I want to start this blog post by apologizing for my recent absence. The past month and a half have been a whirlwind, and I found myself feeling stuck in my writing. The e-learning life took its toll on me, leaving me overwhelmed and unable to find the words to express myself. But in the midst of this struggle, I stumbled upon a conversation about something that resonated deeply with me, and I believe many of you can relate to it as well. Today, I want to talk about burnout.
Have you ever experienced burnout? I know I have. In fact, there have been times when I felt not only burned out but also depressed. The overwhelming feeling of making even simple decisions, the constant brain fog, the anxiety that seemed to accompany every aspect of life—I have experienced it all.
I felt apathetic about things that once brought me joy, and my energy levels were depleted. I struggled with my body image and the constant cravings for unhealthy foods. The exhaustion, the sleep problems, and the lack of motivation all took a toll on me. Looking back, I realized that I had been battling not only depression and anxiety but also burnout.
Let's take a moment to compare the signs of depression and burnout.
Depression often brings about a hopeless outlook, making you question the purpose of everything. It steals the pleasure from activities you once loved and can leave you feeling fatigued or sleepless.
Anxiety, on the other hand, fills your mind with restlessness, panic, and a rapid heartbeat. These physical symptoms are clear indicators of anxiety, not just the result of a caffeine overload. Depression and burnout can intertwine, making it difficult to distinguish between the two.
Why Sleep is the First Thing I Assess with My Mom Athletes?
I want to focus on the importance of sleep because it is one of the most crucial ways we recharge ourselves. Unfortunately, when we are under immense stress or responsible for young children who haven't yet developed good sleep hygiene, sleep often becomes the first casualty. Sleep deprivation can alter our brain chemistry and lead to mental disorders, difficulties in decision-making, and memory problems. When chronic sleep deprivation combined with an overwhelming workload, such as the demands of childcare, burnout becomes inevitable.
If you find yourself struggling with sleep, ask yourself why. Is it because your children are waking up frequently at night? Explore ways to help them sleep through the night without disrupting your own rest. Are you staying up late on your phone? Try leaving your phone in another room before bedtime to avoid the temptation of scrolling through news or social media. It's crucial, especially for breastfeeding mothers, to prioritize quality sleep and avoid the blue light that disrupts our brain's natural rhythms.
During perimenopause and menopause, sleep can become even more elusive. Waking up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, is a common experience. When these sleep disruptions occur, it's important to find ways to ease the situation. Maybe you can adjust your training schedule or take naps if necessary. For some, natural remedies like Valerian root pills can provide some relief.
Suddenly, most of our workload and life stress took a sharp and dramatic turn in 2020. I had a conversation with one of my athletes about the dangers of burnout today during our coaching call, and it got me thinking about how so many of us may be on the brink of losing control.
My athlete, an executive businesswoman with two young boys, is currently navigating a heart-wrenching journey. She finds herself in an incredibly challenging situation, one where she must make difficult decisions about letting go of people, selling her cherished house, and renovating a new home. The weight of these responsibilities and the overwhelming tasks before her are immense, leaving her with an emotional burden that is hard to bear.
As her coach, my utmost concern is ensuring that her training schedule becomes more than just a series of exercises. It needs to be a source of solace, a refuge from the chaos that engulfs her life. Striking the delicate balance between her commitments and her personal well-being is an intricate dance. With her work demanding 10-12 hours each day, stress permeates every aspect of her being, depleting her mental energy reserves. Summoning the strength to embark on a workout can feel like an insurmountable task, an overwhelming mountain to climb.
Yet, it is precisely during these moments that self-care must take precedence.
Self-care in Micro Steps
Together, we have discussed the power of small steps, of coaxing herself to take that first leap out the door, knowing that it is often the most challenging part. "Just do 15 minutes," I remind her gently. That is all it takes for her to commit to the warm-up, a mere 15-20 minutes of her time. Surprisingly, this simple act of perseverance has the uncanny ability to deceive her weary mind. It lures her in, transcending the boundaries of time and space, propelling her forward, far beyond those initial 15 minutes.
Starting something new in general, or starting one session can sometimes be the hardest part. That's why I ask my athletes to commit to "Just Warming Up". I wrote an Instagram post about this.
Finding an equilibrium between the need for movement and the necessity of rest is a constant struggle. When she teeters on the precipice of burnout, I implore her to dial back the intensity. It becomes crucial for her to choose activities that she genuinely enjoys, preferably in the embrace of nature's soothing presence.
The natural world holds a remarkable ability to restore balance to our mental health, a balm for the soul. Have you heard of recent research on Japanese Forest Bathing?
In crafting her training program, I have adjusted it to account for her overall stress and responsibilities. She possesses the freedom to rearrange workouts as needed, granting her autonomy over her exercise routine. The emphasis shifts away from structured sessions, opting instead for more flexible and spontaneous fartleks. This approach grants her the power to gauge her daily form and mental freshness, allowing her to adjust her efforts accordingly.
I firmly believe that this personalized approach fosters a sense of accomplishment and maintains a positive outlook on her progress. As her coach, my primary goal is to alleviate any additional stress brought about by her training program. Exercise should serve as a conduit for stress relief, not a source of further burden.
