According to the Mayo clinic, burnout is "a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity". We've all seen it - especially over the last few years since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic: especially given that Western society is so in love with the concept of tying our identities with our jobs.
The pandemic was a turning point for many of us. We lost these jobs and had to rely on the internet as opposed in-person transactions, but it also meant that businesses were forced into automation which led them reducing employment rates or even closing down completely. Lack business interaction drastically changed how people interacted with each other because now they were able to do most things through screens, instead of interacting directly with other people.
For some, working from home was perceived positive: people could sleep in and take care of their family while doing work. For others it was harder than ever to maintain a healthy life with all the distractions around them, such as parenting or housework before bedtime routines... it became more difficult than ever to find time for themselves again. Maintaining balance became an issue when we started juggling everything into our schedules- including pets!
We were all pivoting or expanding to meet the new demands of work-from home lifestyles. Uber became more about food delivery than transporting people. Commercial Airlines shifted their focus onto cargo, and hotels began offering day-rates in order to cater for the new WFH trend. Even gyms moved most classes online so that their clients could maintain their fitness goals without putting themselves at risk, or even breaking the law
The way we knew life to be changed practically overnight, and as such: many were left feeling overwhelmed, underpaid, and stressed.
Withdrawing from responsibilities.
Isolating oneself from others.
Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done.
Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope.
Taking out your frustrations on others.
Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early
It became increasingly difficult to establish personal and work related boundaries - especially if family members were constantly in your environment... which meant that people - possibly even you! - started swirling.
Overwhelming thoughts... constantly feeling out of control... and unable to see a healthy path forward.
For me, personally, I've always kind of thrived in chaos. I was born with a relatively rare neurological condition called hydrocephalus, and whilst the argument is that your adult self is a direct reflection of the first five years of your existence, it should be mentioned that by age five: I'd already had 10 surgeries. My first brain surgery was at the age of just 4months.
In other words: crisis was almost my happy place. It was almost as if I needed the stress in order to think clearly, and to feel in control.
So when I learned in April or 2020 that the word "crisis" in Mandarin is represented by two characters: one for danger, and the other for opportunity, a lightbulb went off in my head.
What if the way through burnout is to stop focusing on the smoke, and start looking at the brightness of the flame?
In other words: yes, it's important to look at the burnout symptoms, but how much more empowering would it be - could it be - to look at what each of the symptoms of burnout could teach us? We talk so much about burnout when we discuss things like mental health, but I've often marveled at our obsession with reactive health, as opposed to proactive health. Why do we insist - in Western culture, predominantly - on looking at how to fix issues, as opposed to prevent them from happening in the first place?
Wouldn't that be a much more empowering space to act from?
Let me break it down a little bit.
Today: I want to focus on the first three signs of burnout that we tend to experience when we're feeling overwhelmed, stressed or burned out.
FIRST symptom: Withdrawing from responsibilities
I've often thought that being faced with the impossible task of too much to do is what causes many people not only withdrawal from their responsibilities, but also feelings like giving up. When you have what feels like a million thoughts running through your head all the time: it's really easy to simply shut down.
It seems like a simple solution, but what if the basic task of journaling, writing a list of tasks, or - my personal favorite task - word-dumping could help alleviate that overwhelm?
By getting everything out of your head, and on to paper: you're able to give yourself permission to think more clearly, and actually start to analyze each singular thought for what it is.
This is one of the very first things I do with my Empowerment through Songwriting clients [though I affectionately call this process: word vomit. I feel teenagers are more amused by the vulgarity]. By getting all of the overwhelming thoughts of responsibilities out of their heads, and on to paper: it's much easier for them to start to analyze and break down exactly what the root cause of each stress is, therefore they can start to address it - creatively and effectively.
It's often much easier to feel in control when you stop swirling, and give yourself permission to analyze and create: a plan, a list of priorities, or even a song.
SECOND: Isolating from others
Now, I'm not talking about COVID isolation... I'm talking about emotionally shutting people off, or shutting yourself off. Burnout often means that it's difficult to find the languaging, or even the energy, to simply interact with others. Job burnout can make employees of the same company withdraw from each other under the false pretense that they're the only one falling apart, or experiencing burnout. Depression as a lead on from burnout often leaves people feeling similarly.
