STRESSED parents often say they can’t hear themselves think – but Sara Clarke really did lose sound during the first lockdown.
The mum of two was so burned out she could see her children’s mouths moving as they spoke but not pick up the words.
Ravaged by pandemic anxiety, her body had begun to shut down.
Sara, 29, a CrossFit gym manager, says: “One day, after weeks of trying to do it all, my mind went blank and I couldn’t hear my children speaking, even though I could see their mouths moving.
“For weeks I felt as though I was floating around, going through the motions without being able to make any decisions.
“I’d burst into tears and it got to the point where I was shaking constantly and felt so anxious.”
Sara was suffering from burnout — a condition first recognised by the World Health Organisation in 2019 — which usually results from chronic workplace stress.
But Covid-19 and multiple lockdowns means the causes are now creeping into people’s homes, too.
The Office for National Statistics found that 86 per cent of women carrying out a standard working week alongside childcare suffered average or above-average levels of stress last April.
Dr Phil Parker, a psychologist at London Met University specialising in the condition, says: “Burnout is not just a result of over-work. It is a response to long-term, unrelenting stress.
“The sense of groundhog day and looking at the same faces and same four walls and wearing the same clothes during lockdown is really wearing.
“Add to this the pressures of relationships that are not used to such intensity, and kids 24/7 while working, and you’ve got the perfect storm.
“These factors can overload your body, causing it to crash.”
This is what happened to Sara, who lives in Manchester with husband Gary, 37, a nuclear waste consultant, and their children Seth, four, and Sophie, two.
When the first lockdown hit she shut her gym but started running online classes and member events, while also looking after her children.
She says: “Before the burnout hit, I was up at 5am working until the kids woke. I’d spend the next 16 hours running between my laptop and children.
“As well as taking classes, I was dealing with people’s anger and frustration about lockdown on the phone and on social media.”
Sara was juggling work and childcare for weeks before she completely burnt out. But it is not only parents this condition is affecting.
Eat, sleep and speak to beat daily stressors
TRY author Rosie Millen’s burnout busters to help you relax.
READ FOR SIX MINUTES: The hours of sleep you get between 10pm and midnight are the most regenerative, repairing damage caused by stress. Ensure your bedroom is cool, dark and clutter free. Put your phone on flight mode. Read for six minutes, the perfect amount of time to reduce stress.
EAT SUPERFOODS LIKE STRAWBERRIES: Ensure that you include lots of dark green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and Swiss chard in your diet. Aim to eat between five and eight portions of fruit and veg every day, and two portions of oily fish a week, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines. Other foods to eat as often as possible include beetroot, avocado, beans, quinoa and strawberries.
SPEAK TO FRIENDS: It is critical in recovery to have a strong support network around you. Who can you depend on? Is it your partner, sibling or best friend? Let them know that you are struggling with your energy and finding it hard to cope.
TRY LAUGHING YOGA: Laughing is good for the soul and being happy makes us feel energised. Watch comedy movies, read funny books, arrange to go for a walk with a friend who always cheers you up – or arrange a catch-up over Zoom. Try a laughter yoga class online.
LIVE BY RULE OF THREE: If your to-do list is overwhelming, identify the three things that are most important. Focus only on those until they are done. When they are complete, write down the next three tasks. Breaking down the things you need to do into small chunks will make a big difference.
LEARN TO SAY NO: Lighten the load. Get your partner to do the cooking, encourage the kids to set the table and load and unload the dishwasher. Also, if you don’t want to have that extra Zoom meeting or endure another online pub quiz then you don’t have to. Just politely say thanks but no thanks.
TAKE FIVE: Next time you feel you can’t cope, go outside for five minutes, breathe slowly and deeply and put everything into perspective. If you can’t go outside, then look out of the window as far as you can see. Taking in the view will change your perspective instantly.
EAT EVERY THREE HOURS: Balancing your blood sugar level is necessary to maintain energy throughout the day. The key is to eat little and often, ideally every 3 to 4 hours. Try breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner. Eat protein (chicken, eggs, lentils, tofu, nuts and fish) at every meal and snack.
OPEN THE WINDOWS: Opening the windows will give you more energy and a sharper mind. It will also cool your bedroom down, making falling asleep easier. Ideally keep your windows open slightly all day, or if you get too chilly, open them at regular intervals for a refreshing wake up.
HAVE A COLD SHOWER: For a couple of minutes at the end of your shower, turn the temperature down as low as you can bear. This will make you feel more alert and energised, strengthen your immune system and increase your willpower.
