Burnout: it’s real, and it can affect anyone

In this blog, I’ve already talked about my thoughts on “writer’s block” in my article titled How to Write a Book. Today, however, I thought I’d address something else that’s bound to affect us all from time to time — and in this case, I’m not just talking about writers.

Burnout.

The first time I encountered burnout, it was in regards to a videogame (not the videogame series Burnout, which is awesome). For many, there comes a point where you love a game so much and for so long that… you just can’t play it anymore. You might still have goals within the game, and you might still love it, but you just can’t bring yourself to play it.

In those cases, often the best way to address the burnout is to play something else, and one day, the desire will (generally) return.

But true burnout is more than that. It’s when you use so much energy doing “things” that eventually it all catches up with you — the anxiety, the stress, the workload, the enrgy required… It just drains you. And it leaves you feeling low — possibly depressed, but definitely lacking in motivation, often accompanied by brain fog, a term used to describe an otherwise difficult to describe sensation in your brain. It kind of feels like there’s a cloud in your head, getting in the way, obscuring thoughts and memories.

In more serious cases, it can even lead to a nervous breakdown, but for years, a person might find themselves in this fugue state, not sure why, and not sure how to get out of it.

And that’s the strange part about burnout — it will leave you with low motivation and low energy, so you might find yourself just laying back and watching TV or YouTube and generally doing not much, but this lack of activity doesn’t refill your energy reserves. It’s a constant state of “low batteries”.

For me, it began a year or so ago (yes, that long ago). I was in a job that didn’t satisfy me (I have since moved into a more fulfilling role, but more on that later), and I had perhaps too many hobbies. For one, I loved videogames, and I absolutely wanted to play every damned one. Two, I loved one particular game so much (a game called Warframe) that I started a podcast with a friend, which became relatively popular, at least by my terms. Over three years of recording, this was a weekly commitment, occasionally more than once per week, and it took up a lot of my time — planning, recording, editing, posting. I tried making other podcasts during this time as well — I started a solo podcast about my love of horror, and a second one based on another videogame. These both died within a couple of months, as I just didn’t have the time or energy. If only I had noticed at this point.

When we were all thrust onto lockdown, I rediscovered a part of me that had been dormant since my adolescence. My desire to write. As a child, I wrote constantly. In my late teens, I continued this, working on several novels and several short stories, all of which were sadly lost to time and poor organisation. As I entered my early 20s, I got into drinking and socialising, and put writing behind me for the next 20 or so years…

But lockdown didn’t just prompt me to write, it also exacerbated the burnout process, by way of increased anxiety. Sure, I got a new job, but it came with increased responsibility, and lockdown itself imposed its own frustrations and stresses.

I realised I was really burning out at the start of 2021, and thought that perhaps reducing my responsibilities around the Warframe podcast might help. We dropped back to recording twice a month.

But this didn’t ease my symptoms. Not only did they continue, they got worse. In May this year, along with my co-host, I decided it was time to end the podcast for good, which will finally happen this week — and to be clear, I doexpect this will have a positive effect on my mental health.

The concern rose, though, when I stopped writing. The decision to cut back on the podcast earlier this year, followed not long after by the completion of my book, encouraged me to start writing something new. The decision to end the podcast encouraged me even further, and in June this year, I was writing 5000 words per day (which is quite a lot for someone who writes as a side project), across three book projects, one of which I was hoping to finish by the end of July.

In early July, I stopped writing, halfway through a chapter (which is strange for me, as I generally like to finish a chapter before I end a writing session). I haven’t been able to write since. That book I’d hoped to finish by the end of July? Half done.

Some may call this writer’s block, but I encourage all writers to look within themselves for their true feelings, because in this case I know it isn’t writer’s block. Every time I’ve encountered a block, it was due to me being confused about the direction the book was headed — I couldn’t write if I didn’t know what to write.

