I work in health and fitness. I teach people to look after their bodies so that they can feel well in everyday life. I should know how to read the signs of burnout. But when you are navigating business in a strange new world, the signs can be easily missed and I didn’t see my own burnout coming
Whatever your work situation, the necessity of self-care has been expounded for long enough to be both commonly understood and extremely well-resourced. There would be few people who hadn’t felt, or didn’t know of the benefits of strategies such as breathing techniques, exercise, mindfulness and meditation in managing stress and fatigue. We all know the importance of looking after ourselves to sustain our health & well being. We also know it helps our productivity, morale and corresponding employment satisfaction. When we feel well, we work well. Simple as that.
So what happens when our worlds get turned upside down and everything we know as work changes? Is self-care still as simple as that?
A few months ago, COVID 19 threw us headlong onto a new playing field that had no defined boundaries, goal posts or sets of rules for us to follow. Some of us were fortunate enough to be spared the devastation of business collapse and unemployment. However, the corresponding drain on our physical and mental health was relentless as we rallied to adapt our businesses, manage finances and prepare for the unknown. When the closure of fitness centres was announced, I recreated my Pilates, Barre and Yoga studio business for online delivery from home, in the space of three days. It felt like a mammoth task on the tail end of the bush fire season and all of the other adaptations we had to make as Coronavirus took hold of our world. Combined with the effect it was having on our personal lives, conditions for physical and mental breakdown for everyone were rife. Self-care alarm bells were starting to ring.
Did you hear them? I didn’t. The clang of rapid change was too loud in my ears.
As a Mind Body Wellness Facilitator you would think that I would a gun at looking after myself, a “paragon of self-care virtue”. Helping people look after their health & well being is my job. It is what I do.
But did I think about caring for myself? Nope. Not this time. I was too busy navigating business and trying to stay afloat in the uncharted waters of the Covid 19 Pandemic.
I was feeling tired and run down. I had ulcers in my mouth, dark rings under my eyes and I needed even more sleep than my usual 8 hours. I rationalised that it was ISO and everyone was feeling tired. My husband, tactful as always, suggested going easy on myself. He could see the signs if I couldn’t. I was in the thick of keeping my now online fitness business alive; I took some deep breaths and a few extra coffees and kept trudging forward.
My routine was changing. My incidental movement decreased significantly and with it ‘incidental’ mental breaks. When I wasn’t teaching online classes I was sitting in front of my computer finding ways for my business to survive. The stop at the shopping centre, the walk down the High St, running errands, all of the times when I was thinking and doing something other than work had disappeared. Without even realising it, my end of the day glass of wine moved from two or three times a week to every night. It was a need that I didn’t have the brain power to resist. My husband kept giving me encouragement to have a lie down, to take a break. I did, but not really. I lay on the bed but my mind didn’t stop.
On Mother’s Day, overcome by what I thought was the emotion of isolation and separation, I cried inconsolably. I hadn’t cried like that in ages. I had organised a ZOOM catch up for everyone in my extended family but instead of feeling joyous, the energy I expended planning the event left me spent. My husband hugged me and reminded me of how much I was doing and how much I had achieved in a small space of time, gently nudging me to take a step back and get some perspective.
Tired, run down, teary….are you getting the picture? Everyone else could see but I couldn’t.
One night a few weeks ago I went to bed with such overwhelming fatigue that I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. And that was that. The next morning I felt so exhausted that I simply could not get up. Every cell in my body was tired. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move and I could not string my words together. No amount of sleep, rest or nutrition would alleviate the feeling. My body decided that if I couldn’t hear what it was asking me to do, it would stop me until I did.
It wasn’t COVID 19. I had the test. It wasn’t a definable illness or virus. I had no other symptoms. It wasn’t a vitamin or mineral deficiency. I had a blood test.
It was pure, unadulterated BURNOUT. I had hit the wall and I hit it hard.
It took 10 days of rest, careful nutrition and accepting help and kindness from family and friends to start to become strong again. How I did that is another story
Whilst I lay in bed, I reflected on why I was unable to heed the SELF-CARE warning signs. Why did COVID 19 drown out the cries of my body pleading for help?
And this is what I think..
I was charting waters so unknown that once I was moving forward I was too scared to stop for fear of sinking or losing my way
To be able to take a break we need to feel sure that we have everything under control and the extent to which we are able to let go is dependent on how safe we feel. Without previous experience of anything like COVID 19 we don’t have a context to be able to construct a safety net. Social Media has also heightened this fear of stopping by feeding our perception that everyone else is being more successful than we are. Our fear of stopping is also our Fear Of Missing Out. We don’t know how to stop because we don’t know what will happen if we do. If we stop we may sink, lose our way and not have the energy to start over again.
In Isolation I didn’t have the ability to release physical, mental and emotional pressure in the ways that I was previously used to; the ways that we all take for granted. What remained inside was a set of hybrid feelings that I didn’t recognise or know how to deal with.
When our usual avenues of physical, mental and emotional release are removed, catching up with friends, going to a movie, a gallery or to the gym, the pressure builds and creates a new set of feelings of which we have no known way to respond. We have not felt these things in these ways before or even have names for them. Our sensitivity to the cues of stress and fatigue become diluted making them difficult to read and even harder to take action on; a dyslexia of emotional responses akin to paralysis. When you don’t know what to do, you do nothing.
My brain was full and there was no more room in the inn.
And they all rolled over and one fell out. When we need to take on more information we have to make space. The first thing to go is the thing that we can put off till later, the thing that will have no effect on others if it gets relegated to tomorrow. Yep. Self-care! During COVID 19, every day has been one of taking on more information. Learning and managing different ways of operating has filled our brains to capacity pushing self-care to the bottom of the list. Correspondingly, every day the need for self- care has become greater not less.
Just before Coronavirus took hold, Flying Solo as part of their beWell initiative with Yellow Online, conducted a survey of 300 of their Flying Solo business community members. The survey invited participants to take an honest look at their health and well being habits in an average week. The results of the survey confirmed that while 75% of us are genuinely satisfied with our lot in life, our health definitely gets assigned to the ‘do it later’ basket. (You can find out more about the Flying Solo beWell survey at https://www.flyingsolo.com.au/bewell)
These results show that with a normal workload it is hard enough to prioritise self-care. When we throw a pandemic into the mix, if it is already at the bottom of the list, it it likely that it will be the first to go.
I encourage you to take the time and effort to reassess your work situation and revisit your priority list.
Be still and tune in to what your body is telling you.
Five minutes now may save you 10 days in bed.
And like me, if you don’t listen to your body at least listen to your husband!
Marisa Lawlor is Owner and Director of Just Believe Fit in Melbourne. In addition to her studio work she runs workplace wellness classes and education online. Find out more at https://justbelievefit.com.au/workplace-and-wellness/