My Personal Experiences with Burnout
Updated: Aug 31, 2021
The first time I truly felt burned out was my freshman year of college. It was my first real extended time away from home. On a weird “hey let’s try new things outside your comfort zone” whim, I auditioned for a competitive a cappella group and, much to my surprise, was accepted and landed the first solo (to George Michael’s “Faith”😂). There was just one tiny problem: I had crippling stage fright. I auditioned in front of a small, supportive group of women and didn’t think about the future performances on big stages in front of hundreds of people. I was also getting acclimated to the rigors of college academics. I was attending an all women's college and was intimidated by how outspoken and intelligent the student body was. Lastly, I was trying to get comfortable sharing a room with my new roommate, who came to school alongside her high school girlfriend, and was understandably enjoying the freedom to be intimate without curfews or parents. Because I didn't want to impose, I found myself avoiding returning to my dorm at night. I stayed late at the library or found friends to hang out with at all hours of the night.
Soon, I came down with a cold, my body’s telltale sign that I’m running myself ragged. The cold got worse not better with each passing week and started affecting my ability to sing. I began to sound more and more like a stuffy-nosed Kermit the frog. My throat was so sore no amount of lozenges helped. I could barely swallow, let alone eat or drink. I went to the college infirmary and the nurse diagnosed me with a bad case of mono and abscesses blocking the throat. I was sent to an ENT doctor who stuck a long, thick needle down my throat to drain the abscesses. Tears streamed down my face from the pain, but what's worse is it didn’t work. By the time the semester ended and the holidays arrived I was sent to the hospital for surgery. They removed the abscesses along with my tonsils and prescribed me a boatload of medications.
Over winter break, I spent every moment focused on my recovery—sleeping in, taking supplements, and trying to feel like myself again.
It was no coincidence that my throat was where my sickness concentrated. I have always struggled with advocating for myself. And here I was, afraid to speak up in class, afraid to speak up with my roommate, and afraid to speak up in my a cappella group. I needed to ask my roommate if we could come up with some appropriate boundaries so that I would feel more comfortable in our shared space. I needed to be honest with my a cappella group about feeling too much pressure to make singing my life when I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted. I wanted to play lacrosse and had recently tried out for the team. We were supposed to start training that winter. I began to realize no one else in the singing group did any sports or extracurriculars. It became clear: I had gotten myself into quite a pickle.
In the yogic traditions, it is believed that the human body contains 7 chakras, or energetic points, along the centerline of the body. One such point is in the throat (vishuddha) and it is believed to be responsible for communication, self-expression, and the ability to speak one’s personal truth.
When I learned about the chakras, I reflected back on this season of my life and realized I was so scared to speak my truth, so scared to advocate for myself and my own needs, that I ended up not being able to speak at all. My throat literally closed up.
When I returned to school for spring semester, I made the difficult decision to leave the singing group and switch roommates. I moved in with another girl who valued sleep and studying more than I did. We quickly found a rhythm and mutual respect for one another and became best friends. I prioritized eating well and exercising. I woke up every morning at 6am, ate a healthy breakfast, journaled while drinking a warm cup of tea, and went for a long run with a friend along the beautiful, hilly country roads around campus. Even though I had always been a runner, it wasn’t until college that I realized how much I loved running—especially on open roads in fresh air with a friend by my side. It gave me this amazing high and helped my stress melt away.
My freshman mono was my first case of burnout but it wasn’t my last. I soon discovered that life is filled with curveballs that often lead to burnout. College was a time in my life when I had the illusion of control.
The adult world that waited for me on the other side was an important reminder that life is never really something we can control. One of the biggest curveballs? PARENTING.
Luckily, while I was pregnant with my first born, I became a certified yoga instructor, and quickly found that teaching and practicing yoga was my saving grace. It was the thing that helped me release my stress better than anything else and it quickly became my new running.
Yoga felt like therapy, exercise, meditation, church, a team sport and a good stretch all rolled into one. Even though I still loved running, teaching yoga helped me get out the door each day and feel like myself.
I taught several classes a week and began organizing annual summer yoga retreats for women. Something magical happened on those yoga retreats. Between the yoga and hiking and dancing and heart to hearts and journaling and laughter and time in nature and healthy meals––all the women who attended would visibly shift in demeanor. I felt like I’d unlocked the secret to feeling great and helping others feel great, too!
