Often, when I mention that I am a burnout expert, people will ask: “Burnout, what do you mean exactly by burnout? Is that when I feel a bit tired at the end of the day?”. And each time I feel like answering: “Hell, no! It is so much more than that!” And hell it is if you get there.
Burnout is not depression (although it may lead you to it if left untreated), it is not mid-life crisis, it is not nervous breakdown. Burnout is a long-term extreme physical, mental and emotional fatigue caused by excessive and prolonged overload. You have been through too much for too long. One day, your body switches the “off” button. In most cases, you collapse in a heap or find you are physically unable get up in the morning. All those who go through burnout have one thing in common: they have been doing too much for too long, usually under a large amount of stress.
As far as stress is concerned, the danger is you may not recognize that as stress. In fact, it may feel like “positive” stress to you: you love what you are doing and want it to be perfect for instance, so you do even more of it. But our body does not differentiate between “negative” and “positive” stress. It reacts in exactly the same way: a surge of adrenalin, then cortisol, both produced by our adrenal glands. These hormones are very useful to our body and we could not function without them but they are not meant to be produced continually. Problematic stress starts when the body is under too much of the stress hormones for too long. Cortisol especially decreases the feeling of pain so when you reach that stage, you may not even feel that you are under pressure any more. The adrenal glands are under too much pressure to perform. They end up being depleted and unable to function anymore. Hence the collapse, the burnout, the adrenal fatigue. The power goes off.
It is not all gloom and doom: knowing about this process beforehand is key to not going there! Then it is all about learning to know yourself and your limits, to perform at your best without losing it all.
Because, once you collapse and go into “real” burnout, you need about 12 months to recover (if properly looked after), feeling unable to do anything at all, not working, not being able to take care of the children, not even thinking clearly, you are physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted all the time. In the first months, you can barely get out of bed.
Next time, I will tell you about signs to look for and how to avoid getting there in the first place. So, in the meantime, keep an eye on those extra hours of work!