How to avoid post-lockdown burnout

Medically reviewed Dr Roger Henderson, words Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton
Photo credit: Maskot - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

With many of us feeling anxious about life after lockdown, and wondering what our new 'normal' might look like, it is a good time to reflect on how we can look after our wellbeing and mental health better going forward.

We spoke to Clare Dale and Patricia Peyton, authors of Physical Intelligence (Simon & Schuster) and directors of Companies in Motion about how slower living during lockdown might benefit our wellbeing long-term:

We were working recently with a group of professionals and asked them to describe how lockdown has been for them. Their responses ranged from “nirvana” to “hell on earth.” Similarly, in a recent poll, we asked 60 people what levels of stress they had experienced during this pandemic on a scale of 1-10. The responses there ranged from 1-10 including every number in between.

These anecdotal samples reinforce the popular quote that while we may all be in the same storm, we most certainly are not in the same boat. Everyone’s experience is unique. Consider the difference in the pandemic experience for a financially secure medical professional working in an overrun hospital vs. that of an out of work single mother raising her children in a one room apartment vs. someone receiving full salary but with a lighter workload.

For some of us, it has been a time where the fast-paced world we normally frequent has paused for a little while. Social calendars have emptied. Over 8 million UK workers have been furloughed. Studies show that many of us have found we are actually exercising more and eating better in lockdown. The rise in people taking up home baking has emptied supermarket shelves of flour for weeks on end. For that group, lockdown has helped them live at a slower pace and prioritise wellbeing.

Others are busier than ever right now, making it even more important to pay attention to wellbeing. Regardless of our experience during lockdown, as life slowly returns to normal, we have an opportunity to consider lessons learned and carry those forward into post-COVID life, especially in terms of our pace of life and our wellbeing.

Building resilience

Rest and relaxation are very important to wellbeing because they build our resilience. Resilience is our ability to bounce back quickly from adversity – physically, mentally, and emotionally – to adapt to change and to grow and learn while doing so. The best time to build resilience is before we need it, but it is never too late to start. So, if you’re one of the lucky people for whom COVID-19 is creating more downtime, we highly recommend that you use your downtime to build resilience and if you don’t have enough down time right now, it will be important to find moments to build your resilience in order to guard against burnout.

Given our traditionally fast-paced lifestyles, many people find it difficult to fully rest and relax. Often, in the days when we could travel, when we finally did get a break, we either immediately caught a cold or found it took the entire holiday to wind down properly. Whether you’re experiencing more or less downtime in lockdown, disengaging from technology and the 24/7 news cycle and social media also can be challenging, especially right now. (To disengage from technology, read this.) To combat this and make the most of your downtime, it is important to weave more restorative and relaxing activities into our day-to-day lives – by truly focusing on and prioritising it.

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Building resilience doesn’t have to be time consuming or expensive. Things like physical fitness, good nutrition (especially vitamin B and magnesium) and hydration, meditation, massage, sunshine, and effectively processing negative events (to regain optimism) all build resilience. When you look at the calendars of high-resilience people, you’ll find they diarise their downtime and have restorative activities planned in: a regular massage, time spent with close friends, enjoyable social activities. Each week and especially after intense effort, block time for rest and recovery. For me, it’s a long bath, high-quality dark chocolate (just one or two squares), calming music, and a good book. For others, it may be a weekend hike or bike ride, a weekly football match or round of golf, watching a film, playing with the children. Figure out and make time for whatever rejuvenates YOU.

Too many people spent long periods of time in overdrive, with their foot flat on the accelerator, draining their adrenals – and their resilience. If you drive a car hard, foot flat on the accelerator, then slam on the brakes, then accelerate quickly, the car will break down faster than if you accelerate/decelerate smoothly and service the car regularly. The same theory applies to our adrenal glands.

When we need to perform, our adrenal glands produce cortisol so that we can rise to the occasion with confidence. To recover quickly, they then need relaxation. Without that, cortisol levels remain too high for too long – leading to adrenal fatigue (burnout). At its most serious, burnout can be life-threatening. Thankfully, most of us only ever experience mild burnout, an increasingly common condition given today’s increased pace of change at work and home.

Signs of low resilience

Keep an eye out for early warning signs of low resilience:

  • high blood pressure
  • low level anxiety
  • mood swings
  • inability to cope well with change
  • feeling regularly fatigued
  • going into over-drive
  • obsessing over things
  • being short-tempered.

At the first sign of even one of these, intensify your use of resilience techniques.

Relaxation blocks the harmful effects of stress chemicals adrenalin and cortisol by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and the production of acetylcholine. This is important in order to bring us back to balance quickly (homeostasis) and improve learning, memory and the ability to keep a cool head under pressure. We enable this by creating regular micromoments of relaxation – even something as simple as the time it takes to let go of a setback using one good breath, a Saturday afternoon nap or a quiet walk. Effective breathing is also important, as is a period of renewal between high-pressured situations (e.g., family obligations, challenging work meetings); otherwise the adrenals keep pumping out adrenalin without enough acetylcholine to balance it out.

How to make time for rest and relaxation

To ensure that sufficient time is allocated for rest and recovery, write the word REST: Retreat, Eat, Sleep, and Treat in blocks in your calendar every week. Guard those windows and encourage loved ones and colleagues to do the same.

  • Retreat is the equivalent of tennis player putting a towel over their head between sets – find your moments to disengage from the world around you.
  • Eat (healthfully). A diet that is high in sugar, carbohydrate and with high meat and dairy product consumption will create more acidic conditions in the body, pushing cortisol up higher than it needs to be. For the most part, we should be eating green and bright coloured vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish, meat twice a week, rice, wholemeal bread, and good quality dark chocolate.
  • Sleep – is the most powerful performance enhancer we have, more vital for brain function and good decision making than any waking activity. Most people need between 7 and 9 hours. Inch up the hours of sleep you are getting by taking power naps, going to sleep 30 minutes earlier or with a top up at weekends. Sufficient sleep is critical because if cortisol is too high, melatonin cannot kick in and our serotonin supplies are not renewed while we asleep, leading to brain fog and being short-tempered. Creating a sleep protocol with a wind down strategy and using techniques, such as sequential relaxation can help you fall asleep. If you have the time now, work on establishing good sleep habits.
    • Treat – There are two types of treats – those that are nice to start with but to which we are mildly addicted (sugar and alcohol being the main contenders), and those that are truly restorative. Keep the addictive treats to a minimum and develop a habit of indulging in the latter. Good treats boost dopamine and serotonin. Think beyond food. Having something effortless and enjoyable to read, watch or listen to – a soap opera, TED talks or a documentary series, whatever you really like – enables us to reboot dopamine levels.
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    Life after lockdown

    When life does return to whatever our new normal will be, maintain that practice. Be on the lookout for burnout in yourself and your team members and ask everyone across your team and circle of friends and family to do the same. Signs of burnout are people complaining of heart racing, looking grey in skin tone, digestion suffering, not stopping for even the shortest break, getting frequent colds and most obviously making minor mistakes, diary errors etc.

    When we invest time in this kind of ongoing REST, we build resilience over time so that we can rely on our ‘bounce back’ mechanism and will consistently be at our best. Establishing a self-care discipline will create a solid foundation that you and those around you can use to achieve more, stress less, and live and work more happily that lasts well beyond the end of the current crisis.

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