset’). Progress.
What helped? Acceptance brought a breakthrough. So did seeing friends again- being open about my limitations. I spent some days at my mom’s place 2-3 times, which helped a lot. Ironically, having clarity regarding work helped- when I heard that my contract wouldn’t be turned into a fixed contract but terminated. It was tough for two days, but sped up the healing.
What hurt? Overstepping my limitations- whether I spent more than an hour with friends, when the topic of work/ future came up, when I spent more than half an hour behind the computer or when I took a walk that was too long- I would collapse again the next day(s). Also: overly worried reactions or advice- thankfully I didn’t receive those from many but there were 1-2 acquaintances who did this, which made me more aware of what to share and with whom.
The First Half Year
Never would I have thought that it was going to indeed take this long, but by this time I had already gone through various points of progress and made peace with the process.Part of this process was also the fact that progress wasn’t linear. Unfortunately. At first, I would hold back, trying to not over-extend myself. Then I had an important insight: my ten-year-old fear of having another burnout had actually happened, and I was still alive 😉 That was the point at which my psychologist invited me to expand my boundaries. This did mean that yes, sometimes I would do too much, and be overwired and overtired for days. At the same time, I overcame my fear of having another burnout. I also accepted that I would have an occasional ‘burnout relapse’ of a few days or 1-2 weeks, in which I felt as though going two steps backwards, whereas afterwards it would turn out I had moved three steps forward. Progress.
What helped? There were a lot of other things that brought progress during the first 3-6 months: Following a burnout e-course and a personal growth course. It also helped to create a routine for my day as well as for exercise. Also: releasing some restrictions regarding food.
What hurt? Being impatient because I still hadn’t really healed or because I had a relapse. Wanting to do too much, too soon, whenever I started to feel better.
The First Eight Months
So. That was my progress up to now. At the moment of writing, I am almost exactly eight months in. It is amazing to see how much progress there has been, which makes me very hopeful. There are certain things I can do now, that would have knocked me out a few months back, haha.
They especially struck me as they were happening, for instance when a friend told me about a difficult situation and said afterwards that the conversation really helped her. I was so grateful! Because for the longest time I hadn’t been able to do one of the things I love most: coaching, whether at work or in conversations. The fact that I was able to handle harder emotions and topics was a definite pointer to progress as there were many more.
In fact, progress became a friend during my burnout recovery. I would not feel all perfect yet, but I would feel so much better than months ago. Looking back to where I came from made me confident about the future. There were several points that really showed and contributed to progress during my recovery, which I will list in the next.. and last… section.
What helps? Sticking to the routines and habits developed over the past months- including and especially still getting enough rest.
What hurts? Since I now sometimes have days, especially in the morning, when I feel all excited and energetic again, and I am tempted to plan accordingly. The main culprit is still, wanting to do too much, too.
Part 3: Pointers To Progress
Milestones (Alphabetically Ordered)
Below I want to share several areas of my life in which progress showed up in different ways, shapes and forms.
And yes, they are personal, which means some of them won’t resonate and that’s totally fine! That’s why I’ve ordered them alphabetically so that you can again scan and select what interests you 🙂 Let’s go!
This was one of the first lessons I had to learn. Honestly, I was still shocked that this had happened.
I had experienced burnout in 2012 and had been so determined to never allow it again. But despite many attempts to avoid it, it had slowly crept in.
I could try all the assertiveness and self-care tools in the world but the bottom line was that a certain situation did not change for the better.
Once I faced the facts, I was actually relieved and slowly started seeing the silver linings. 🙂 Progress.
This is an important and much-mentioned part of burnout recovery and prevention.
I realized that during the three phases of my recovery, there were three ways of dealing with boundaries.
In the first phase I had to learn to express my boundaries, I had to first of all express them towards myself and really respect them, and secondly, I had to express them to my family and friends, who were thankfully really respectful and understanding.
In the second phase I had to explore my boundaries, I could do more than before, but still not boundaries-as-usual.
In the third phase I was ready to expand my boundaries- this meant that I would sometimes still overstep them, and they could change day-by-day, but the fear would slowly disappear. Progress.
Consciously breathing made a big difference. There are countless exercises online, for me, the short and simple ones worked best.
My personal favorite is called ‘breathing space’. In this three-minute exercise, you simply bring your attention to your breath, observing how it moves through your body and then how your body feels. I might make and share a recording of it one day.
Our breathing also indicates our stress level. If it’s high, flat and fast, chances are you need a breathing break. It really helped me to have at least one of those breathing breaks during the day, which usually flow into the time I pray. Progress.
