If you've ever experienced the overwhelming sensation of waking up with a racing heart and a mind that won't rest, only to crash a few hours later, desperately craving coffee to keep you going, then you know the debilitating grip of burnout. It's a treacherous journey that engulfs those who dedicate themselves relentlessly, especially those high-achieving individuals who possess an unyielding determination to push through any obstacle.
Determination and drive are both a strength and a weakness, as they often fail to recognize the need for clear boundaries or find themselves trapped in a situation where stress levels are sky-high, and support is nonexistent. I can personally relate to these struggles, as my own burnout unfolded due to a lack of choice and self-compassion. Oh, how I wish I had been kinder to myself and acknowledged the pain I was enduring.
Let's face it—many of us are feeling the weight of burnout right now.
Early Signs Of Burn Out
Let's pause for a moment and reflect on the early signs of burnout. Are you plagued by anxiety, insomnia, and that relentless feeling of being "tired and wired" at night? Do your thoughts race, and does your heart pound when you wake up? Every moment feels like a never-ending race. Do you experience gastrointestinal distress, chronic headaches, lack of focus, irritability, and erratic energy patterns?
Have you noticed unwanted weight gain around your belly? It's important to recognize that our stress hormone, cortisol, clings to our midsection, especially for women, when we're constantly living in fight-or-flight mode. Our bodies instinctively store energy as a means of self-preservation when they sense danger.
Are you dependent on coffee or other stimulants? Do you constantly feel like you're falling short as if you'll never accomplish enough? The signs of full-blown burnout are unmistakable: relentless exhaustion, overwhelming feelings of being drained, and the incessant craving for salt, sugar, and caffeine.
Everything becomes too much, leaving you teetering on the edge of anxiety and depression.
Your moods swing drastically, and a sense of detachment from everything settles in. Nothing seems to matter anymore. Your immune system weakens, and you fall sick more frequently. Standing up makes you dizzy, and weakness consumes your limbs. You find yourself waking up in the early hours of the morning, unable to sleep, while your blood sugar levels fluctuate wildly. Life becomes an arduous chore.
Gazing upon this extensive list of symptoms, it becomes apparent that burnout has entrenched itself deeply within many lives. If you resonate with any of these signs, I implore you to read on.
Steps to Recover From Burn Out as A Mom
The first step towards healing from burnout lies in delving into the emotional and spiritual needs that have gone unmet. As much as we adore our families, it's crucial to acknowledge that we too require moments of solitude. Constantly prioritizing the needs and desires of others takes its toll, and while occasional sacrifice is acceptable, when accompanied by physical manifestations, it's time to take action.
In a previous post, I discussed the challenge of distinguishing burnout from depression, as I myself once struggled to separate the two. If you haven't already, I encourage you to read that post. Today, I want to guide you on the path to healing burnout.
I wish I had recognized burnout earlier in my life, as I tend to fully immerse myself in things. During my Master's degree, I worked tirelessly, sacrificing sleep and neglecting self-care. In the final week before the submission deadline, I practically lived at school, working late into the night and resting briefly on the floor of the exercise physiology test lab. I barely ate and only took short breaks for fresh air. Two days before the deadline, I experienced an excruciating headache that prevented me from looking up. The more experienced researchers understood the situation and referred to it as the "researcher's headache."
It seemed amusing at the time, but when I started vomiting, it became a serious wake-up call.
I sought help from the school doctor, who advised me to take a break from my thesis work and request an extension. However, the school informed me that delaying the submission meant waiting an additional six months to graduate, which was not a viable option. So, somehow, I mustered the strength to push through for another two days. With just an hour to spare, I finally submitted my A+ master's thesis, but not without paying a hefty price: an A+ in mild burnout.
Looking back, I wonder if it was truly worth it. The only person who truly remembers the immense struggle I went through is me. My life didn't unfold as planned during those intense Master's days when I pushed myself relentlessly. Nevertheless, I believe it was worth it in some ways. I'm okay with occasionally pushing through difficult circumstances, but understanding the risks of prolonged "push-through" situations is crucial to prevent a full-blown burnout.
