As many of you know, early in my career I set out to become an advertising executive. I was living the dream residing in Manhattan, working at hot creative advertising agencies, and with a full social calendar. Until at age 29, while running the account management department at Mad Dogs and Englishmen, I woke up in the middle of the night with sharp chest pains. I thought I was having a heart attack! It turns out those sexy shoots, client dinners, new business pitches and product launches take a toll!
On the outside I looked happy and energetic, but my insides strongly disagreed. After a trip to the emergency room and many tests later, I learned I had permanently damaged my esophagus lining due to chronic acid reflux from years of stress.
It was the impetus to take a leave of absence I had negotiated years prior. With a grand send off from the agency, I embarked on an amazing solo trip. One month in the Pacific Northwest, one month in Thailand and then six weeks in New Zealand.
It was a life altering adventure. I spent three nights on a boat navigating the Alaska inside passage. Was invited to join in a parade of tribal floats celebrating the end of the monks silence in northern Thailand. Swam with wild dolphins and trekked the Abel Tasman trail in New Zealand.
During that amazing trek, I came across the only phone available (this was pre cell phone and broadband days, and yes that is the phone in the picture) and called my employer. One would think I would feel energized and raring to hear what was going on back at the agency. But I wasn’t. That call felt exhausting.
When I returned home, with a month to go on my leave, I had a decision to make: do I go back to my agency life? Again, I didn’t understand why the thought made me tired and lethargic. I had a great life, why didn’t I want to resume it?
I didn’t realize it then, but I was experiencing serious burnout. You can say I was on the cusp of a trend -- a 2011 Forbes article explores why millennial women are burning out in their 30’s. Being an overachiever, I was just a bit ahead of the curve!
Burnout is defined as “a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.”
Yup, that was I, and there were signs along the way that I missed. Why didn’t I realize stomach acid was eating up my insides to the point of no return? Because I couldn’t hear it. I was too busy pushing through, trying to meet deadlines and expectations (professional and social) to listen to my body.
So how do you know if you’re experiencing burnout? Psychology Today suggests you ask yourself the following questions:
- Have you become cynical or critical at work?
- Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?
- Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
- Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
- Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
- Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
- Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
- Have your sleep habits or appetite changed?
- Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?
It’s also important not to confuse burnout with stress. Burnout doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a gradual process over time.
Helpguide.org offers the following chart to distinguish the difference:
You can also take this burnout self test.
So what’s a burnout like us to do? Many experts suggest employing relaxation techniques, self-care, boundary setting and re-prioritizing. The article links throughout this article suggest specific tips for avoiding or recovering from burnout, as does this article in Forbes.
Ask yourself: where am I on the burnout spectrum? Am I paying attention to the signs my body and mind are sending me? How can I burn brightly?
As for me, through small changes, I grew from advertising rock star, to non-profit guru to the thriving health coach I am today. Through my coaching, I love helping people burn brightly without burning out. I’d be happy to help you do the same.
Marjorie, Chief MOJO Maker™