Are there women in your life who are constantly giving to others and putting themselves at the bottom of the list? Women who are so busy serving others in their families, communities, workplaces … seemingly with boundless energy?
Women who seem to be strong and have it all together, and rarely if ever reach out for support from others; until they can’t.
Perhaps you are one of these women.
COVID has placed increased stress on women worldwide. They are burning out faster than before the pandemic. With the increased demands of working at home, home-schooling children, supporting others in their families, communities and workplaces, they are losing their passion, feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, and experiencing feelings of cynicism and detachment.
International cross-cultural studiesshow that those in the helping professions (e.g. social workers, nurses, physicians, development professionals), and high achievers, are at higher risk for burnout than the general population. The curious thing about high or over-achievers is that we tend to work harder when we get closer and closer to burnout. It’s almost like we believe we are invincible!
I recall when I burnt out in late 2012; how I kept pushing through fatigue and NOT listening to my body. I had pushed through fatigue to finish that one last thing for many years, and was healthy (or so I thought), with no noticeable side effects. Until all that changed.
I’d been working on contract for an NGO that promotes women’s and children’s rights around the world for almost a year. Initially I was passionate about the opportunity and felt so aligned with their mission, vision and values. It was exciting to head off to a number of African countries for project start up and to meet the teams in the 7 countries I was working with! In the coming months, the project scope increased, and I was being asked to do more and more. Then, about 6 months in, I started to lose my passion. I felt like there was so much to do and so little time. Yet I kept pushing through.
Near the end of the year, I was invited to renew my contract in a reduced role. I was this close to signing and asked to sleep on the decision. When I awoke, I felt like a lemon that had been squeezed dry; and realized in that moment, that I had to finally listen to my body, I had to take a break. I got in touch with the Director and VP I’d been working with, thanked them, and turned down the opportunity. They said “Why?” and I said I wanted to create more balance in my life. At that time, I had no idea what that meant or how much time I would take off, but I started the new year with no work on my plate. A scary place for someone who has their own business! I took the time to reconnect with family and friends as I’d been travelling so much the past couple of years. I studied mindfulness with Jack Kornfield; and spent a lot of time in nature.
After sleeping 10, 12, 13 hours a night for about 4 months and still awakening feeling fatigued, I went to see a naturopath who put me on some homeopathic meds; and within about a month I started to feel more like myself; my energy started to come back.
What I learned from that experience, and from doing in-depth interviews with high-achieving women from three continents is captured in the book “Learning to Dance with Life: A Guide for High Achieving Women”. In this book, I introduce the concept of “Creative Living, “the conscious cultivation of increased health, happiness, fulfillment and inner peace in your life.” There are 7 keys to what I call Creative Living, and powerful strategies and practices to prevent and heal from burnout. I’ve distilled some of these in the strategies below.
Strategies You can Use to Prevent and Heal from Burnout
- Integrate mindfulness practices into your life daily (e.g. body scanning & mindfulness walking meditation); these help you focus on the present moment, and get you out of the chatter in your head
- Start listening to your body. When you feel tired take a short nap (e.g. 15 to 30 minutes if you can) or go for a short walk (15 to 30 minutes)
- When you’re feeling stressed take 3 deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth exhaling on each out breath. Notice how that makes you feel. This releases the hormone oxytocin which makes you feel more relaxed, grounded and at peace
- Focus on one thing at a time
- Sleep at least 8 hours a night and go to sleep before 11 pm
- Set firm boundaries; learn to say “no”; being clear on your top 5 core values helps with this
- Spend regular time in nature – The Japanese have done longitudinal studies to show that when we walk in nature, particularly among trees, it reduces our heartrate, reduces our blood pressure and increases the number of natural killer cells our body produces (i.e. strengthens our immune system)
- Nurture yourself daily (e.g. have a bubble bath, listen to relaxing music, do something you love)
- Try yoga. Experiment with different styles. Find one that works for you and do it 3 times a week or more for 30 to 60 minutes each time
- Celebrate your achievements – both big and small
- Unplug from technology 60 to 90 minutes before going to bed; and Unplug one day a week (if possible) e.g. on the weekend.
- Schedule blocks of time in your calendar for you (e.g. work out at the gym, yoga, lunch with a friend, date night with your partner) and commit to doing them
- If symptoms persist and if you are continually fatigued even though you sleep 8 or more hours a night, and have lost your zest for life, go to a recommended naturopath or a physician who is open to complementary therapies.
What strategies have you found helpful to reduce stress in your life and to prevent and/or heal from burnout? I welcome your thoughts and comments below.
Gift yourself and those high-achieving women in your life; those who “do” more than “be” and “give” more than “receive” “Learning to Dance with Life: A Guide for High Achieving Women” .
 Sherrie Berg Carter, High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2010.
 Scan your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes noticing where there is any tension or discomfort. Breathe into those places and set the intention to release the pain and discomfort. This is helpful to do first thing in the morning before getting out of bed. It helps you become more aware of your body and the messages it sends you.
 When doing mindfulness walking meditation, it is most beneficial to do it outside. When you begin to walk, instead of thinking about the argument you had with your partner that morning or worrying about the performance review you’re going to give to a team member who is underperforming; instead focus on all of your senses. Feel the breeze on your cheeks, smell the salt sea air, hear the birds chirping, see the beautiful vistas that surround you … . When thoughts come to mind as they will, imagine putting them in a cloud and watching them float away and then return to focusing on your senses. Do this 3 times a week to start for 20 to 30 minutes a time and notice how you feel during, immediately after and after a week or so of doing this.