Last year, when I was finishing my course of study, I experienced a lot of anxiety. I was worried about my grades, exams and what would be next after I finished. In the final couple of months, the stress got progressively worse. I slept less and less, drank more and more caffeine, experienced typical physical symptoms like insomnia and fatigue, and even the occasional panic attack.
It wasn’t until my recent conversation with ideamix coach Sarah, who specializes in leadership and wellbeing, that I realized what I’d been experiencing last year were symptoms of burnout. Sarah explained that one of the reasons she coaches individuals on bettering their wellbeing is that she experienced burnout herself while trying to balance her personal life, family, and career. While she was in the throes of feeling burned out and struggling to cope, she too had not understood what she was experiencing. As a coach, Sarah helps individuals recognize the signs and address the symptoms and causes of burnout.
Recognizing the symptoms
Although burnout is becoming increasingly common in society, it’s still difficult to pick up on early signs. Coach Sarah knows the variety of symptoms – both physical and emotional – which can vary greatly depending on the person. Physical symptoms include exhaustion, lethargy, insomnia, digestive problems or, for women, changes in their menstrual cycles. Emotional symptoms include severe anxiety, feelings of hopelessness or even panic attacks and depression.
Self-diagnosing burnout isn’t obvious however: it isn’t just about elevated stress levels – these are commonplace. There is a clear difference between being stressed at times, and actually suffering from burnout.
Stress increases cortisol levels. Cortisol plays an important role. In the most primal sense, it triggers our reactions to danger. On a more normal basis, it also boosts our body’s metabolism of glucose, controls blood pressure and reduces inflammation.
High cortisol levels are problematic only when persistently high over an extended time. If there’s no end in sight to the stress factors and as a result, elevated cortisol levels, it’s increasingly difficult not to burn out. “Often you feel like you’re drowning, that you can’t keep up and your to-do list is miles long,” says Coach Sarah. At these points, it’s almost impossible for us to be productive because we can’t think clearly through our brain fog.
Dealing with burnout
Realizing that you’re burning out is important, but what do you do about it? In both developed and growing economies, hard work and productivity is highly valued and a societal value. The people suffering from burnout are often the most hardworking and highly motivated individuals; so much so, that many of them neglect the first symptoms because of their strong belief in hard work and productivity.
As soon as we notice the first symptoms, we should start making changes to our personal and professional lives to adapt to the stressors and create space for ourselves to deal with them. In reality, few of us recognize the signs, and still fewer know what changes they need to make to cope with them. Not making the changes sacrifices our productivity, our sense of purpose, and in the worst cases, our sense of self in the long run.
According to Coach Sarah, you must “be able to reflect on your personality traits and then understand the lifestyle factors”, especially since there is no predefined path to take. With her coachees, Sarah first identifies the forces at play leading to burnout and then starts implementing initial changes. For example, if your added stress stems from a toxic company culture, setting boundaries at work might be an important first step. Sarah notes that “for women in particular, in the workplace, yes is usually the default” – we might need to learn to say no sometimes.
Bottom line: it’s important to take a step back and really think about the triggers of your stress and how small changes can help you prevent burnout in the long run.
Coaching is tactical, therapy is diagnostic
Often, burnout causes people to seek therapy. I was interested in Sarah’s perspective on how coaching addresses burnout in a different way from therapy. When describing her own experience with therapy Sarah feels, “I wish in hindsight that someone would’ve told me I’m going to diagnose you with burnout and here are the six steps to get you out of it. That action piece was missing for me.” Her view aligns with what we at ideamix define as the difference between coaching and therapy: Therapy focuses heavily on coming to terms with the past. It might help identify the causes of burnout, for example. Coaching, on the other hand, is future and action oriented, with a focus on moving you towards decreasing burnout and preventing its future occurrence with concrete steps and goals.
Both tools are important. We must first figure out why we feel the way we do, and therapy is a pathway to do that. Coaching helps us adjust our lifestyles to our circumstances, and implement behavioral changes to positively impact the rest of our lives. With coaching, not only can we recover from burnout, but we also learn how to prevent burnout and overwhelm in future. Sarah tells us, “coaching can help you overcome burnout in a long-term way by enabling your lifestyle and behaviors to change”.
Take back your life
Coach Sarah uses six elemental tools to help her coachees reclaim their lives: support, practice, eating, restore, routine, and your best self. A coach is someone who provides support and holds us accountable for continuing to work on making changes in our lives. Lifestyle change is based on habits, and changing habits takes practice. Habits are what get us out of the cycle of being burned out. Another habit that often needs to evolve when you’re burned out is your diet, because higher cortisol levels lead to often unhealthy food cravings like more sugar and caffeine. Changing our eating habits helps us use food to restore ourselves more quickly so our bodies can be as healthy as our mind and spirit. Routine matters a great deal here.
Sarah often asks her coachees, “What are the little things that bring you joy? What makes you happy?“ Surprisingly, most of her coachees don’t have a ready answer. They need to rediscover what brings them inner peace and happiness. Working with the six tools, “helps us re-train our brain and get to our best self of being in a happy and productive state.”
Getting coached to make practical changes matters
In the course of my conversations with her, Sarah gave me one practical strategy to implement in my daily life to protect myself from burnout in future: the concept of a “brain break.” We often multitask in our daily lives, and taking a break is often mindless scrolling through our social media feeds. A brain break signifies doing absolutely nothing for 5 minutes at least once a day. Doing nothing teaches you to listen to yourself, and actively relax. For me, this has already helped alleviate my feelings of overwhelm, and helped me tap into my inner self to recognize stress and burnout triggers earlier. Small changes go a long way when it comes to preventing burnout.
Burnout is a serious mental health issue – in particular for an increasing number of teens and young adults. If you can identify with the symptoms in this article, I would recommend seeking coaching support to help you prevent and overcome burnout. Coaching provides you with targeted actions to implement in your life to prevent burnout.
If you already feel like you‘re suffering from burnout and nothing is working for you, I would try working with one of the high impact coaches at ideamix. If you always put your personal needs second, you’re creating an environment for yourself to burn out sooner or later.