From the first day of my burnout, when I took a walk after what would turn out to be my last day of work, I felt a ‘peace that surpasses all understanding’. The Christian faith I found four years ago provided an anchor while a storm was sweeping over my life.
There was a calm beneath the surface. Old life issues may have resurfaced, but this time I was going through them with God.
This period has been deepening my faith, and as I wrote in a poem in my last blog post, it has been changing my character. No matter how uncomfortable, for those things I am eternally grateful (pun intended;). Progress.
If I needed any additional proof that things were serious, it was the fact that I could not even think about drinking coffee. As a coffee lover, that was simply weird. I usually tried to stick to one coffee a day, but I always looked forward to that one cup of happiness! Until I didn’t.
About three to four months into my recovery though, one day, I finally felt like having a Cappuccino. Relief. From that day, my daily morning Matcha Latte was replaced with coffee again. And yes, you could argue about health because being coffee-free can help heal our adrenals, but I believe that our bodies know best.
So by the time that my body wanted coffee again, I listened, and knew that for me personally this was a good sign. Progress.
A few months after I called in sick, I had an online meeting with the HR manager in which I learned that my contract would not be extended into a fixed contract but ended.
Although I knew that this was a very likely course of events, I was still shocked by the suddenness of it.
I allowed myself to experience all emotions though and was surprised that after two days, the sadness had made place for relief. As hard as it was, I had clarity. Now the healing could really begin.
The same held true for creating clarity in terms of my financial situation as I was now not working, this was not fun and fast, but did bring peace of mind. Progress.
The first 2-3 weeks of my recovery were all about eat-rest-sleep-repeat. I caught up on years of abstaining from Netflix series, which was great for a while.
At some point I was done though. I wanted to move again. I needed to move away from Netflix and into the gym.
It felt natural, because I was ready. A valuable lesson in listening to my body, which I continued doing as I started to move more.
I had to learn to not be discouraged if I could only do a little, and if I did do too much, I would be exhausted for the rest of the day and sometimes the next. I also had to learn to expand my boundaries though and not play it too safe.
Continually finding balance, or like Einstein said it, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving”. Progress.
Ten years ago, in 2012 I had my first burnout. Ever since, I was always somewhat scared of ending up in burnout again.
It wasn’t a big fear, but it did always linger in the back of my mind and made me overly careful at times.
Fast-forward to 2022, when the thing I had feared actually happened, it wasn’t half as bad! Exactly what my cognitive-behavior-based psychologist was teaching me, to challenge those fears. As Paolo Coelho wrote: “the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself.”
Now, instead of fearing the risk of relapse, I made conscious efforts to expand my boundaries. Progress.
This point is priceless. From the start, I felt so supported, especially by those close to me, who have been the greatest help in healing.
My parents were so sweet and supportive in more ways than I could list, especially my mom. My brother who connected me with a befriended burnout coach, my younger brother who at some point noticed that my voice sounded more like myself again- so encouraging.
There were several close friends supporting me in the first phase who were sensitive about where and how long to meet, what to talk about and what not, some sharing their own experiences with burnout.
People were inviting me to share my needs. Scary. But. Progress.
Working on my thinking patterns has been one of the most confronting but most rewarding tools in my recovery.
It felt like weeding a garden, taking out damaging beliefs and replacing them with truths- over and over again, this time using the Bible as a barometer. Because in the past I had often tried to use positive affirmations and the like, but they never stuck, it was like trying to put a band-aid on a bleeding wound.
So yes, mindset-work. It also included my attitude. Trying to remind myself to write at least three ‘gratitudes’ a day. Although just recently a friend taught me that ten ‘gratitudes’ really reprograms your brain.
Also, reminding myself of patience. Because whenever I would have a relapse, I felt like I had gone two steps back and had to start all over again, whereas by the time I came out of that relapse, I realized that I had gone three steps forward. Remembering this helped foster a positive attitude, especially as I was starting to feel better and the mild depression I was diagnosed with, seemed to be lifting. More gratitude. Progress.
I have always been passionate about health but have to admit that in the first month I went a little overboard.
Apart from being coffee-free (as detailed earlier) and still sugar-free, I tried a three-day juice fast to reset my system, which I do NOT recommend during burnout. It was too extreme.
As a result though, I realized that restrictions cost tons of energy too and that I needed to cut myself some slack.
Soon after, I started a different approach which I called the Peace With Food Project’ aimed at learning to listen to my body’s natural cues again. Progress.