No, I know where each of the books I’m working on are headed — there is no one book that might be holding me back, let alone all three. The problem is that I want to write, but even the thought of writing instantly drains my energy. And there’s just nothing I can do to power through it.

And on the topic of videogames, in case you’re wondering, they barely hold my attention for more than 30 minutes these days.

Now keep in mind that I’m a realtively private fellow. I keep to myself, I do my work, and I don’t generally push myself beyond my limits, so I can tell you right now… I’m not working too hard. Thankfully, I’m able to put my energy into my day, job, but to date, that’s all I’ve been able to do.

However, I see a light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve done some soul searching, and I think I’ve figured out what it is that’s got its hooks in me, and I hope it can help someone else, hence the blog post.

Overstimulation.

There’s just too much noise — everything seems to be begging for my attention. Facebook, Twitter, my kids, family, YouTube, wrestling (I love pro wrestling, too), videogames, emails, my phone, Discord, and so on. The list is endless.

I discovered I was doing multiple things at once. There was no structure to my day, so I filled it with stimulation, because it felt like the right thing to do. Watch YouTube, check Twitter on my phone at the same time, and monitor Discord on a second screen. This is how we do it.

When I realised this, only 2 or 3 weeks ago now, I did a whole bunch of research. I already meditate often (which was another early alarm — meditation often didn’t help), but I wanted to understand meaning. Not just why are we here, but why am I here? What’s the point? I fell down a YouTube rabbithole.

And it really helped. I understood that I was constantly anxious because I constantly had the idea in the back of my mind that there must be something I should be doing… So I kept myself busy. And I kept myself busy while I was being busy. Take that, world.

I realised that, on a given day, there was really nothing I actually needed to do beyond food, water, basic hygeine, and looking after my kids. Seriously – nothing. Not even work. Nothing truly matters in the grand scheme of things.

This was a really feeing thought. It helped me to note that there shouldn’t be any thoughts of anxiety around what I should be doing, provided my basic needs as a human were met. It also clarified that in order for me to feel fulfilled, I needed to plan out my day — not overly structured, but just what I wanted to achieve, and when.

And when the time came to do that thing, I should be present for that thing, and only focus on that thing, because I now knew that there was nothing else I needed to be doing at that time.

As a result, I significantly cut down on phone and computer time, and I managed to put reading back in my day. I found time to exercise (I used to feel “too busy” for exercise), time to meditate, and time to do each of the things I wanted to do.

And I have to say — the brain fog has lifted. I feel better and less stressed. I’m getting things done. I’m not quite ready to start writing, but I feel like that point is just around the corner. My energy is returning.

The simple fact that I actually wrote this article is testament to the fact that something within me has changed.

I’m far from 100%, but I’ve already noticed a marked improvement in my mood, my performance in my day job, brain fog, and just overall happiness. So I must be on to a good thing.

And this weekend (or perhaps next weekend), I will be finished with my podcast (a bittersweet feeling, as I did love it for so long, but that project has run its course), which will absolutely be a huge weight off my shoulders.

I wanted to share this for two reasons — one was for my own catharsis. If I do this, then clearly I’m on the mend. But the main reason is simple: burnout is real, and right now due to the COVID pandemic, it’s more real than ever. In fact, many of us are likely suffering unknowingly. I had to share, because I really feel there might be folk out there that are suffering silently, and not sure why. And perhaps I can help.

Think about what you want to do on each day to make you happy — the minimum things you want to achieve on that day in order to be satisfied. Keep them simple, keep them structured, and do them. It might be to clean the kitchen. Write 1000 words. Meditate for 10 minutes. Wash the car. Wash the dog. Play a game with one of your kids — anything. And make special note in your mind that, apart from those specific things, there’s nothing else you need to do that day — so don’t stress. And don’t feel like you need to pull your phone out during lunch. Experience that time for what it is. Reduce the stimulation, and feel the change.

It worked for me.

Published by Greg Newbegin

Giving this online publishing thing a go.

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