"Burnout": the hidden social disease

Small-talk, (‘polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, especially as engaged in on social occasions’). It’s what a lot of us employ to break the ice with others. ‘How was your weekend?’ ‘How’s work?’ are perhaps two of the most frequently used catalysts for small talk and quite often both are met with the same, one word reply…’Busy’.

But there’s busy, and there’s its new, pumped-up big brother..’Crazy busy’.

‘Crazy busy’ is a phrase I started hearing about two years ago. Coined by patients and friends, it was a term I initially smiled at as it conjured a seemingly comical image and, as the description above highlights, seemed unimportant and uncontroversial. Fast-forward 24 months and my view on ‘crazy busy’ when I hear it is anything but unimportant. As a physio’ it now means the warning siren for burnout.

So what is burnout? I think the best way to describe it is with imagery. Picture someone spinning plates on the end of long sticks. Each plate, at some point, must receive adequate attention and drive to stop it from losing momentum and falling to the ground. So the more plates, the more the plate spinner must divide his or her attention between each individual plate. So the modern man or woman spins his or her plates. Work, personal relationships, friendships, jobs, children, health to name a few.

The more plates, the greater the division of time, and focus, and the greater the demand on the ‘spinner’. And these demands are apparent seven days a week for many of the people I talk to, as the weekend is equally as busy as the week. Social arrangements, family sports, household and personal tasks, all eat up time. The more this happens-the more time we spend being busy-the more it seems ‘normal’ and the more we feel inclined to be this way. So this level of existence again will seem unimportant or uncontroversial, because it’s ‘normal’. But this is not true, this ‘new normal’ is having some serious side-effects.

Here are some of the signs of burnout I have noted in my patients in the last 2 years.

  • Feeling anxious, detached and unsettled.
  • Difficulty in communication and seeming ‘distracted’.
  • Difficulty in enjoying seemingly pleasant activities.
  • Trouble with vocabulary and short-term memory.
  • A lack of clarity in thought. The client often describes seeing things through a lens or ‘fog’.

Burnout can have physical symptoms too. I have encountered clients who have experienced.

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Exhaustion.
  • Abnormally elevated heart rate at rest and with exertion.
  • Fatigue with seemingly basic physical tasks.
  • Increased frequency of sighing.

All of these are symptoms that your sleep centers are telling you to rest, however most people will keep going, less the plates fall. So what can be done?

Here are some tips for avoiding burnout.

  • Take time for yourself (I call it ‘centering’) doing something you enjoy that you know will give you pleasure and peace. It could be exercise, writing, sitting by the ocean or watching wildlife.
  • Learn how to say ‘no’. Your time is precious, value it more, don’t give it away to everyone make it a rare gift.
  • Get more sleep. Setting your alarm to go off later by 5-10 minutes daily will give you an hours extra sleep a week.
  • Eat well. Get plenty of water, vitamin B, magnesium, potassium and calcium.
  • Take up a simple hobby or learn something new. Like ‘ahem’ reading a blog, search for a good movie or TV show. Something that will exclusively benefit you.
  • And if these steps work for you, spread the word. Tell people of the benefits of what you have done and see if they can benefit from them too.
  • Have the occasional day where you plan nothing. Don’t fear having nothing to do. Freedom from commitment is liberation. Here’s a quote I read the other week that I liked. “Boredom is nothing to do with having nothing to do, it is everything to do with having an overactive mind”.

Mold Physiotherapy is currently offering helpful courses in combating burnout by focusing on sleep, nutrition and exercise. Keep an eye on our website and if you would like to book a session with us to discuss burnout or any other topic that affects your health contact me at paul@moldphysiotherapy.co.nz.

Thanks for your time.

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