Is it actually burnout?

There is a statistic going around that depression rates have tripled since the April 2020 lockdown. Tripled! And they were already high enough. But what if we are missing something vital about this picture?

Every week I aim to take one day of nothing. Not self-care, not going out, not relaxing … nothing. There are no demands, no expectations. Having nothing in the diary, purely for the purpose of doing whatever it is I actually feel like doing. This usually ends up being reading and listening to podcasts. Frequently there is yoga, or a run, or even a long nap! I may even write a bit, as is the case today. But only if that is what I feel like doing.

The thing is, even self-care can be tiring if you feel like you have to do it. Yoga, baking, running, reading, taking a bath, going for a walk, … all very nice and good for you, but when you are feeling run down, even these activities can feel like chores. Forcing ourselves to do them can be counterproductive: setting up a never-ending spiral of “if I do this, I’ll fix my depression/anxiety/low-esteem/general sense of brokeness”. It won’t.

So that’s why my one day off per week is exactly that. A day off. Nothing. The only rule I stick to is no email, no messages and no social media. That’s simply because these forms of noisy communication keep me a little wound up, and switching them off lets me relax.

Anyway, this is not an essay on the perils of internet use. It’s something I noticed on disconnecting this week. Last night, beginning the wind-down, I wanted to read but didn’t feel like reading my current book (Deep Work by Cal Newport, in case you were wondering). So I scrolled through my Kindle library, not looking for anything in particular, and one book caught my attention. The book is “Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive” by Joan Borysenko. That’s odd, I thought, why that book? I’d read it years ago on the recommendation of my GP (probably one of the most helpful responses I’ve ever experienced from a medical professional on psychological health issues). It had been very helpful at the time, but what was making me want to re-read it now? I didn’t know but, heading into “do whatever I feel like” day, I started to read.

The next morning I picked it up again. As I read, one client after another came to mind. (I’m a psychologist who offers online services, this year I’ve seen an increase in referrals for depression, anxiety and all sorts of issues.) Then I started thinking about friends and family. Some run businesses and have been working to survive for months. Some are school leavers who’s anticipated future’s have been entirely thrown up in the air, while they are expected to change to a whole new way of studying in isolation. Some are medical professionals.

Then I thought back to the early lockdown, when I shifted round my whole life to support myself and those I could. There was exhaustion, but also a huge pressure to create, invent and provide. Productive, motivating and draining all at once.

And on Saturday, in England, Lockdown II was announced.

I realised that what I was reading is everywhere right now. Only this time, many people are already drained.

All these extra people being labelled as depressed and anxious; clinically “disordered”. And having a disorder has implications. Having a label can be helpful. It can be a relief, to have a reason you feel so awful and can’t keep up with your responsibilities. It’s not you, it’s the disorder. But that creates issues in itself. The sense of being broken? The pressure to fix yourself so you can get back to the grinding stresses? The feeling of being separate from other people who don’t have disorders and seem to be coping better than you? …. this list gets quite long, and in many cases it adds fuel to the (burned out) fire … preventing what is really needed.

The distinction matters. Burned-out people need something different that the usual depression treatments. In fact, treating burnout and stress like its a disease causes extra problems. People trying one anti-depressant after another, increasing the doses … but it’s not working. They may even do the same with therapy, hunting for the reason they are struggling as if it’s a part of the self that can be fixed or removed. And that doesn’t work either. If anything, it makes things worse. Their stressed and tired minds force them to ruminate on the responsibilities not being met while waiting for the disorder to improve, but it’s not. And the rumination only feeds the anxiety and agitates the depression. Not seeing a change, they lose hope. Then fall further into the [mistaken] idea that they are broken.

We are in the middle of a once-in-a-hundred-year type of pandemic. We have been locked in our houses with our families, (fluctuating between the desire to care for them unreservedly and murder them over their dirty dishes!) We are working. At home. In healthcare. In important services. We are innovating and creating ways to help each other. All in the midst of anticipated and actual loss.

Wherever you find yourself in terms of coping with Covid, and offering support to others: it’s a lot!

And it’s hardly surprising that sometimes it feels that way. Keep going long enough, without rest, and you’ll run out of reserves. Literally. When you are fuelled by stress, your adrenal glands work overtime. You crave salt and other unhealthy foods. Your body gets drained of energy needed to respond, but oddly you can’t rest. That’s because the physical and psychological systems that let you wind-down to repair and regenerate get worn out! Unlike the Energizer bunny, you can’t keep going indefinitely. But the external demands don’t stop. And your inner dictator (your mind) keeps telling you to “do more, do better”. So you keep going … until you can’t. You grind to a halt. Unable to face the next thing.

And that’s burnout.

You can’t medicate your way out of burnout. Many people do try this, alcohol does take the edge of, and caffeine provides a “pick me up” … but both drugs ultimately compound the problem. Prescription medication may have some uses … but when it’s used as a way to keep running on the little hamster wheel … then you are still being drained.

So, what’s needed?


Not, extra pressure to do [insert self-care activity here].

Not, a day of doing something that other people tell you you are supposed to enjoy.

Not forced rest, applied reluctantly with the desperate aim of getting back to work [or whatever other activity you feel you must do].

But actual, real rest.

In order to rest (and you probably won’t like this) you are going to need to let go.

Let go of the idea that you can do everything. Let go of the “just another few days on this project and I’ll take a break”. Let go of the “but people will think I’m selfish if I don’t [insert whatever it is you think you have to do for others here]”.

Most of all, letting go of that bit of yourself that thinks you are only worthy of being here if you do all the things you are so driven to do.

And on that note, I feel like a nap now.