Then I got pregnant again…and faced another curveball.
My second pregnancy was more difficult than my first and had several stressful complications that ended in an induction due to concerns about the baby’s small size and health. It was very disorienting. My instincts kept telling me that the baby was fine but the doctors were concerned— about my placenta, the baby’s small size, my small size, her heart, my liver, her activity level, my placenta again… the list went on and on. I went to several doctors appointments, ultrasounds, and non-stress tests every week. Each one was exhausting and anxiety producing. I felt powerless and incapable of advocating for myself or my baby. It felt like all of the important decisions were made for us.
When my daughter finally arrived by induction (perfectly healthy, by the way), I remember feeling profound relief that she was absolutely fine. All that stress and worry had been for nothing. But it was still in my body and it was making me sick.
Interestingly the third chakra (manipura) is located around the solar plexus, just below the rib cage. It is believed to be connected to our confidence and personal power. Symptoms of imbalance can include liver problems, nerve problems, digestive issues, weakness, etc.
I remember lying in the hospital room holding my hours-old daughter when I suddenly felt like I had chills and flu-like symptoms. I told the nurse I was cold and she said, "it's probably just from the hormones." She gave me a heated blanket and left.
By the time I was discharged from the hospital a painful, itchy rash had developed on the side of my torso and I knew right away it was shingles. I had no idea that postpartum shingles were a thing! Once again my body had an intuitive way of showing me where the stress I never released had been concentrated for 9 long months.
There were a few additional factors that contributed to my postpartum burnout. I wasn’t as active after my daughter arrived, and exercise had always been a vital component to how I release stress. I was also less supported. For a whole host of reasons, I didn’t have a lot of help after my second baby and I found myself wishing for that "village" people talk about needing in order to raise children.
It took one long and difficult year to feel like myself again…. And when I finally thought I could turn my attention towards my yoga practice and teaching again, the universe had a different plan: a global pandemic.
This pandemic has been a MASSIVE curveball. It has disrupted all our lives in innumerable ways. For me it meant no more in studio yoga classes, no more running with friends, no more time away from my kids. We entered a strict family “bubble” and I found myself homeschooling my 5 year old while my attorney husband worked even longer hours from his new home office. My panic attacks returned for the first time since high school. I cried myself through cleaning the dishes after the kids had gone to sleep many nights.
It felt impossible at times. It still does.
I started devouring self help podcasts and audiobooks. It was during this time that I found the book, “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” by Emily and Amelia Nagoski.
I appreciate that the Nagoski sisters don’t suggest more yoga or more “self care.” I don’t have time for either (What new mom does?!) Instead, they suggest dealing with THE STRESS rather than the stressors by completing the stress cycle. The idea of stress as a cycle was never something I’d considered before. But looking back at my life, I could definitely identify the times when I felt the most STUCK in stress.
I became more aware of how being stuck in stress impacts my body (clearly it makes me sick!) and how important it is to help stress get released.
Emily and Amelia write:
"Physical activity–literally any movement of your body–is your first line of attack in the battle against burnout."
But there are also other helpful tools including:
POSITIVE SOCIAL INTERACTIONS
Has reading this book cured my burned out? No. Definitely not! We’re still in the middle of this life-altering pandemic, I still have little ones clinging to me 24/7, I haven't returned to teaching yoga regularly or leading retreats yet...the curveballs keep coming. But reading this book has definitely helped me identify the early signs of burnout. And when I feel those all too familiar feelings creep in, I remind myself that movement is medicine. I go for a walk or run or do yoga. I drink a big glass of water and eat a healthy meal. I have a good cry in the shower or vent over FaceTime to a good friend. I do some journaling. I practice deep, soft belly breathing. I donate to a worthy cause or check in on someone I think needs help. I have a dance party in my kitchen with my kids to our favorite songs. I watch something lighthearted with my husband while we cuddle on the couch. I vent to my therapist. I spend time outside in nature. I do the things that make me feel better and help me complete the stress cycle. And then I start the whole process over again when the burnout returns, as it inevitably does. 🙃
Here’s to finding our way through our stress cycles and out the other side, over and over again, for as long as it takes. Here’s to finding joy in this beautiful, messy thing called life. And here's to reciting these important reminders to ourselves DAILY that (spoiler alert) conclude the book:
"Trust your body.
Be kind to yourself.
You are enough, just as you are right now.
Your joy matters."