'My body was frozen to the couch': what I learnt from terrible burnout

‘My body was frozen to the couch’: what I learnt from terrible burnout


It was my scheduled day off from work.  In front of me on the playmat were my two young sons.  One of them turned to me and said, ‘Mummy, why are you not playing with me?’.  I didn’t respond.  I didn’t know what was going on. 

My body was frozen to the couch.  Yet my mind was light enough to float above my body and watch the scene from above.  I was experiencing what I now know is called dissociation.  My subsequent research found that this is actually one of the unique ways the human body self-preserves when it is shutting down.  It mentally disconnects from reality, from the here and now, if but only for a few minutes.  I knew I was on the highway to burnout, but like so many others, I had denied myself of this reality. 

Thankfully my experience took place in the safety of my living room.  Thankfully this became a life marker for positive personal change.  And thankfully I now feel less shame and more comfort sharing my story with others. 

Everyone’s wake-up call and recovery journey will be unique to them.  This is because experience is largely subjective.  There is however one common denominator.  Recovery from burnout is SLOW.  For most it will range anywhere from one to three years.

Being fiercely curious and knowing that any research would be used to make a difference for others, my road to recovery involved doing due diligence on both workplace factors and individual factors including:

  • Change fatigue
  • Psychological safety
  • Leadership trust
  • Boundaries, resilience and self-compassion
  • Nervous system, brain and gut health
  • Subconscious mind beliefs
  • Epigenetic predisposition

You might have noticed that yoga is absent from the list. While many ectomorphs still worship at the altar of yoga, yoga is not an antidote to burnout. Why? It does nothing to address the root causes of overwork and hyper-vigilance. But don’t just take my word for it.

Jennifer Boss shared this in a Harvard Business Review article, ‘We tend to think of burnout as an individual problem, solvable by “learning to say no,” more yoga, better breathing techniques, practicing resilience — the self-help list goes on. But evidence is mounting that applying personal, band-aid solutions to an epic and rapidly evolving workplace phenomenon may be harming, not helping, the battle.’

So, if you are someone on the brink of burnout, in the first instance, please seek out professional help from your GP.  Confidential external support will free you up from any shame or judgement that may be impacting your ability to reach out sooner rather than later.

Here are three more areas to consider:

1. Stop waiting for your workplace culture to improve

The seduction of success and financial security has robbed many of us from living a life of peace, relaxation and potential fulfilment. 

Endless work expectations have burdened many of us with worry, anxiety and rumination.  And fast-paced, 24/7 change has awakened constant uncertainty, overwhelm and exhaustion. 

The speed of descent into burnout during the final stage is usually fast and unpredictable.  With this is mind, get your exit strategy ready if your workplace is absent of psychological safety and organisational care.  Your mental health and wellbeing are worthy of so much more.  If you are arriving home each night completing de-energised this is one of many red flags to be mindful of.  Respect the red flags.

2. Start having courageous conversations

Alternatively, if you make the decision to stay, seek out support from a caring voice in your workplace. Often this is not your boss but someone else who you know has your best interests at heart. 

To do so, you need to prepare a guide for your first conversation.  Then you need to be ok with it being an uncomfortable conversation.  And you need to accept that it may result in an unpredictable outcome too.  This largely depends on the other person’s level of emotional intelligence, self-control and empathy.  What may unfold is a series of conversations that will be heavy, hard and hopefully heartfelt. 

Remember that courageous conversations are much better serving than crisis conversations.

3. Stay fallible and fully human

Finally, it’s important to press pause and simply be. 

Know that to be fragile, uncertain and vulnerable is part of what makes us human. We don’t just need to forgive ourselves; we need thank ourselves for the learnings that come from adversity too. Handling failures is not easy, but it is incredibly valuable for building resilience. 

This is about shifting from doubt to deep acceptance of the predicament you find yourself in. This is about being at peace with the notion that the leader in the mirror is flawed. This is about tapping into humanity, embracing your imperfections and addressing your self-limiting beliefs and behaviours. 

Freedom to feel comes from safety. Liberation comes from mastery and yes, that includes emotional mastery.

In the meantime, let’s look after ourselves and one another and be intentional about care and contingency plans.

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