- Burnout’s A B*tch, by Rosie Millen (Mitchell Beazley, £20) is out now.
Sophie Elwin, 21, from London, was juggling three part-time key worker jobs during the second lockdown, while also searching for a graduate role.
She says: “I was working as a Covid cleaner in a primary school, a nanny for two different families and as an intern at a dating app.
“In my spare time, I spent hours applying for jobs and dealing with constant rejections. As the weeks passed, I felt exhausted but could not sleep.
“My mind was constantly buzzing and I felt anxious.
“I had a migraine all the time and found eating really hard because I felt so nauseous.
“My mood was really low and I became tearful and irritable. I was constantly snapping at my family and didn’t want their company.”
After making an appointment with her GP, Sophie realised she was suffering from burnout and went to see a therapist.
Sophie, who now runs a podcast called Can Someone Tell Me What To Do, says: “I took three weeks off from job-hunting, reduced my childcare shifts and then started painting in the evenings to try and switch off.”
She also read daily, reduced her time on social media and exercised to boost her levels of the feelgood hormone serotonin.
Sophie says: “Although I’m feeling much better, I do still feel quite overwhelmed sometimes. But I’ve learnt the importance of taking time out to relax.”
Meanwhile, Sara also cut back on the things that were stressing her out.
She says: “I booked a course of counselling and told a few friends about how I was feeling.
Vital to keep moving
EVEN though we are now doing less as a result of lockdown, many of us are feeling more tired. Dr Phil Parker explains why.
He says: “Exercising and being active help pump the blood around the body, so if you’re not moving enough – and let’s face it, who is – it can make us feel tired and sluggish.
"Being in the same position for hours, whether that’s sitting at your computer or lying down watching Netflix, means your body will stiffen up, your energy levels will drop and you’ll feel demotivated.
“During lockdown people’s lives have shrunk. You’ve gone from having a busy day where you might go out to an office, workout at the gym, meet a friend, and take the kids to school, to being in all of the time. That change will take a toll.
“Move your body, as regularly as possible.
“Even if you’re having to work at your kitchen table, get up regularly.
“Make a drink, put some washing on, open a window, or do some simple stretches like rolling your shoulders for a few moments.”
“I stopped listening to the news, and switched off notifications on my phone and hid my apps.
“I began eating more home-cooked food and went to bed earlier.
“My mind is still tired and recovering, but I feel better than I did and the end of this is now in sight.”
Take this quiz to find out
NUTRITIONIST Rosie Millen’s burnout left her bedridden for three years after she collapsed from exhaustion one day.
Here is her quiz to help determine if you are also at risk of suffering burnout. Give yourself one point for all the questions you answer yes to.
- Do you wake up, even after a good night’s sleep, and still feel tired?
- Do you find small tasks challenging?
- Does it take you much longer to complete tasks than it used to?
- Do even simple things completely wipe you out?
- Do you experience dizzy spells during the day?
- Do you feel light-headed when you stand up too quickly?
- Do you feel tired all the time?
- Are you dragging yourself through the day?
- Do you rely heavily on stimulants such as tea, coffee and sugar to keep you going on a daily basis?
- Do you feel increasingly overwhelmed at work?
- Do you find small things upset you?
- Have you lost your drive and motivation?
- Do you feel like a zombie most days?
- Did you used to have a lot of energy and now feel like a shadow of your former self?
- Do you feel really fatigued after exercise?
- Are you ever so tired you can’t even read a text message?
- Do you ever feel so tired you feel sick?
- Do you find yourself increasingly unhappy?
- Is your memory not as good as it used to be?
- Do you have brain fog and reduced cognitive function?
- Does it take you a few hours to actually wake up in the morning?
- Have you experienced significant amounts of stress over the past three years?
- Do you have low blood pressure?
- Do you feel like you have to force yourself to keep going?
- Do you have severe energy slumps when you skip meals?
- Do you cancel social events (virtual ones during lockdown) because you simply can’t face the thought of them?
- Is your energy the lowest in the morning when you wake up?
What your score means
0-8 Healthy Stage: Your score is very low and indicates you have a healthy stress response. Your resilience is good and you are doing the right things to protect yourself. Stress itself is not the enemy. The danger lies with too much stress and an inability to cope.
9-18 Resistance Stage: Your body is having to go to large efforts to cope with the stressors in your life. You have mild burnout and will head towards complete exhaustion if you don’t intervene now.
19-28 Exhaustion Stage: You’re on the floor and need a complete overhaul. It’s vital you make some significant changes to get out of this exhausted state you’re in.
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