Tired but wired: Why are so many of us suffering burnout and what can we do about it?

It was last summer that farmer and writer Lorna Sixsmith started experiencing the classic symptoms of burnout. It had been a tough year on the farm – an interminable-seeming winter followed swiftly by a brutal heatwave, and drought that struck in June and July. Lorna and her family were on a treadmill, pulling out all the stops to keep things afloat with the problems that the inclement weather had brought with it; more work and more financial pressure.

Soon, Lorna recognised she was reaching the limits of her resources. “I felt that I was really tired. I recognised that morale was a bit low. It was groundhog day. The work that I would normally enjoy had become drudgery,” she says.

There was no opportunity for a holiday or a break, and juggling the physical work of farming with the mental work of writing was onerous.

She was under a deadline for her latest book, a memoir titled Till the Cows Come Home: Memories of a Rural Childhood, and “was editing during the calving period. So really there was too much going on,” she says. “It was a beautiful summer, but you just didn’t have time to enjoy it.”

“I wasn’t getting together with friends. There wasn’t that opportunity for meeting friends for coffee. It just seemed too much hassle.

“Even a good night’s sleep didn’t seem to help much. I didn’t have any problems sleeping, but I didn’t feel like it was invigorating sleep,” she says. “I wasn’t going down the route of getting depressed, but I suppose I was getting to a stage where I was tired,” she says.

Lorna is not alone. We are all, it seems increasingly overstimulated, over-caffeinated, oversubscribed and under pressure.

Burnout has reached epidemic proportions. Tech keeps us connected to our professional obligations 24/7. We struggle to juggle the demands of our work lives with the responsibilities of raising families and keeping our personal relationships afloat.

And according to twin sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski, authors of the newly published Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle, it is women who are most susceptible to it.

Women, they say, are more likely to be socially conditioned into ‘Human Giver’ syndrome. This is an identity first described by philosopher Kate Manne and springs from the belief that one has a moral obligation to fulfil the needs of others at the expense of one’s own.

Eventually, this leads to exhaustion and even physical illness.

That’s what happened to Amelia. A choral conductor and assistant professor by profession, she wore herself so thin that she lived for years with chronic pain and was eventually hospitalised twice with stress-induced appendicitis.

Siobhan Murray, an Irish psychotherapist and life coach, has also suffered from burnout. She’d been working flat out for decades, raising two small boys as a single mother. She also was labouring under a stubborn case of imposter syndrome, a deep sense of insecurity which led her to believe that she had to keep constantly pushing against her limits to prove herself in the workplace.

“Burnout is the culmination of physical and emotional exhaustion,” she explains.

The physical, the getting up every day going to your job, coupled with the emotional, which she says, might be feelings of inadequacy or comparison with others.

There are certain red flags to look out for, she says. “When you start to feel that disengagement with others; when you, for no particular reason on a Friday night, are so exhausted that you can’t be bothered to go out with your friends. Even the mere effort of being in social situations doesn’t excite you, you’re not energised by being. In simple situations, you are more irritable, you are more tearful. Your sleep pattern might be out of whack.”

In Siobhan’s case, she started to drink too much, which she says is a common response. “You might see that people are relying more on alcohol or food as a perceived destressor. Which it’s not – it just adds to a sense of anxiety in the body.”

Murray re-orientated her career, trained as a psychotherapist and learned the tools to help her cope better with stress. But recently, the number of people she is seeing in clinical practice who are burned out has risen significantly. She’s written a new book on the subject, The Burnout Solution: 12 Weeks to a calmer you.

No one is immune, she says, and she sees a number of young people in their early 20s suffering. “I do think that that generation is so focussed on achieving. They are, maybe, overachieving or perfectionists. They put that pressure on themselves.”

The solution, she says, is about instituting rigid boundaries around opportunities for rest. The first testament of burnout recovery is sleep. “It doesn’t matter whatever other fabulous things you are trying to do, if you are not getting enough sleep and your brain is not unwinding, then all the rest of it really doesn’t matter.”

The second is imposing boundaries. “Being able to say no when it doesn’t suit you,” she explains.

The fact that “we have been brought up as an Irish culture to think the word ‘selfish’ is a bad word,” contributes to the problem.

Limiting access to tech is also a crucial factor. “Putting the phone down an hour before you get into bed. Don’t have it beside your bed. Leave it away from you… If you are cooking dinner, put your phone somewhere else. Be completely present in cooking dinner. That’s mindfulness.”

For Lorna Sixsmith, she’s learned to institute time for recovery. “This year, I’ve recognised that a really important part of my self-care is being able to read. Even if it’s only 20 minutes, half an hour a day. If I don’t get to read a novel or something that’s interesting – I’m not talking about newspapers or magazines, it has to be a book – then life is not worth living,” she says.

According to the Nagoski sisters, burnout is a feminist issue. It’s crucial to recognise the role that the patriarchy plays. As they struggle to thrive, women, they say, are engaged in playing a game that is rigged against them.

“A lot of the self-help genre seems to be dedicated to the idea that you can believe your way out of the patriarchy,” says Emily. “You can manifest in the universe anything you want without reference to structural inequality and misogyny. And that’s a great way to make a person feel totally crazy.

“It’s gaslighting to make someone believe, ‘You can do it, you just have to work hard enough’, when it’s simply not true for people who are in any sort of marginalised identity.”

Just recognising this fact can be transformative. “It’s a thing that I always felt was missing from books about self-help and psychology – putting it in a cultural context that says, ‘If this doesn’t work for you, it’s not your fault, it’s not because you are a failure.’ It’s because we live in a cultural context that is intentionally making it harder for you, because you are not like the people that this society was defined for and by.”

In their book, they argue that the notion of self-care has become another stick for women to beat themselves with. “Self-care really isn’t the answer. The answer is all of us caring more for each other. When we tell people to get more rest, it’s not like there is anyone who doesn’t already know that getting adequate rest is good for you. They know that. What they need is structures in place in their life that make it easier for them to access the rest that they need. And part of that is having permission from the people around them to take care of themselves,” says Amelia.

Their approach teaches women to recognise their emotions and find constructive ways to work through them. “We exhaust our emotions when we get stuck in the middle of them,” says Emily. “Feelings are tunnels: you have to move all the way through them to get to the light at the end, and stress is one of those tunnels. It’s a cycle. It has a biological beginning middle and end. Like digestion, like sleep, you are supposed to go all the way through it and then come out on the other side feeling better.”

Physical activity, they argue, is the most efficient strategy to move through emotion, but a simple as a hug can do it too. It has to be a 20-second hug.

“You go into your home and you put your arms around your certain special someone and you hold each other for 20 seconds in a row. This is a potentially awkward amount of time to hug and you have to really like them,” Emily says. “But that duration communicates to your body that you have arrived home and you are safe.”

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