Now I recognize that I carried this "just push through it" mentality into parenting, which ultimately led to complete burnout and depression. While it's one thing to endure an intense week or two of work, like I did for my thesis, bringing that mentality into parenting for years on end is entirely different. During the baby years, with back-to-back pregnancies and a lack of support, sleep, and self-compassion, I experienced a much more profound burnout. It wasn't just depression; it was an overwhelming sense of being burned out by life itself.
I coined the term "mom-haustion" to describe this new definition of burnout experienced by mothers. Perhaps you can relate.
Mom-haustion is a real thing that can be truly devastating experience.
It's unjust that mothers who never complain or show signs of struggle, always looking impeccable and happy, are placed on a pedestal that feels unattainable. I knew I could never reach that level of motherhood perfection, so I settled for comfortable clothes, Starbucks, and embracing my imperfections. I convinced myself not to complain because, firstly, nobody likes negativity, and secondly, there's always someone worse off than me. It may sound pessimistic, but it somehow brightened my day.
However, we all face struggles, and I believe that if we were more honest with ourselves and others, openly acknowledging our challenges, we would all benefit. If you're feeling burned out but never dare to admit it, you'll suffer in silence and never receive the help you need. It's a lose-lose situation for you and for others who may be going through the same thing.
It's okay to feel burnout. Really, it is.
Now, let's delve into how to heal from burnout.
Let's begin with nutrition since it plays a vital role in everyone's life.
Let Thy Food Be Your Medicine
As Hippocrates wisely said, "Let food be your medicine." I used to wonder why it was so easy to make healthy food choices when I felt great, but when I was tired, irritable, and exhausted, I would reach for low-nutrient foods like those blueberry muffins from Starbucks.
Convenience foods that come in wrappers seem so tempting and easy, especially when we're busy or have little ones to take care of. In North American culture, it's common to rely on grab-and-go coffees and foods, rarely taking the time to sit down and truly savour a meal. The only time we might sit down is at a drive-through, eating while driving, leaving behind crumbs in the backseat of our vans.
On the other hand, North European countries like Finland and Norway have deep-rooted dietary habits centred around homegrown foods, with bread being a staple for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Brazil, for example, emphasizes rice, beans, and red meat in their diet. I've learned so much about health, culture, and wellness through studying these diverse dietary habits.
When we lived in Canada, it was easy to grab a multipack of Clif bars for a quick energy boost and keep them in the van. However, after moving to Dubai, I found that bars were still available but quite expensive. With a little extra planning, though, I discovered that it's actually quite easy to pack healthier snacks on the go. Sometimes I still catch myself eating while driving, as breaking old habits can be challenging.
I highly recommend making a conscious shift towards real, whole, nutrient-dense home-cooked meals to heal from burnout.
Start the day with fat and protein: Consuming a breakfast rich in healthy fats and protein, such as eggs and avocado, nourishes your body and helps regulate blood sugar levels throughout the day. It's important to eat breakfast and avoid intermittent fasting, as skipping breakfast can elevate cortisol levels, leading to increased stress and weight gain. Skipping breakfast as an athlete can also make it super difficult to meet your overall total energy requirements. If you engage in high-intensity or long-duration morning workouts, you can still focus on a high-fat & protein breakfast and less on loading up the carbs. The more fat-adapted you become, the better you function even in high-intensity workouts.
Eat nutrient-dense foods: Avoid packaged foods and focus on consuming foods rich in four key nutrients: magnesium (found in Swiss chard, avocado, pumpkin seeds, spinach), vitamin B (found in liver, nuts, seeds, animal proteins), vitamin C (found in bell peppers, fruits, cauliflower, strawberries), and zinc (excellent for stress relief, found in beef, lamb, seafood, eggs, pumpkin seeds). Additionally, include brain-healthy omega-3s from sources like salmon, sardines, walnuts, and hemp hearts.
Practice breathwork and meditation: Engaging in breathwork exercises, such as the 4-7-8 breath technique (inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, exhale for a count of eight) before meals, work, or high-stress situations can help relax your body and reduce stress levels.
