How I learned to manage stress after burning out

Today, November 3, is National Stress Awareness Day. It was set up by the International Stress Management Association to raise awareness of the effects of psychological distress in the workplace and strategies to address it.

This is a subject very close to my heart. Part of the reason I ended up starting this blog in the first place was that burning out from stress led me to move back to Kent and re-dedicate myself to my mindfulness practices.

The road to burn out

Just over three years ago, I was working in London in a high-pressured job as a journalist and magazine editor, a career I had been doing for 20 years and one I loved. But, at the age of 39, the stress of my work hard/play hard lifestyle caught up with me, and I burned out.

I could no longer cope with the volume of work, the hours, the demands on my time, and the constant stream of negativity on social media. I was like a pressure cooker, and once my lid blew, there was no going back.

After a particularly busy and stressful time, when I was ignoring the physical and mental signs my body was giving me, I collapsed and ended up in hospital. I was experiencing palpitations, panic attacks, emotional breakdowns and just a complete sense of overwhelm. I felt it in every cell of my body, psychically and mentally.

After a few weeks of doctor-appointed time off (I was signed off for three weeks), I thought I would just bounce back, but I didn’t. I just could not get back on my feet. Something had snapped, and there was no going back.

I was very lucky that my work was very supportive and the first bit of advice I would give anyone suffering this level of stress is to speak to their boss, manager, HR, someone at the office.

My perfectionism had been my worst enemy. I didn’t want anyone to know I couldn’t cope. I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t managing. The reality was that it was all too much, but nothing changed because I didn’t tell anyone I was overwhelmed.

Workplaces are far better equipped to deal with mental health these days, and if your workplace isn’t, they can be held accountable. However, I really understand the very real fear that exists in admitting that you are feeling stressed. 

For me, I felt like a failure. My job had always been the thing I had excelled at, so there was a level of shame I felt in not coping and being in a senior position in the company but sat crying and breaking down at my desk. 

Stress is no joke. 

In 2018 the Mental Health Foundation undertook the largest known study of stress levels in the UK, which showed that 74% of people felt so stressed and overwhelmed they were unable to cope. Government statistics from 2019-2020 showed that 828,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing) and that 17.9 million working days were lost due to work-related stress. 

The road to recovery

One of the first things I did was speak to my doctor. Stress can have serious implications for your mental health and your physical wellbeing. In fact, stress is linked to multiple physical problems, from increased risk of heart attacks to catching viruses (something we are all conscious of right now).

Medication was part of my journey to help me get back on my feet, but that’s something you should discuss with your doctor. It’s not for me to say whether or not that is right for you.

This graphic from an article on Healthline shows just some of the ways stress can impact the body.

I realised I needed to prioritise coping strategies to help me on a daily basis to manage my stress before it got out of control, so I developed my own MINDFULNESS acronym to remind me of the tools I could use to help me manage stress in the workplace. This stood for:

šM – Meditation š

I Identification – Connecting with and sharing with others

N – Noš – One of the most powerful words you can learn to say. Having boundaries.

D – Delegate – Letting go of the need to control and asking for help

šF – Food – Nurturing myself with healthy food and not reaching for junk

U – Unwind – De-stressing by relaxing and having time out, a bath, a massage etc

šLLet it go – Let that shit go (one of the things I find hardest!)

šN – Nature – Getting out in fresh air and nature

šE – Exercise  – Moving my body, walking, yoga, swimming

šS – Stop and breath – Pausing before reacting and using breathing techniques

SSleep – Prioritising sleep health, turning off devices, no emails or phones in bed!

I have written other blogs that go into these in more detail, links above, so I won’t repeat myself now, but these simple things helped me to cope. Meditation, in particular, was a powerful tool, as was learning to stop and take a breath. In fact, I even had the Sanskrit symbol for breath tattooed on my left forearm as a reminder.

Swimming also helped me come back to myself. I started regularly swimming lengths. The peace and silence under the water, and the counting of my breath and the lengths as I swam, cleared my mind, moved my body and was so incredibly soul-soothing. I had forgotten how much so until recently when I decided to start lane swimming again.
The year I brunt out, I also went on a hiking trip to the Inca trail, and being in nature, in the mountains and walking all day was so healing. It was a trip I will never forget.

Today I see stress differently. If I am feeling stressed now, my number one priority is self-care and not just ignoring it. If I am feeling stressed, I know that it is my body telling me something is up and to slow down. I have no qualms now about being honest with people and saying, “I am feeling overwhelmed, and I can’t take that on”. I don’t feel guilty shutting down my computer at 6pm if I haven’t done everything. I am not superhuman. No deadline is worth my life.

A year and a half ago, I finally left my job and went self-employed. Despite 2020 being a challenging year, it was the best decision I ever made. Being self-employed gives me the luxury of managing my own time, and if I am not up to it, downing tools until I am in a better headspace. I know now that I can do something to help myself when things start to get on top of me, and they do.

Get help

To mark National Stress Awareness Day, Mental Health UK has put together a huge bank of resources for managing mental health and wellbeing at work. Whether you are suffering yourself or have an employee or colleague, there is tons of useful information here, so check it out. 

The Mental Health Foundation is also a good resource for anyone struggling with mental health. 

If you are struggling with stress, reach out for support, it’s there. There is no shame in being stressed. Remember 74% of us are going through it and, as Brene Brown once said, “The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.”

Vicky