It can be pretty difficult to identify when you’re on the crux of burnout or even when you’re caught in it. Sadly, there seems to be no such thing as a simple life anymore. We’re all expected to do more, live more, contribute more, support more, and a lot of us will experience a point when we can give no more. When we hit this point, known as burnout, it can feel incredibly overwhelming and isolating.
But we’re pleased to say that you can overcome it. And importantly, you’re not alone. So for those of you currently feeling overwhelmed, I wanted to share our tips on what helped us get through times of chronic stress and hope you too will find it of use.
Introducing a schedule covering all aspects of my life has been incredibly revolutionary. Although a schedule can feel rigid and mount a feeling of expectation, it helps you to see exactly how your time is spent. If you see you’re giving too much of your time to other people, or not getting time to do things you enjoy, you can free yourself some space to do whatever you want to do. The extremely important thing to do with a schedule is to keep it flexible.
Taking a day for you
To help me ensure I got some down time, I started dedicating an entire day to me and my partner. Sunday became the day of the week that was truly mine (even excluding chores). I wouldn’t make plans with anyone for anything, if I didn’t want to or felt I needed the time to just be at home. Sunday is usually an ideal to keep to yourself as friends often want to do something Friday or Saturdays.
On my day I’ll do what I fancy, usually on the day. I may go for a walk, potter around in the garden, read, watch a film or two, rest in bed, etc. It has been profoundly rewarding on my happiness and mental wellbeing.
Taking a day has helped in many ways, but it also highlighted how much I neglect myself during the week too. I started to include in my schedule time exercise, take breaks (blocking time for lunch everyday), work tasks, personal activities, cooking nights and a night out.
It also helped me to realise the lack of quality time my partner and I would get together. We spent so much of our time doing stuff for other people, or seeing and being with other people that we didn’t really have the energy or time to do anything just the two of us. We weren’t going our for meals, enjoying movies or even just getting out and about and doing day trips together. We’d only do those things on really special occasions or because it was part of our routine. As such, I started allocating whole weekends to doing something just for us. It could be a day trip on the Saturday and a restful day at home; cooking together and watching movies.
Tips for your schedule:
- Carve out a day just for you to do things you enjoy.
- Include time for exercise: I allocate 30 minutes every morning and a 30 minute walk break at lunch. Because I’ve allowed so much time, if I am unable to make 3 morning routines/2 lunchtime walks it’s no problem as I’ll still meet the quota.
- Include a time to go out: Going out could be as simple as going for a walk, or a drink at the local, meeting friends for dinner etc. It’s good for the soul to be social.
- Plan in your chores into the week to free up your weekend. Be sure to include your food shop in that and share the load with everyone else in the household so you can all enjoy quality time off.
- Carve out a couple of hours each week to do something you love or something new for you to try. It could be: a new class, cooking from a recipe, learning a new language or skill, craft projects, reading, uninterrupted time to watch your favourite shows etc.
For someone in a high state of stress or anxiety, it can be difficult to focus on a task because our minds tend to spiral. Mindfulness is a proven activity to help alleviate stress and anxiety by drawing your attention to the present moment, focusing on internal and external experiences. By taking a step back when in this heightened state and using mindfulness, we can calm our minds and refocus. It may seem challenging at the beginning but with practice, it can become second nature. Here’s how you can practice it:
Focus on your breathing
This video by Martin Boroson is a great starting point to understanding mindfulness and how you can practice it. In time, you’ll be able to achieve a sense of calm in just one minute.
Focus on the task at hand
I find that working from a recipe is an excellent way to be mindful. When working from a recipe, I have a clear structure for a task that needs to be followed. As I am dedicated to the task at hand, my mind is unable to wander to other things that might cause me stress or worry.
But it’s also using this concept, working on the task in hand, that allows you to practice mindfulness in a number of ways. For example, when doing the dishes (whether washing up or sticking them in the dishwasher) pay particular attention to the feel of the dishes, the external sounds as you are doing it etc. This is another example of using mindfulness.
Whilst working on a task or project, if your mind wanders because you’re thinking of other things you need to do, or you’re worried about something, make a note of it, cast it to one side and come back to it later.
If you find yourself worrying about a number of things throughout the day or night then introducing some ‘worry time‘ into your day can be extremely beneficial.
Start off by determining a favourite spot of yours in the home. Ideally it should be quiet, calm, private, and somewhere you can sit down. It may be your bedroom, the stairs, the garden, kitchen, lounge etc. which you can make your own for your worry time.
Carve out 10-15 minutes each day that you can sit in your space to review your worries of the day.
Any time a worry (something that causes you anxiety, disturbs or troubles you), make a note of it, push it out of your mind for the time being and during your worry time, work through your list of worries. It’s likely you’ll find that you may have worries that are no longer a concern for you in which case you can write them off, for others, sit there and worry about it or make a plan to work through it.
You may find there is nothing you can physically do or organise to alleviate your worries but allow yourself some time to process the thoughts and feelings, however, uncomfortable. By giving yourself time to worry, in time, you’ll notice that these worrying thoughts reduce in frequency – because the worry time becomes the time you can think and worry about different things. Freeing up your mind to focus on other things.
