5 lessons I’ve learnt from burnout

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Looking back I have burnt out at least three times in my life. The first two times were at the end of my first and third year at university, studying medicine. The challenges of moving away from home, being out of my depth academically, feeling isolated and alone all gradually took their toll.

The third time was around 2009. I was juggling being on the leadership team of a church with all its demands while having a growing family and working as a psychiatrist. It  all became too much for me to take. Something had to give. I wasn’t liking the person I was becoming. I could sense a critical and discontented spirit growing inside of me. It was time to step down from church leadership and re-evaluate my priorities.

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In all three cases, there were significant learning opportunities and growth from these experiences. However, at the time it felt very different to that! For more on the first experience see here. After the second, I found a greater purpose and direction to stay in medicine and begin to focus on psychiatry; while as for the third, it lay the foundation for this blog and subsequent podcasts!

Burnout is a state of chronic stress. It gradually develops over a period of time and leads to:

Both physical and emotional exhaustion.
On each occasion I gradually found myself lacking energy, sleeping poorly and not able to give proper attention to what needed to be done.

Feelings of cynicism and detachment.
I became quick to focus at the negative aspects of my life, as well as feeling disconnected from others. I found myself often attributing unnecessary ulterior motives to others and putting myself in a victim mindset.

Feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.
I struggled to find meaning and purpose in day to day activities that became more and more burdensome. What I previously had been able to do with ease felt like an upward struggle with no apparent end in sight.

So what have I learnt from these experiences?

1 The importance of adequate rest.
Sleep is really important. Despite all the bravado about sleep out there, most of us need 7-8 hours at least. I use to feel embarrassed by my need to have naps at the weekend, but now am very glad to! With enough sleep I notice a distinct improvement in my mood and energy levels. Rest is also important in terms of ensuring you have time to switch off and disengage from the pressures around you. When you are tired it is also easier to be discouraged and feel overwhelmed. How much rest are you getting?

2 Don’t over-commit yourself.
I have been very guilty of this. I have been often quick to take on more and more activities without ensuring there is adequate time to stop and recharge. Especially in our increasingly connected 24-7 world it is so easy to take on way more than it is possible to do even in one life time. I’ve come to realise the importance of pacing myself. There is a tendency for us to over-estimate what we can do in one year, but underestimate what is possible in a longer stretch of time, like 5 or 10 years. How over-committed are you?

3 Ensure you do those things that re-energise you.
When life gets busier or stressful it is so easy to tell ourselves that we don’t have time to do those things that rejuvenate us. In fact the opposite should be the case. So for me regular prayer and meditation, regular exercise and deep friendships are not optional extras to discard when the going gets tough. At those times I rely on them even more. They are an important part of my routines. What reenergises you?

4 Go back to your foundations.
Like physical pain in the body, feelings of burnout are pointing to a deeper problem. What are the assumptions I am making about myself and my life? What am I trying to prove to myself or to others, or even God? How much of my self -worth comes from my activity? Am I a human being or human doing? (For more on this see here). What foundations do you need to go back to?

5 Connect with safe people.
There are people who lift us up and there are people who drain us. I am thankful to have safe friends to turn to when I feel overwhelmed and discouraged. They help me gain perspective when everything seems to be piling up on me. It is in deep satisfying friendships that true contentment can be found. I love how someone has put it, that ‘Friend power is much more powerful than willpower.’ Who are your safe people?

These are some preliminary thoughts and reflections. What would you add? What are your reflections on avoiding burnout and maintaining joy and zeal in an increasingly challenging and complex world?

4 thoughts on “5 lessons I’ve learnt from burnout”

  1. Great post, Sunil. To answer your final question, I hold to the mantra of the ‘Three Hs’. OK, they’re not strictly alliterated like that but they work for me: Try to stay: Healthy, Holy, and Whole.

    So ‘Healthy’ includes physical health, exercise, good food etc. + good thinking patterns and avoiding downward spiralling or catastrophising.

    ‘Holy’ involves cultivating and depending on a steadfast relationship with Christ. Reading the Bible and praying, and going to church. Checking my heart is not following other gods and avoiding idol worship (subtle or not).

    And ‘Whole’ refers to: not taking myself too seriously, enjoying God’s diverse blessings including music, art, design, tech etc. Not thinking about myself too much, and being slow to anger but rich in love. Leading with my ears and letting my mouth follow when being with others. etc.

    The ‘Three Hs’. There we go. A quick mantra, easy to remember.

  2. Its Saturday and I am doing this I like doing! I was supposed to write an article for someone but they came back and changed their mind. I was disappointed but realise I am actually REALLY glad to potter about in the garden instead – what a blessing (and much needed!)
    Thanks for the reminder. In this age of connectedness there is a tendency to think \”I must know whats going on all the time\” – in fact I dont need to 🙂

    1. Glad you have been encouraged Chris! It is really important to accept and even rejoice in our limitations. After all none of us is God.

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    This information is for educational purposes only, and is in no way intended to be personal medical advice. Please ask your physician about any health guidelines seen in this blog, as everyone is different in his or her medical needs.