9 ways I took back control after burnout
Three years ago, I went from being a capable and successful professional to being exhausted, tearful and burned out. It seemed like it happened in a matter of weeks, but now that I look back, all the signs had been there. On the outside, my life as an international head teacher seemed exciting, but the truth was that I had simply and gradually descended into complete overwhelm without even noticing.
How did I regain a calm, balanced and happy life?
Here are some of the ways that I changed my life for the better:
1. I reduced my caffeine consumption
Looking back now, the burnout meant I was hurting. So consuming five to six cups of coffee per day gave me a bit of consolation in the moment. It was a coping mechanism. But I knew it wasn’t doing me much good. It gave me a racing heart and only added to my anxiety levels. Now I only drink two cups of breakfast tea per day and feel much better. Otherwise, it’s just water and rooibos for me.
About once every two months I might still drink a fancy coffee, but it doesn’t taste that nice anymore. It turns out that it was mostly the caffeine addiction which made it seem tasty. Now tea gives me just as much satisfaction as coffee used to. I also haven’t touched cola since I heard someone describe it as, "A sh*t show of chemicals," and something just clicked in my brain. Why would I put all those nasties into my already overstimulated system?
2. I stopped overexercising
I had always been someone who took part in sports. In my late thirties, I took up running in half marathons. After all, living abroad gave me the opportunity to enter exciting international competitions such as the Kilimanjaro, Gothenburg and Amsterdam half marathons. At first, the training was good for me, but now I realise that once I had started to burn out, I was only hurting my already overstretched system. I was forcing myself to train when I was exhausted.
Running causes cortisol levels to rise and mine were already elevated. So now, instead, I go for daily, countryside walks and do as much gardening as I enjoy. I used to think you had to train really hard to keep fit, but you don’t. You just have to move your body. Now I prioritise being calm and relaxed in my daily life, which for me, is incompatible with running.
3. I took up journaling
I started to record three gratitudes per day. I didn’t really know why I was doing it at first, but I’d heard on a podcast that it was good for us. I quickly started to understand the benefits, because I began to look out for positive things to note down, (e.g. little miracles of nature.)
At first, I’d just write things like, "I’m grateful for today’s sunshine/a delicious meal/the smell of a rose," etc. Then the gratitudes naturally became more detailed, e.g. "I’m grateful that my friend Karen took the time out of her busy day to come over, chat and have a laugh with me. She didn’t have to do that. I am grateful to have a caring and kind friend like Karen." I was starting to notice the good things in life, feel my feelings, be more naturally mindful and seek out the things which made me happy. As a result, I became more optimistic.
4. I got off social media
I was becoming consumed by some of the things going on in the news. It made me feel utterly powerless. In fact, I also avoided watching news broadcasts on TV for some months. My anxiety levels decreased as a result of this. It just gave my brain the rest that it needed. Getting off social media means you just need to think about what's going on around you. I missed out on nothing and gained some of my time back. It wasn’t easy to give it up though. Like caffeine, it had been a coping mechanism for me.
5. I reduced my friends list
I went through the contacts on my phone and just deleted all of the people who never got in touch with me or who were just acquaintances and who didn’t add anything positive to my life. Suddenly the list was half the size it used to be and I only had to think about half the people. Before I got off social media I had already been through and deleted loads of people from my friends lists on there too. Now I could just focus on the people who really mattered and meant something to me, who showed an interest in me or who cared about me. It felt like I had regained some bandwidth.
6. I started eating food that was good for my brain health
At first, I read books and listened to podcasts giving advice about the best types of food for good brain health. Then I took an online course entitled 'Mental Health and Nutrition'. I quickly realised that I would need to get a garden. So I did! Now I grow my own courgettes, tomatoes, radishes, kohlrabi, spinach, peas, beans, carrots, shallots, strawberries, pears, plums, herbs etc. I also learned how to bake bread, started cooking all my meals from scratch and threw out the processed food in my cupboards. I’m not on any fad diet, I just avoid ultra-processed food and eat real, whole, minimally processed foods instead.
7. I avoided stress
At first, it seemed impossible – how can you give up stress? Life is stressful! However, it turns out that when you really put your mind to it, you can simplify your life and avoid stress much of the time. It takes some reprioritising though. One of the main ways I achieved it was by giving up my stressful job. I had spent two decades in education and I thought I’d do it until retirement.
For a time, teaching gave me purpose and fulfilment. The best thing was that it allowed me to live abroad in some incredible countries. But being a teacher and a head teacher are hard and they can eventually take their toll. I’ve now learned that people who work in education and other caring professions suffer some of the worst rates of burnout. And as enjoyable as living abroad was, it also brought particular stresses.
8. I got a dog
The truth was that I had wanted a dog for years, but it wasn’t compatible with my career. But now that I was signed off from work, I had time on my hands. I was still living abroad but started to look for puppies for sale in the local area. I knew I had some great walking spots near me. Not only did little Baxter bring me company and joy, but he also taught me how to go to sleep and wake up at regular, sensible times; how to stick to regular meal times; and how to get out and about in nature two-three times a day. I was able to focus on him and make him my priority. He took my mind off my worries and gave me a little creature to love. He costs me money, time and commitment, but rewards me with so much more.
9. I started seeing an online life coach
I needed to work out what the next steps for my life would be. Here I was in my late forties, abroad and having to figure out what I needed and wanted for the next phase of my life. I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t even really know how I felt. So how was I going to get myself through burnout and out the other side? With my life coach’s help, I started to sort out what my priorities, desires and needs were. Together we made an action plan that seemed realistic, manageable and exciting and it wasn’t at all what I thought it would be. Now I’m living the life I actually want and enjoy.
The coaching helped me so much that I decided this would be a perfect new career for me! So I trained to become a life coach myself. Now I run my own online coaching business. I get immense satisfaction from helping other people work out how to get their life back on track after experiencing overwhelm and burnout. If you think you might benefit from my help, then go ahead and book a free, no-obligation discovery call with me.