So far, I’ve been accompanied by a psychologist (still now), physiotherapist, the doctor’s mental health practitioner, a burnout coach, a vitality coach, two personal trainers, and recently a career coach and probably more sessions I that I can’t think of right now. I also followed a burnout e-course and a three-day personal growth training.
It has been invaluable in finding personal factors that may have contributed to burnout, ways to deal with it now and how to prevent it from happening again in the future. Progress.
The first weeks and even months, my main lesson was to slow down- not slightly but completely.
The doctor’s mental health practitioner described it as good old “granny-mode”, meaning that I needed to move, walk and talk as slooowly as a very old person would.
Sounded easy, but my hectic brain, overtired body and overwired nervous system were still set to full-speed ahead. Whenever I did manage to move more slowly though, I immediately enjoyed the effect. Progress.
Pent-up stress had to leave my system, according to the book ‘Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle’.
While I didn’t entirely agree with their angle, they did share interesting insights about our stress response, similar to the book “Waking the Tiger” by Peter Levine which I loved reading years ago.
Long story short, they talk about how every issue sits and stays in the tissue.
Animals have a natural stress-release response (ducks shaking their wings a few times after a fight) but as humans we don’t get taught to ‘shake it off’ regularly.
Examples for activities to complete the body’s stress cycle mentioned in the burnout book, were:
physical activity (that you enjoy!), creativity, laughing, crying, physical affection (can simply be a long hug) and breathing consciously. A stress-releasing activity a day is slowly becoming part of my routine. Progress.
If you had told me a few months earlier that having a structure in my life would be good for me, I would have smiled and said: ‘Thanks, but I prefer to go with the flow’. Well, at least on the inside.
But it turned out that having a daily routine brought so much peace. I had to experiment a little, because organizing my day according to tasks (e.g. daily walk at 4pm) did not work. What did work though was my psychologist’s brilliant idea to structure my day according to food! Haha.
So I would set a daily fixed time for meals, then do focus-requiring tasks in the morning and less challenging activities in the afternoon because by then I was usually fried anyways.
Also, about 1-2 months in, I started setting my alarm at 8am every morning, which ironically also brought calm. Progress.
My burnout recovery progress started in March, and I am beyond thankful for that fact because it meant that we were moving towards Summer.
Sunshine has been crucial to me throughout my life, haha, but especially for healing. Of course we can’t plan when we burn out, so even if there isn’t sunshine, we can take vitamin D supplements and for instance saunas to stay warm.
There are many other supplements that I took, such as Ashwagandha, Omega 3, Magnesium, Vitamine B and C. But I don’t want to detail here since I recommend doing this with a professional.
Once I had determined my daily dose of supplements and sunshine, taking them regularly gave me a sense of accomplishment. 🙂 Progress.
In terms of burnout recovery, there were some basics that I have heard mentioned so many times that I won’t detail them here.
For instance: boundaries (limiting time on certain activities and having the courage to say so, and to say no), energy balance (making a list of what gives and saps your energy, and also what brings you joy! Then scheduling lots of the latter.), journaling (writing down the thoughts/ emotions out of your head onto paper, it can also be in the form of a prayer, and it can also be recorded on your phone), knowing your needs (what helps or harms your recovery? E.g. I couldn’t talk about work for a while without a near-anxiety-attack and I’ve heard the same from many others) and communicating your needs (as you communicate them clearly with those around you, they will only be happy to hear what helps you). Oh, and simplify (setting small goals, sometimes only your ‘one thing’ to accomplish that day).
Plus it helps to sometimes look back and see your… progress.
Of course sleep was one of the most important ingredients, as with all recovery.
At the same time, because of stored-up stress, sleep didn’t come easily. Still not always.
What helped me personally was:
1. Waking up at the same time each day.
2. Putting my phone on airplane mode an hour before bedtime + charging it in a different room.
3. During some periods. a dose of Melatonin in the evening, I did check this with my doctor which I highly recommend.
Number 2 was the hardest one for me, because, ahem, I loved sometimes scrolling for funny videos in the evening (even though I know I shouldn’t, blue light and all) and I have to say it really made a difference to simply read or relax in other ways. Progress.
Sooo. This was a way longer list (and blog article) than I had anticipated but I hope I have made it as complete as possible.
I truly hope it has been useful for you and I would LOVE to hear from you:
Have you ever suffered burnout or been close to one? If so, what has helped you? Do you have any burning burnout questions based on this blog?
Feel free to leave your comment below…