Is it stress? Is it just a tiring season that’s not yet ending? Or is it burnout? For Sharon Ow, full-time working mother of two, a busy life was the only normal she knew. She was the type of person who enjoyed doing many things, and who even relished feeling tired from doing many things. So when she was diagnosed with burnout, it was a reality check. “I felt like I had suddenly fallen off the cliff,” she described.
While many people may mistake stress for burnout or use the terms interchangeably, medical burnout is an actual medical condition that can result in serious consequences.
How do we tell the difference?
It’s impossible to avoid stress, explained Sharon but one can avoid getting burnt out.
She described her experience with burnout as a time when she “just couldn’t get out of bed and get through the day.”
“I had panic attacks, once when I was driving. It made me seek help and ask what was going on in my life. At first, I thought I was having a heart attack but as I sought help, I realised I was burnt out, I was depleted.”
It has been over a year since her first panic attack, but Sharon now realises that even though it felt sudden, she had probably been headed towards burnout for quite some time.
“Just like how you don’t immediately grow your muscles, you don’t reach burnout so quickly,” she said.
She went on to explain that the early warning signals would look different for each person. And for her, it was quite generic things like getting tired more often than normal, disrupted sleep, and getting more irritable easily.
Frequently experiencing such symptoms can be like the amber light at a traffic junction, signalling you to stop and evaluate if you are just going through a stressful period or if these signs are pointing to something more.
Even though it felt sudden, she had probably been headed towards burnout for quite some time.
We can also get blindsided by how much we enjoy doing many things.
As Sharon shared, “I love hospitality. I love having people over, I love making food, making the home look nice, bringing different groups of people together. Even though I enjoy doing these things, overdoing it can lead to burnout as well because it adds to everything else.
“One of the ah-ha moments for me was that getting burnout was not just about work, or doing things you don’t like… It can also be from things that you genuinely enjoy.”
Sharon, who works in the people development business, feels that parents can sometimes push ourselves to our own detriment.
“It’s easy to just get on with it because everyone is busy. I am not the only parent who’s working and managing home and community, so who am I to take pity on myself? On hindsight, I realise I didn’t know how to rest and recuperate.”
Terms like “super-mum” may also unintentionally push us to feel like we must have it all when we all have different circumstances, aspirations and capacity.
Resilience is also not just about pushing through challenges.
“When you talk about resilience, it’s not just the doing aspect but the resting aspect too,” she said. Thus, making space for rest prevents us from reaching the tipping point.
In her recovery period, Sharon learnt more about different kinds of rest. “There’s more than one rest. There’s physical, emotional, sensory, spiritual, mental, creative.”
Recognising what you need helps you scratch the itch where it is.
She cited the example of her two daughters. The younger likes hugs and physical touch, while the elder likes conversations and is more cerebral. So if she has had a day of very cerebral work and has to interact with the elder daughter, she may feel more taxed. “This is because I am already tapped out in that area and it has nothing to do with her,” she explained.
So it is important for us to grow in self-awareness and to figure out which aspect of you is running dry and needs attention and recuperation.
Making space for rest prevents us from reaching the tipping point.
Sharon attributed her recovery to her supportive family and community.
”I remember once we had some friends over and my husband said to me, ‘you don’t do anything’. And he just ordered chicken rice and my friends ordered the drinks and we had a wonderful time!”
She also made deliberate choices, such as going for regular walks and being mindful of what she consumed as well as what to stay away from, such as incessant tech time.
“Not everyone can be a safe person to speak to about what you are going through so choose wisely,” shared Sharon, who acknowledged that she had a good support network of trusted friends.
Sharon shared her 3Rs for recovery.
The first is rest, and that includes all the different types of rest.
“For me, it was also resting in God and my beliefs,” she added.
The second is recuperate, which means allowing yourself the time and space to recuperate.
The last is to regroup. This is when you begin planning again and restarting your engines.
She warns against regrouping too quickly without giving ourselves time and space to rest and recuperate. She reiterates, “Give yourself time to come back stronger.”
For a working parent, we tend to be the last priority because there’s so many things to take care of. But remember that if you are not taking care of yourself, it affects everything else, including your ability to care for others.
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