Keeping a thought diary can be another helpful CBT practice when dealing with chronic anxiety and stress.
A bit about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)…
Before we dive into thought diaries though, you may find it beneficial to understand more about cognitive behavioural therapy. Cognitive behavioural therapy is a talking therapy in which a practitioner can help you to manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave. It is a practice that is solely focused on helping you overcome your present difficulties. This is how it differs from counselling, a practice that reflects on past events.
The Cognitive Behavioural Model is a tool that the practitioners use to help illustrate how our thoughts, physical symptoms, behaviour, and mood all interact with one another to contribute to our low mood, stress, anxiety, self esteem etc. For example, a thought either derived spontaneously or through a particular situation can cause us to exhibit physical symptoms (such as sweaty palms, sick feeling in the stomach etc.), which causes us to do or avoid something (behaviour), which in turn affects our mood. Once started it has the potential to become a vicious cycle, but through cognitive behavioural therapy we can stop these anxious/stress cycles in their tracks. This is where thought diaries can be particularly beneficial.
A thought diary is the process of picking up a particular thought/s and analysing them. It helps you to identify how and why these thoughts occur and allows you to put some substance to it and change the thought process. Our thoughts are continually in action and when unnoticed can have a harmful consequence in sustaining feelings of low mood, anxiety etc. Download a copy of this thought record from getselfhelp.com to help you star to analyse your thoughts.
Our thoughts and impact on anxiety
As thoughts can be fleeting and can trigger a cycle without realising, initially this will be a process you’ll find difficult. However, it is one that is worth continuing with. I also appreciate that it may not be possible to use the worksheet every time you experience a troubling thought, so in these circumstances I’d recommend making a note of it at your earliest opportunity (whether on a post-it, in your diary, a notebook, your phone). When you’re able to, sit down with the worksheet and your notes and work through it as best as you’re able to.
You may even find just making a note of troubling thoughts is therapeutic in itself. But if you’re able to work through a thought record, you’ll be able to add context and substance to these thoughts and take steps to overcome it (avoidance only prolongs anxiety). By dissecting the thought and giving facts that support it, facts that are against it and then putting a more balanced perspective to those thoughts, can be a particularly helpful and powerful way to overcoming anxiety and low self esteem.
The power of you
Burnout and high stress and anxiety is often coupled with self-doubt and low self- esteem. It does nothing for our mood, overall happiness and this only exacerbates the symptoms. But you truly are an incredible person and it’s so important to remember that. When we’re stuck in a downward spiral, it can be challenging to see the good in anything which is why I suggest you always have a constant reminder.
Make a note of your accomplishments, achievements, things you’re most proud of and frame it. Put this out pride of place somewhere to always remind yourself. It can be as big or as small as you want it to be, it should be personal to you and what matters to you.
It may include:
- Details of your education
- Awards you’ve been nominated for and/or won
- Destinations you’ve been to
- Goals you set out to complete and achieved- e.g. giving up smoking
- The good you’ve done: donations to charities, mentoring, helping a friend move etc.
- Your skills that enables you to do the job you do
Contacting your local mental health service
Many of the tools we’ve talked about today form part of cognitive behavioural therapy. If you’re interested in exploring cognitive behavioural therapy in more depth, then I’d recommend getting in touch with your GP who can signpost/refer you to your nearest facility. Bear in mind that there may be a waiting list to attend a workshop/seminar. Mind also have a fantastic dedicated page to help you find a CBT therapist.
If you’re looking to get started immediately, you may find the following resources beneficial:
Getselfhelp have a number of other CBT worksheets available, free to download that you can start working through.
As I had to be placed on a waiting list to see a CBT therapist under the NHS, during the wait period, the consultant recommended I take a look at the overcoming series and find a book specific to my particular problem. I found the book covered a lot of ground for CBT which is applicable to most distinctions of mental health, but the examples would look at that particular problem. I found it brilliant to understanding my aspect of anxiety, enlightening to see examples true to my circumstance, and it contains worksheets and illustrations that you can work through.
Self help library
The Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust have released a very helpful self help library which contains leaflets on a number of conditions, including: abuse, anxiety, low mood, OCD, shyness, social anxiety, and so many more. Not all the leaflets are the same; some with video introductions and workable worksheets, others are more informational. You can also download the app of the same name as a guide to read and work through wherever and whenever (we’d recommend the app as it’s more stable than the website).
Resources at college and university
If you’re in school, college or university, it is worth getting in touch with the wellness advisor/wellbeing service as they often have counselling and mental health support resources available.
Even if you’re not in college or university, they often have a number of resources made publicly. For example, University West of England have a number of self-help resources which outlines details of the condition and where you can find additional support and help.
University of Exeter have a similar service and includes a number of workable worksheets. It’s worth looking at your local educational establishments website to see if they’ve any resources available that you can take advantage of.
The Samaritans are always there to listen
If you’re feeling distressed and need someone to talk to, the Samaritans are available all day every day. Whenever you need someone to talk to, free of charge. You don’t need to be suicidal, you can contact them any time day or night; it’s confidential, non judgemental and a safe place to turn to for help. Just call 116 123.