What my burnout taught me about tolerating the uncertainty of a global pandemic
I’m not a mental health professional, nor are my views here derived from robust scientific evidence — I wrote this because in case my experiences help someone else cope better with the current situation, so if you disagree with anything feel free to ignore it and only take what works for you.
I hesitated writing this — there are hundreds of articles on the mental health aspect of this situation we all find ourselves in. I’m also not a healthcare professional, a home-schooling parent or an entrepreneur who has to close their business indefinitely. Relatively speaking, I’m lucky and privileged — even if I’m in the risk group and a freelancer in a badly affected sector.
Although my life looks pretty good now, I’ve experienced my fair share of turbulence and uncertainty. I lost my both of my parents in my early twenties, ran the business I inherited from them for three years while my peers partied at university, survived an abusive marriage in my early thirties and spent the rest of them in a permanent state of anxiety as a startup founder — as well as living most of my adult life in a foreign country without a support network.
You might think I learned a great deal from living through those situations — and you would be wrong. I mostly managed by forcefully suppressing my feelings with various kinds of distractions.
20 years on from the first round of turbulence, last year I found myself sitting at home digesting the realisation that my lifestyle and coping mechanisms had thoroughly burned me out — I had such high blood pressure that I needed to change my entire life if I wanted to avoid my mother’s fate of suffering the silent killer that is a brain aneurysm.
I was so tired I couldn’t get through a day without a nap, and I struggled to focus enough to read even one page from a book and process what I was reading.
Slowly, I realised that my brain was broken. Although you couldn’t see it or measure it, something was clearly wrong. My work was all about ideas and thinking, and previously my brain churned out ideas like it was Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory — now there was nothing, an empty space where ideas and enthusiasm used to be. Who was I without them? Would they ever come back? And if they didn’t, what was I going to do for a living if I couldn’t think properly?
At first, I turned to my trusted coping mechanisms: research and analysis. I tried to life-hack my way out of the burnout — surely there was a supplement, a therapy, a quick fix? If only I could work it out, and then I would make an efficient plan for my recovery.
As the months rolled on, it dawned on me that I wasn’t in control — the recovery happened at its own pace and I had to accept I didn’t know when I would be fully recovered or even what that future might look like. To me, that was more terrifying than any of the experiences I had had in my life — at least there had been some certainty in loss, even if it was devastating.
Over time, I learned to live with that feeling of deep uncertainty — resisting the urge to suppress it but instead accepting it as my constant companion. I learned to let go of the need to know when I would be normal again and focused instead on activities that would help me get there: I made sure I got enough sleep and did constructive, purposeful activities like gardening or training my dogs to build meaning into my life.
I focused my attention to on the small stuff that was good instead of thinking about what wasn’t. As professor of behavioural science Paul Dolan says in his book Happiness by Design, “happiness depends on how we allocate our attention” — it’s a scarce resource, so if we give it to one thing, we can’t give it to something else.
I’m not going to pretend it was easy — just like it’s not easy to live with the uncertainty that comes with the current situation — but as tempting as it is to give into worry, I am once again making careful choices about how to allocate my attention. In a counter intuitive way, worrying feels good because it feels like we are doing something — an appropriate reaction to what is happening.
Like a rocking chair, worrying is all movement and no progression — it drains your energy and makes no real difference to the state of affairs you find yourself in.
So, what can you do?
Every situation is different, and people make different choices about allocating their attention — but here are four things I’m doing:
1. Put on your own (figurative) oxygen mark first.
I won’t do anyone any favours by running myself to the ground with worry and upset — you don’t need to feel guilty about experiencing moments of happiness. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to conserve your energy in the long run so don’t exhaust yourself needlessly at the beginning. It might feel selfish but you can’t give what you don’t have, so if you break down you won’t be able to help anyone else either — whether that’s your partner, kids, extended family, friends or your company.
2. Limit negative input
There is no shortage of things to read about COVID-19 but remember that is in the interest of the media that we stay in a perpetual state of anxiety and consume their content. With each article I ask myself whether I will actually learn something new that makes a difference or that helps me take some action. It will change nothing if I read every update about rising numbers of infections, and it won’t make a vaccine become a reality faster if I read every speculative article about them. Maintain a general feel for changes in the situation, but don’t dwell on the detail.
3. Zoom in on the good stuff
We tend to take a lot of things for granted and focus our attention on negative things (the psychological terms are hedonic treadmill and negativity bias, in case you want to check the science).
I regularly make myself pay attention to something that is good right now: my husband and I are healthy right now, our dogs are fine (they could have a serious accident any day), I don’t have a tension headache today and, actually, this sofa is really comfortable. Zoom in as much as you need until you find something that is currently good or fine.
If I’m struggling with this, I bring out the heavy artillery by imagining something that, if it happened, would immediately make everything else unimportant or insignificant — and focus on being grateful that at least that didn’t happen today. For example, a bad day at work suddenly means nothing when your dog eats a space cake and nearly dies (true story, happened 2 years ago in an Amsterdam park). It might have been a bad day… but at least my dog didn’t poison herself.
4. Focus on what you can control
For me, this means making sure I am doing my best in protecting myself from the infection as well as being prepared for the possibility of catching it — we have some additional supplies in our kitchen in case we both fell ill at the same time. If I catch it, I catch it — but I’ve done my best to avoid it and that’s really all that I can do.
Professionally, I’m preparing myself as much as possible for whatever the new reality will be — I know the internet is full of well-meaning advice on “Self-improvement in Pandemic Times”, but for me it genuinely does mean catching up with the online courses I started before all this. This will mean different things for different people, but ultimately it’s about finding a purpose to focus on — something meaningful, whatever that might be for you.
Even after writing this I’m unsure whether the world needs yet another article about how to cope in a pandemic. I may well want to eat my words if I or someone I love gets ill — until then I will keep following those four principles to keep myself sane.