Make One Good Decision Every Day
Stress has a peculiar way of distorting our desires, steering us toward unhealthy choices. In my own struggles, I recall the insatiable cravings for blueberry muffins that tormented me relentlessly. Those sweet indulgences seemed to find solace in my belly as if my body sought to store the extra energy as a defence mechanism during times of stress.
The culmination of these factors left me grappling with the last few kilograms of pregnancy weight, straining my body image and self-perception.
Determined to make a change, I adopted a simple mantra: "Make One Good Decision Every Day." For me, that meant resisting the urge to order that tempting blueberry muffin with my afternoon coffee.
I also started prioritizing good sleep, and it became a lifeline for me. I made a conscious decision to leave my cell phone in the kitchen two hours before bedtime, breaking free from the grip of last-minute Facebook scrolling. I knew I had to distance myself from social media, as it no longer brought me joy. Instead, it weighed heavily on my spirit, leaving me feeling inadequate, stressed, and miserable. Letting go of my phone addiction opened up a world of possibilities.
Rather than idly scrolling through news and social media while taking the kids to the park, I actively engaged with them. I ran alongside them as they gleefully explored the playground, kicking a ball or doing my bodyweight strength training. In those moments, I shed the feeling of being lost and anxious, finding solace in their laughter and the rhythm of my own movements. I've even run 4K around the playground!
Why Some Movement Every Day Can Keep You From Falling Into Depression?
Did you know that daily physical activity is intricately linked to finding a sense of purpose in life? It's something I've experienced firsthand. When I diligently exercised and then abruptly stopped for even just a few days, I felt a surge of anxiety, fatigue, and hostility overwhelming me.
The book I'm currently reading, "The Joy of Movement" by Kelly McGonigal, confirms this correlation. It reveals that if adults are compelled to reduce their daily activity, a staggering 88% of them become more depressed, and within a mere week, 31% report diminished life satisfaction. To add to that, they even quantified the number of steps required to induce crankiness: 5649. It's a stark reminder that if we confine ourselves to our offices, neglecting our daily walks or runs, we'll never reach that mark.
Isn't that incentive enough to remain active, especially during these challenging times? As a runner, you're likely familiar with the concept of the "runner's high," right? Well, scientific research shows that the euphoria experienced after approximately 20 minutes of running is, in fact, akin to a high—a buzz. The release of endocannabinoids, brain chemicals similar to those found in cannabis or marijuana, occurs during moderate running (not at maximum speed). These chemicals alleviate pain, uplift mood, and make you feel good. How incredible is that?
Could it be that burnout, anxiety, and depression are as easy to alleviate as lacing up your running shoes and heading out for a nice run? The research indicates it's entirely possible! Whether it's running, walking uphill on a treadmill, cycling, or hiking, all these activities trigger the release of endocannabinoids. The same effect has even been observed in dogs jogging on a treadmill for 30 minutes. It turns out your furry companion needs that natural high just as much as you do.
Now, I understand that when you're stressed and overwhelmed, the last thing on your mind is putting on your running gear and stepping out the door. I've been there. That's precisely where the mantra of "just do 15 minutes" comes into play. It tricks your weary brain into taking that first step, committing to the warm-up, which usually lasts around 15-20 minutes. Often, that initial push is enough to deceive your tired mind, propelling you to keep going and surpassing the mere 15 minutes you set out to do.
"Know that this will take time."
There are no quick fixes or magic pills. The best thing you can do for yourself is to seek guidance from a skilled professional in burnout recovery. Healing your nervous system requires patience.
Slow down. Take a deep breath and give yourself permission to take some much-needed time off.
That pile of laundry sitting on your couch can wait, and those dishes will patiently remain where they are.
Ask yourself, do you truly need to tackle these tasks right this moment? Can you release some of the burdens that drain your energy and wear down your spirit? Is it possible to switch that meeting to a Zoom call or convey your message through a quick video instead of engaging in lengthy emails or exhausting meetings? Must that email be sent at 8 pm, leading to a cascade of conversations that consume your late-night hours? It's time to establish boundaries, my dear friend, and learn to protect your well-being.
Let's not underestimate the significance of nutrition. When we feel good, we tend to make wiser choices, but when we're engulfed in a sea of exhaustion, we often succumb to mindless eating. If you find yourself uncertain about making nutritious choices, I urge you to work with a qualified nutritionist who can provide personalized guidance, rather than succumbing to the allure of the newest diet fad. Your body deserves nourishment that uplifts and sustains you.
If you have a genuine love for running and it brings you joy, there's no need to completely abandon it. However, it's essential to skip the high-intensity intervals for now. Allow yourself to run at a comfortable pace, never pushing yourself beyond a rating of 3 out of 10 on the perceived effort scale. A gentle 30-minute run can still provide immense benefits if running has been a regular part of your life. But if you're new to running or currently dealing with burnout, I suggest exploring the soothing embrace of a hike instead.
I hope the information shared here sheds light on depression and burnout, enabling you to better recognize the signs and take proactive steps to safeguard your well-being.
Remember, it's perfectly alright to admit when your plate feels overwhelmingly full. The world around us may be overwhelming, scary, and filled with uncertainty, but never forget that caring for yourself is of paramount importance. Establish clear boundaries, prioritize quality sleep, and protect it as if it were the most precious gift you could give yourself.
With love, Marjaana AKA Tiredmomruns
MSc Sports Sciences
Triathlon Canada Community Trained Coach
GGS Women's Coaching Specialist