But here's the good news: you're not alone with these symptoms. Quite the opposite. It can just be super difficult to find the verbiage to accurately express, and therefore connect with your workplace when you're in this space.
Even better news: there are some effective ways to help you help yourself when it comes to breaking free from this self-isolation, and - of course - it leads back to music.
See, when we hear or play music: there are specific parts of our brain that help us to more accurately identify how we feel, and also how to verbalize those feelings. The nucleus accumbens and amygdala are both in charge of our emotional responses to music, and the pre-frontal cortex controls our expression as a result of these emotional responses.
In other words: when we listen to music, or play an instrument: certain parts of our brain get stimulated into positive action, and we begin to think more clearly when it comes to our emotional state, and how we want to express that part of ourselves.
I see it all the time when it comes to the teenagers I work with: what was once difficult to express in normal conversation suddenly comes pouring out into lyrics. I even saw this when I was teaching at a tertiary institute back in New Zealand: students who found it difficult to find the right words to complete an essay would suddenly be triggered into writing extensive verses if asked to turn their research paper into a rap or hip-hop song.
Music stimulates the brain in such a way that helps many of us access parts of our emotional, physical and mental state that previously had felt unreachable.
Even better news? These lyrics connect with our peers. So now, not only have you found the right vocabulary to identify, understand and express your own burnout symptoms and overwhelm, but your community and social circle recognize their own experiences, and relate to you, which can drastically reduce that isolation.
Lastly, for this blog anyway: Procrastination
A huge symptom of burnout often manifests itself as our good friend: procrastination, or the action of delaying or postponing something.
Now, I'm not anti-procrastination at all. I'm a huge advocate in recognizing that often procrastination is an indication that a particular task is not in your wheelhouse of expertise, therefore its always okay to delegate. I also believe that if you try to push past procrastination, it often feels like kayaking upstream - against the current - and, as a result, leads to even more burnout. Think about it: you try, try and try to get a specific task completed, and by the end of it: you're so frustrated that you get angry, or it doesn't turn out with the kind of results you were hoping for... it's fruitless.
BUT - again - this is when you can use music to help you to feel more in flow. Even better: you can use your music to get more in tune with the current of whatever trajectory your life is heading in right now.
Think back to when you were a teenager, for example. What was that one song you played over and over again to help you to feel motivated? For me, Jimmy Eat World's "The Middle" often did the trick... as did "Wasted Years" by Iron Maiden, and "What You Waiting For?" by Gwen Stefani. Every time I heard these songs, it was as if my spirit came alive, and I was able to feel inspired [in spirit] into action.
Now... imagine if that song that motivated you was actually your song? What if every time you felt stressed, overwhelmed or depressed, you had your own mental health theme song? That's what my song Fire Away did for me back in 2012 when I wrote it with my then-guitarist Chris Yong [we were in a band called Static Era].
What if the song that reminded you of your power was your song? Whenever you felt like you had fallen down, you had your own emotionally invigorating song of perseverance. That's what my song Be Brave continues to do for me - even seven years after writing it.
What if there was a song that reminded you that you're not your thoughts, and those intrusive thoughts that are constantly trying to run your life are actually just like a bad ex-relationship that you can [lovingly] say goodbye to? Well, that's exactly the song that my past client: then seventeen year old Sydney Witt wrote back in 2020.
Burnout is a serious issue, and can lead to lifelong health complications, but I think it's important that we look at it as an opportunity to get out in front of it. Use our creativity, vulnerability, and authenticity as superpowers to combat the depression, the overwhelm, the trauma and all the other symptoms of burnout that seem to be so prevalent in the world at the moment.
And I'm here to help.
If you are looking for new ways to channel your exhaustion and burnout into songs of strength, truth, overcoming, healing and positive mental wellness: I'm here to help.
After all: as you think: so shall you become. As you sing: so shall your experience be... and your song does not need to be one of burnout.
Click here to book a discovery call with me, and let's turn that burnout into an anthem of authentic and empowering mental health. Let's recreate that work life balance, and overcome the anxiety, stress, trauma and burnout of the last few years.