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How to avoid burnout and still be a high-achiever

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By the time I was 28 years old, I was the mother to four children, three of whom stayed home full-time with me. My husband and I owned a beautiful home, and we had paid down all our debt. I owned a business that let me be home and make my own schedule, and I had just pulled down my first six-figure year.  

I was, for all intents and purposes, a success. Except for one small problem: My hair was falling out in chunks on my head and I didn’t know why.

I received diagnoses from several medical professionals from a naturopathic doctor (adrenal fatigue) to a therapist (overwork) to a traditional M.D. who finally ran blood tests that smacked some sense into my stubborn brain. I was showing signs of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). My high stress levels from juggling full-time work and full-time childcare had essentially caused my reproductive system to go haywire—and my hair to literally fall out of my head.

My body was betraying me in ways that I wouldn’t let myself admit. And the diagnosis? I was officially and clinically burned out.

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What our bodies tell us about burnout

Like me, many women ignore the early warning signs of burnout until it manifests itself in physical ways. In my situation, I thought the pace I was sustaining was not only normal for any working mother, but downright admirable. It was the have-it-all dream! It wasn’t until my hair started falling out of my head that I was begrudgingly forced to acknowledge my own burnout.

Nisha Jackson, Ph.D. and author of “Brilliant Burnout,” believes that up to 85% of working women face burnout due to the increasing number of responsibilities women have. And yet, despite its prevalence, women are incredibly adept at overlooking how their own stress levels and burnout are affecting them on a very physical level.

“There are several serious physical consequences of unattended, ill-managed stress,” Dr. Jackson explained. “Adrenal hypofunction, neurotransmitter imbalances, and ovarian hormone dysregulation are all consequences of unchecked stress. Each one of these dysfunctions leads to a list of unwanted symptoms such as depression, anxiety, memory loss, insomnia, headaches, tachycardia (racing heart), food cravings, hypoglycemia, allergies, hypersensitivities, an inability to manage stress emotionally, excessive storage of fat, type 2 diabetes, and even addictions.”

Modern life = a breeding ground for burnout

While it can be easy to blame ourselves for getting burned out in the first place, Dr. Jackson noted that many of the normalities of modern day life are major factors for burnout. When we’re expected to be available 24/7, it’s difficult for us to learn to truly have downtime.

“Women are juggling tasks, racing from one thing to the next, and exposing themselves to over-stimulation with their phones by constantly moving between emails, texts, and talking,” Dr. Jackson said. “Your body was not wired for this type of excessive hyper-stimulation and in time, without the right tools, it will show signs of breakdown.”   

According to Dr. Jackson, some of the lesser-known triggers that can lead to burnout include:

  • Placing intense pressure on yourself. She notes that intense pressure can cause a drop in the hormone progesterone, leading to mood instability, PMS, early menopausal symptoms and irregular cycles.
  • Shallow breathing. When you fail to take in deeper breaths, you signal to your body that you are in fight or flight mode. This can cause the sensation of a heavy head, headaches, fuzzy brain, unstable cortisol levels, and a constant state of activation.
  • Limited social connections. This can lead to more anger and pent-up frustration. A lack of connection negatively affects the adrenal stress system, leading to a further spiral downward.
  • Limited alone time. When you have no time to regroup, you end up reaching a boiling point with symptoms of irritability and the emotional exaggeration of stress, i.e., rage, blaming others, irrational behavior, and making decisions that are not in your best interest.

Forget just “slowing down.”

When it comes to overcoming burnout, women often hear one piece of advice: slow down. But fortunately, Dr. Jackson isn’t a fan of the oft-given advice. Not only does it send the message that women are doing something “wrong” instead of acknowledging the external factors at play, she pointed out that slowing down is just not practical or realistic in today’s world.

Sure, you may want to slow down, but what do you do when your baby is waking up four times a night, your toddler just threw up, your older kids need a ride to school, you’re out of groceries, and you have a big presentation at work at 9 a.m.?

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Beating the burnout cycle

Modern life certainly isn’t going to change anytime soon, and our day-to-day demands as working women and mothers probably won’t either. So is it truly possible to avoid burnout and still live healthy, balanced lives?

Well, I have good news and bad news for you here. According to Dr. Jackson, once you’ve reached the point of burnout, your body is more likely to slip back into a state of stress again when exposed to the same environment. It’s like muscle memory.

“Once you’ve been exposed to continuous high levels of stress hormones, chemicals, and neurotransmitters over time, your body will move into a state of malfunction, adversely affecting your endocrine system, brain, nervous system, and metabolism,” she explained.  

That said, Dr. Jackson does believe that it’s possible for women to beat burnout by learning and acknowledging their own physical, mental, and emotional symptoms—and by having a plan in place to enact at the first sign of those symptoms. In addition to the typical suggestions like eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet and getting quality sleep, Dr. Jackson also recommended arming yourself with the following tools in your “banishing burnout” kit:

  • Gentle exercise. Try walking, yoga, Pilates, or light strength training. “Any type of vigorous exercise will leave your stress glands even more taxed since one of the causes of the stress syndrome is ‘over-exercising’,” Dr. Jackson noted.  
  • Activation of your parasympathetic nervous system track. To override the effects of your sympathetic nervous system, reboot the parasympathetic nervous system by breathing in through your nose (expanding your belly not your chest) and out through pursed lips. Repeat for 2-3 minutes.
  • Brain-training. Replace negative sayings such as “I am so stressed!” with reminders like “This is not an emergency; I am in control of my life right now.”

Today, as a burnout survivor, I am doing my best to be better. Currently pregnant with my fifth child, I’m preparing to take what will be my first-ever true maternity leave. I try to take at least one full day off of work every week; I do things that I never would have done before, like watching TV just for the fun of it.

I acknowledge the cause of my workaholic tendencies and remind myself that my “achievements” don’t make up my self-worth. But most importantly, I have learned to recognize my own triggers and symptoms of burnout. Because it’s not necessarily about avoiding burnout forever, but equipping myself with knowledge and tools to face it when it does rear its ugly, hair-reducing head.

“Balance is not the final goal; it is an ongoing process,” Dr. Jackson summarized. “Balance is not about being calm, chilled-out, and Zen-like, but rather practicing daily principles so that you are constantly aware of ‘where you are’ and how you feel about what is happening on any given day or week, allowing you to adjust as needed.”

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