This post is later than I had planned for it to be. The burnout that I have talked so much about has come for me too. No. Not burnout. The psychological hibernation. Remember what we said when we talked of the Antarctic, of wintering over, of the ubiquitousness of burnout symptoms. Can something really be considered a pathology when it reaches out to encompass all of us? Maybe. Or maybe we are better off considering it as an adaptation. Maybe we are better off thinking that this slowing down we are feeling in our brains is evolution’s way of telling us we have done too much.
Here is where I am. I am exhausted. The weariness is making my limbs heavy, my body ache. My thoughts seem to be like wading through treacle. In truth, I want to curl into a ball with a hot cup of tea, the kind of book that will steal me away from the world, and I want to remain there. I feel tearful much of the time, but ironically cannot seem to cry. Seriously, I’ve tried. Remember that scene in The Holiday when Cameron Diaz is trying to force herself to cry? It looked like that. Only way less glamorous.
And there, right behind it all, comes the inevitable sense of failure. Of having been proven not enough. That when I was busy and bustling and energetic then I was doing well. That now that has all come to a grinding halt then I have failed. And thinking about that failure brings with it other things. I find my mind drifting, and the motion of it is predictable. It latches on to all of my other failures. It focuses itself onto all of the things that have not gone as I had hoped they would. It seeks out the long covid ache in my chest and my back, it lingers on the dull headache that is never too far away. The voice stirs, the one that had been briefly beaten into submission. The one that says you are not enough.
But it’s okay. Because we have science. And so, because we have science, I am able to understand this path into the underworld along which my brain is meandering. The symptoms of burnout focus us inward. Which means that we are more sensitive to the body’s various aches and pains. This inward turn also means that I am less empathic. I have turned in on myself, away from the world at large.
It is fair to say that I am still very much a beginner in this world of resilience and post traumatic growth. What that means for me is that the neural networks laid down in my brain, the ones that focus on the positive and the healthy, are still pretty new. When we have limited cognitive resources – so when we are tired or stressed or sick or busy – our brain follows the most well trodden path, that which is habitual to us. It does this because it’s easier, it takes less cognitive energy to do what we have always done than it does to choose something new. My habitual cognitive paths – think of it as the brain’s motorway – are those which have been formed over the course of my life, and, in truth, most of them lead to negative places. Most of them linger on what I have done wrong, focus on where I have failed, where I might fail again. Those well laid cognitive paths take me straight into rumination – telling myself scary stories about the future, telling myself scary stories about the present. And so when I get into bed at night and when the world is quiet, those networks become unleashed, swamping me with just how terrifying the world can be.
So that sucks.
The good news is that the first step in managing this phase of psychological hibernation is acceptance. When we do not accept, when we rail against the way that we are feeling, we create a secondary problem to deal with. We have the original one – I want to cry and my brain has upped and left the building – and we have an additional one – I don’t want to feel this why and why do I feel this way and what’s wrong with me and I’m taking my ball and going home. Simply in terms of cognitive resources, in terms of how much thinking energy we have available to us, it seems foolish to heap more work onto an already overloaded system.
So, acceptance then. I feel like shit. I am exhausted. I have done too much. This is where I am now.
Recognising where we are and what we are experiencing can be an immensely powerful thing. We live in a society in which the world tells us we should be a certain way. Thin and beautiful and high achieving and happy.
Bugger that for a game of soldiers.
I am what I am. And what I am is tired.
So what do we do with that? It is too simplistic to say rest. I mean, obviously, we can all use a three week break on a tropical beach sipping Mai Tais, but it feels a tad unlikely right now. So let’s focus on what we can do. Our brains are overworked, exhausted. Let’s limit how much work they need to do to give them a chance to heal. We know that when we are in a phase like this (and it is important to remember that it is a phase), our natural tendency is to flail around, seeking answers, solutions. In doing so, we try to predict what will come next. We future forecast. The only trouble is that as humans we SUCK at future forecasting. We are notoriously bad at predicting what will come next. When we do attempt it, we show a clear negativity bias. That means we predict that life will be far worse than it actually turns out to be. This is a natural, evolutionary driven response. If you predict that there will be bears and there are no bears, no problem. If you predict no bears and there are bears, big problem. As in, you get eaten. Because it is so deeply ingrained in us, when we are tired and we need to take a cognitive shortcut, it is the place that our brain naturally goes. Hence, when we are in this phase we become wildly negative, seeing failure all around us and nothing but doom to come.
It’s fine. We all do it. It just doesn’t make us feel great. The important thing is to remember this negativity bias, remember that you are not actually psychic and cannot actually predict the future. And that when you try it, there will be a built in margin of error that skews heavily towards the negative.
Practice focusing on the now, on exactly what is before you. In truth, that’s all we ever have anyway. The past is gone, the future has not arrived. Practice bringing your attention back to the chair you are sitting on, to the floor beneath your feet. Practice bringing your focus to the blue sky, to the birds singing. What you are doing here is exercising your attentional systems, encouraging them to be more present focused, to take in more of the environment. This means that you will have less of an opportunity to wander down the horror-filled What If Alley. You will also be calming your threat response.
To counteract the negative bias that is swamping you right now, make an effort to focus on the good. On what you are achieving (even if it is only managing to take a shower, that counts. Good job!), on the smell of coffee in the morning, on those moments when you feel at peace. None of this is easy. Easy would be to follow the brain’s well laid paths, to allow our minds to run rampant as they wish. But easy has a funny way of turning out to be far harder in the long run.
Be gentle with yourself. You have worked hard and you are tired. That’s okay. Have a bath. Have a cry. Read a book. Stroke a cat. Get sat on by a dog. This is not the time for big answers, for grand gestures. This is the time for small, attainable goals.
I am still tired. But talking to you about this has reminded me that the stories I tell myself, of being not good enough, of failing, that they are simply stories. And that the world around us has far more colour and beauty than our busy minds will often allow us to see.