OPINION: When burn out leads to thoughts of suicide
Those are the two words I use to describe how I felt during the past few months.
And I knew I had put myself in that situation by trying to do too much for too long.
I've experienced the phenomenon before - my first time at university, my first job as the sole reporter at a weekly newspaper in Townsville, the federal election campaign in 2010.
But I've never had to push myself through a 'burnt out' period so much and for so long before.
This last burnt-out period was due to the fact that I had been working full-time and studying university part time for four terms in a row.
(Burn-out is caused by prolonged periods of stress and impacts the person physically, mentally and emotionally. It leads to physical and emotional exhaustion; cynicism and detachment; and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.)
I was utterly exhausted. Struggling to stay awake at work most days after four hours. I had to have a nap every afternoon when I got home from work, before I could have any energy to get through my uni workload.
I had to back off on my exercise routine as the stress was physically impacting my body via muscle tension in my back, neck and shoulders.
My depression sky-rocketed! I felt stressed. I felt alone. I felt sad. I had periods where I thought all my friends were turning against me. I had numerous periods where I considered suicide.
You know what kept me going? The planning, booking and fantasising of my first overseas holiday next year.
I learnt long ago that having goals helped you get through such periods. And taking time out from the world helps too. But what do you do when you just don't have the time to take time out?
As I came closer and closer to a period where I knew I could step away from work, uni and people (yes, alone time is one important aspect for me to recover from stress and depression), I started to realise many people around me were in similar boats.
Our lives, due to society and work demands, had become overloaded. We were all exhausted. Many of us were suffering from exacerbated depression and anxiety issues.
It was impacting our relationships with our colleagues, friends and family members.
And it is because of this, I have put together a list of symptoms, and another list of things people can do to help manage stressful, overwhelming times, from researching the medical issue online.
- Chronic fatigue - lacking in energy and feeling tired most days in the early days of dealing with burnout/stress. Dreading what is to come during the day ahead every morning in the later stages.
- Insomnia - You may have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep in the early stages of burn-out, and then in the later stages, you could have trouble getting to sleep every night, despite how tired you are.
- Forgetfulness/ impaired concentration and attention.
- Physical symptoms may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting and/or headaches.
- Increased illness is also a result of burning out as the body struggles to maintain its immunity levels.
- Loss of appetite.
Tips to manage long periods of stress/ burnout:
- Slow down --- if there are things that you do in your daily/weekly routine that can be put on hold for awhile, do that. Or find parts of your routine that can be reduced in the number of hours you spend doing something.
- Delegate jobs, when and where possible, to other people at home and at work.
- If you can take time off from work, do so.
- Take time out about two times a week to do yoga, art class, meditation… things that are relaxing, that are away from technology and help you 'switch off' or slow down.
- Find at least 30 minutes a day to exercise.
- Listening to music, and not doing anything else, is a proven method to help the mind settle down and relax. Best types of music are classical music (iTunes has albums of Chill Classical music you can download) or soft music (not AC/DC or Metallica).
- Pat or play with a pet. Pets are great for stress reduction and release the right distress hormones. If you don't have a pet, visit a friend who has a pet.
But it's not just all about recognising the symptoms and knowing how to manage prolonged stress periods/ burnout.
CQUniversity lived experience mental health academic Dr Louise Byrne says "the catch 22 for people who are used to being very busy is that once you start to slow down and try and take time out you can get bombarded with lots of worries or niggly ideas you normally block out by 'doing'."
"Sometimes part of the down time will require sorting through some things you've been avoiding but it's definitely worth it.
"To address issues that might be buzzing away, writing them down, particularly journaling is a very effective way of acknowledging without getting drawn in.
"Also we can struggle to give ourselves permission to do nothing but it is essential, even machines need periods of rest and repair and we're not machines."