Stress, Burnout, & Self-Care, Oh My!
Aside from ‘self-starter’ and ‘wearer of many hats’, burnout and self care are perhaps two of the most popular buzzwords in tech when referring to human beings. Since the beginning of my career, I’ve heard peers, leaders, and myself talk about burning out like it’s a rite of passage – A glorified experience that is the true marker of one’s seniority, wisdom, and authenticity in the workplace. Burnout is often used interchangeably with ‘breaking’, only further normalizing the narrative of running yourself into the ground as a measure of success.
But my own personal experiences with burnout and breaking gave me pause. Isn’t burnout different than breaking; and a very serious thing? Why are we talking about it, but not explaining it? As a former people manager, it bothers me that I didn’t recognize the distinction sooner. Taken from burnout.io, ““Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” It manifests itself in ways including anxiety, loss of motivation and confidence, and even degradation of physical health.” To quote the lyrical genius of Pulitzer Prize Winner Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
The main thing that sticks out to me is the phrase, “caused by excessive and prolonged stress”. It sticks out to me because ‘stress’ is also a term often thrown around carelessly, and may be worthy of a closer look. The American Psychological Association outlines three distinct types of stress: acute, episodic acute, and chronic.
- “Acute stress is the most common form of stress. It comes from demands and pressures of the recent past and anticipated demands and pressures of the near future. Acute stress is thrilling and exciting in small doses, but too much is exhausting.” Acute stress is short-term.
- Episodic acute stress is when acute stress is a frequent theme of your life - “ They seem perpetually in the clutches of acute stress.”
- And, chronic stress “comes when a person never sees a way out of a miserable situation. It's the stress of unrelenting demands and pressures for seemingly interminable periods of time.”
We could say perhaps that burnout is caused by chronic stress, or episodic acute stress, whereas breaking is likely the result of acute stress. Burnout is a lot more serious than having your limits tested, or expectations raised, or taking on a new and exciting responsibility that forces you out of your comfort zone. I know from experience that breaking can feel a bit thrilling, and acute stress can be a great motivator. And it’s this experience with breaking that clouded my vision when I was actually experiencing chronic stress and burnout.
I knew the burnout was different for a few reasons: My general anxiety had been peaking for several months; I was completely unmotivated to do the most basic of tasks; I had lost all confidence in myself and my abilities; vacations were making it worse and not better; and I ended up in the hospital with shingles from chronic stress.
But it wasn’t until that last point - the hospital visit - that I realized I was experiencing burnout and not just breaking. When my doctor said ‘chronic stress’, everything clicked into place. I finally had a word for what I had been experiencing, and it was the wake up call I needed. The anxiety and the lack of motivation and confidence had gone largely unnoticed by myself for over a year, so it wasn’t until my physical symptoms cropped up that I actually acknowledged that I needed to make a big change.
I think my biggest regret about my experience with chronic stress and burnout is that I didn’t take it more seriously. While I made changes in real-time, I didn’t understand the impact it would have on me months later. I thought that if I took on a new role at work, moved into a new house, and entered into a new relationship that things would just fall into place. I would feel motivated again, less anxious, and bounce back to who I was before I burned out.
But I didn’t. The chronic stress slowly went away, but the anxiety was still there. I was still making poor decisions about my health, feeling out of control, numbing myself with too much TV and takeout. I was distracting myself from my anxiety and lack of motivation by diving head first into a new relationship that I wasn’t ready for. I was running on fumes. I was completely burnt out, and tricking myself that the effects of the burnout and the chronic stress left when I left my role.
So when I found myself flat on my back from January to May with a back injury (the result of bad genetics, and poor physical maintenance), I couldn’t help but see the delightful irony in it. The universe and my body were both telling me to slow the fuck down (and forcing me to do so), take care of myself, learn how to manage my stress, and allow myself the time to heal everything. It wasn’t an adventurous vacation to far-flung corners of the world that helped me heal from my burnout (which I thought would be the antidote), it was staying in one place.
It was going back to my hometown, and spending some quality time with myself. It was reaching out to my amazing friends and asking for help (a total foreign and uncomfortable concept to me). It was writing. It was reading. It was celebrating the smallest of wins – like being able to put my socks on myself, or taking a bath. It was eating healthy foods, and not drinking alcohol. It was hearing my favourite song, and feeling joyful. It was eating chocolate, and savouring it. It was slowing down to speed up. It was practicing extreme patience and self-discipline when my physical abilities were greatly limited. It was deleting all social media apps from my phone, and deactivating Instagram. It was making commitments to myself (and only me) about what I value. It was going to therapy. It was drawing and painting again. It was reading a healthy dose of Brené Brown. It was not being so hard on myself. It was setting boundaries. It was loving and respecting my body. It was finding closure with people that were once really important to me. It was going to the dentist, and the optometrist. It was being present and not freaking out about the future. It was letting joy and meaning be my guides; not expectations, comparison, and scarcity. It was cutting out the noise to focus on what I want, and who I want to be. It was self care.
Self care looks different for every person. For some, it’s a Sunday routine with face masks, a bubble bath, a detoxifying tea, and mindfulness. For others, it’s going to the gym every morning (no matter what), and swapping out a daily coffee for a daily matcha. For others, it’s attending regular therapy sessions, and splurging on an annual yoga pass at their favourite studio. And for most, it’s a combination of many of these things, and more. Self care is not a trend. And it never looks the same for everyone. And, it may change for you based on where you’re at in your life, and what you need. Five years ago, a face mask and a glass of wine was my antidote for just about anything. These days, those things still bring me great joy, but they are also well complemented by all the things listed above.
Acute stress is something I now look forward to – an exciting, high-pressure project, or feeling a bit overwhelmed by a public speaking engagement. Chronic stress was a part of me for so long, it’s hard to know if it’s actually gone. What I do know is that I never want to be that person again. I was angry, resentful, apathetic, and being around me probably felt a bit like walking on eggshells (sorry!). To use another millennial phrase, I was not living my best life.
The foundation of self care comes down to self awareness, and being able to recognize when you’re approaching burnout, or trapped in a state of chronic stress. The signs are often subtle, and are slow to take hold. I often find my friends and coworkers are the best source of truth for how I’ve changed, or how different I seem. It’s not my only data point, but it’s helpful to plot out how chronic stress and burnout have impacted me. Journalling is also great for this, even if it’s as simple as an inventory of how you’re feeling that day. At the end of all of this, I've found keeping it simple is the best solution.
The biggest takeaway for me from all of this is that, I am not my job. I am not my stress. I am not my burnout. I am a sister, a daughter, a friend, a roommate, a coworker, and will hopefully grow into more. Grounding myself in this keeps me present, and keeps me honest.
For more resources and information about self care, check out selfcare.tech - an online repository of self-care resources for developers & others.