Prioritize movement: Our bodies are designed to move, so make movement a priority, especially in the morning. During burnout, activities like walking in the nature, yoga, tai chi, and dancing can be beneficial. Listen to your body and engage in natural movements that bring you joy and fulfillment, and incorporate them into your daily routine.
Set healthy boundaries with work: It's easy to become addicted to busyness, constantly striving for more and neglecting self-care. Establish healthy boundaries with work to avoid becoming addicted to busyness. Instead of obsessing over endless to-do lists, remember that tasks will still be there tomorrow. Take the time to define the parameters by which you want to live. Ask yourself why you're doing what you're doing and how your work fits into the bigger picture. Prioritize self-care by scheduling it in, especially if you find it challenging to do so intuitively. One simple technique is to set a timer for 20 minutes and laser-focus on your tasks, then take a 5-minute break.
Additionally, it's essential to prioritize the quality of your sleep. One effective strategy is to keep your phone away from your bedroom, creating a sleep-friendly environment.
All of these steps are included in my online course for tired moms called "Tired Mom's Fitness Method".
Your Self-Talk Can Be The Missing Key
Now, let's address the question: Why do we tend to eat poorly when we feel down and opt for healthier choices when we're feeling great? This phenomenon is multi-faceted and involves factors like gut health and emotions.
There's often a cultural association with "comfort foods" that leads us to reach for unhealthy options when feeling sad or upset. Messages from marketers reinforce these patterns, suggesting that indulging in certain foods can magically alleviate sorrows. This prevailing mindset, along with other factors like our mental state and meal planning, influences our shopping habits and food choices.
Improving our mindset can be enlightening.
Understanding why we engage in stress-inducing activities and constantly strive for more can reveal areas of control and those where control is limited. Taking mini-breaks and prioritizing self-care can make a significant difference.
Showing self-compassion is key. Instead of harshly judging ourselves for perceived inadequacies, self-compassion means being kind and understanding, acknowledging that perfection isn't required. If you struggle with this concept, it may be worth exploring and working on this aspect. Dr. Kristin Neff's work on self-compassion comes highly recommended.
Talking To My Injured Foot With Love
Let me share a brief story about my experience with plantar fasciitis. When I injured my foot last October, I tried various treatments but also shifted my mindset. Instead of resenting the pain, I started treating my heel with love and talking to it soothingly. I even used an aromatherapy lotion called "Love." I replaced negative thoughts with positive ones and incorporated meditation, visualizing love flowing through my body and into the injured area.
Remarkably, this change in mindset made a significant difference. While I'm not completely healed yet, my condition has improved. It's a testament to the power of self-compassion and reframing our relationship with pain.
I was getting so frustrated with my injured foot. I had turned all the stones I could imagine in search for the cure, yet the results I wanted were nowhere to be seen.
Until I met Brett Norris from Unchained Performance in Dubai. He helped me look into pain psychology and how self-love and acceptance could be used to heal myself. Check out his website here.
Remember, the love and attention you seek from others should first come from within. Bryant McGillns
Can you extend some compassion towards yourself, regardless of what you're going through? Instead of constantly pushing forward, take a moment to slow down, breathe deeply, and delve into your emotions. Recognize the presence of self-compassion within you and embrace it as your own best friend. It's an incredibly empowering feeling if you simply allow it to permeate your being.
However, it's important not to confuse self-compassion with permission to become complacent or lazy. Showing yourself compassion requires effort and dedication. In my experience, engaging in morning rituals such as meditation, foot rubs, foam rolling, and writing has been crucial. If I don't have the opportunity to do these activities early in the day, my entire day feels off-balance, leading to anxiety and irritability. However, if your body truly needs more sleep, grant yourself permission to sleep in and take mini-breaks throughout the day or after your children have gone to bed. Personally, I know this won't work for me since by the time my kids are asleep, I'm already fast asleep as well.
“Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths.” – Etty Hillesum
Dear friend, I sincerely hope that this advice helps you find a compassionate path out of your burnout.
Sending you warm regards, Marjaana.