On Burning Out and Getting Away

For years I fell into a state of malaise between January and March. I’d have a sudden need to withdraw socially, turning down invitations from friends to get together, feeling intense dread over having to talk on the phone or sometimes even respond to emails. And, as usual, I’d wonder what was wrong with me. Then one day I found this:

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
  • Taking out your frustrations on others
  • Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early

Source: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/burnout_signs_symptoms.htm

These are the symptoms of burnout.

It all began to make sense. My work is seasonal, meaning I do about 80% of my year’s work in a period of five months. About 20% of that work is then crammed into about two weeks over Christmas and New Year’s. Deadlines are back to back and I have little control over the pace as I am dependent on client behavior. Apparently perfectionistic tendencies and a need for control contribute to burnout as well.

I’ve taken what measures I can to reduce the stress in my work, including reducing my client load. Otherwise, I’ve come to accept its cyclical nature and the temporary impact that it has on me, and to instead learn how to work with and recover from it.

One of the things that helps is getting away, and so last weekend, after my official peak season was over, we took a short holiday to hang out in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Florida it is not (temperature-wise), but we wanted an ocean, even if it was too cold to swim in, and we found a resort with two indoor water parks. The perk of going to a cold beach in the off-season is that you can take advantage of some great rates. We got this room where we were able to see the ocean from our beds.


And then we lucked out on Monday, as the temperature warmed up enough for us to stay on the beach for an entire afternoon.


One of my goals this year, by the way, is to do more literary travel. I had a goal to check out several bookstores in Myrtle Beach, though I only made it to two and liked only one, a small used bookstore called BookendsΒ where I hung out for a good 90 minutes while Max and Fred waited in the car, playing videogames. Bookends is quite generous (in my opinion) and I was able to sell four or five of my old books for $10. I then walked out with another three, like I really need to add anything more to my reading list.


As much as I love Max and Fred, I also realized at one point that Max and I really should have given each other more alone time this trip. I don’t know why we enter vacations with glorified images of how perfect everything is going to be, because the three of us attached at the hip for days on end isn’t made more pleasant just because we have an ocean view.

Anyway, on our final evening I left the water park early, promising to get into the shower first so I could free up the bathroom for the two boys when they got back. Instead, I noticed the sun setting in the sky, and decided to run out to the beach to capture a few shots before evening settled. Walking toward the ocean alone I had an almost indescribable feeling – (warning and apologies: cliches forthcoming) of being free, of feeling at peace, and of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the beauty around me. I couldn’t help picturing myself in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening minus the ocean suicide. It was that awesome.



How do you deal with fatigue, stress, or burnout?

34 thoughts on “On Burning Out and Getting Away

  1. Hi, Cecilia, I don’t know where you live now, but it also could be seasonal affect. If you live somewhere that is dark and dismal in the winter, it could depress you. But probably you are right about burnout. Your pictures are lovely.

    • I’m in the south so it’s not too bad at all. But I’m glad you mention the seasonal affect because I think that’s a valid reason for many people and I definitely get affected by lack of sunshine (I think it helps to explain my mood issues back when I was growing up in the northeast).

      • I lived for a year in an area that only had daylight between 10 am and 4 pm in the winter. I walked to work and back again in the dark. By the end of the winter, my friends and I were getting very silly, which I think was our self-protection against being very depressed.

  2. I think half the battle is recognizing the symptoms in yourself and knowing what to do about it. Sounds like you’ve got that covered. It also helps to know that it’s temporary. Your pictures are beautiful! There are a lot of people up here with Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it has pretty much the same symptoms. On the other hand, spring is really something to celebrate!

    On a different note, your bookshop hopping sounds wonderful. I’ve had The Thirteenth Tale recommended to me by several different people, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I love visiting second-hand bookstores when I travel. They are so much more interesting than new ones, because they are all so different and you never know what you’re going to find. I love finding books that my local library doesn’t even have.

    • I harbor secret fantasies of living in Canada but I can imagine the winters are quite brutal?

      I’ll definitely post a review of the The Thirteenth Tale whenever I finish it. I agree that second hand stores are so much fun! I love those and local short-term book sales (held by libraries, schools, etc.). I love the idea of going on a treasure hunt.

      • Yes, it is exactly like a treasure hunt!

        Depending on where you live, the winters in Canada don’t have to be brutal. Living near the ocean helps to moderate the weather. And it’s wonderful to have 4 full seasons that are all beautiful in their own way (even winter!).

          • I think the West Coast is very beautiful – I know lots of people who have spent time there or have moved there permanently, but I have never been there myself. I live on the East Coast (which is also beautiful!) and have never been further west than Ontario. Someday my husband and I hope to take our children for a cross-country trip, so they can see the whole country. If Canada was smaller it would be much easier to do!

    • Oh I think this is such good advice right about recognizing the symptoms and knowing what to do.

      On a very minor similarity, we had quite a lot of deadlines in my department and I had some out of work commitments, that made me tense and wound up. I could feel it happening, and what happens to me is that I get very abrupt with other people and withdrawn. I know I upset some people when like this. So I recognised the symptoms but wasn’t quite in time to do anything about it.

      Cecilia, I am glad you have worked out what to do and had such a lovely break.

      • Denise, it sounds like you recognize your symptoms too. Maybe you could just let the people you affected know that you felt badly about it (if that is appropriate)? At any rate, it sounds like you are at least aware of how you can respond to stress – which is more than I can say for many people! – and you can catch yourself better next time. I hope that you’re able to take some time to yourself too.

        • I meant to with the little team I manage… but then I felt shy. I don’t think I was that bad with them and wasn’t sure if it would be overdoing it.

          Definitely some things that I need more confidence with, but I am hoping that as I get more managerial experience that will improve.

  3. This is exactly what I’m going through right now! It is so hard, and I keep begging my husband to take me to Hawaii (ha, ha), but he’s a CPA and it is tax season right now. It is such a hard time of year and I keep saying that I’m “overwhelmed.” Thank you for writing this. It helped me.

    • Oh…if your husband is a CPA it looks like he/you won’t get any respite until after the spring? I do hope you can get some down time soon, even if it’s to sneak off to the library or a favorite coffee shop. Take care!

  4. I have not slept well for about 2 years now and it certainly does not help when there is stress and burnout with it too. I am grateful for my body and my life – recovering from a back injury and learning to live with a spinal injury has consumed my life lately and the not sleeping is so not helping. We usually go to Hawaii in February, but this year in the Fall we will be going on a 2-week International Travel Experience, so had to curtail the amount of traveling we will do this year. I like to go to the gym, write, read and photograph to escape a bit from the daily grind:) Great Topic today – Happy Thursday! Here’s to Taking Care of Ourselves and Giving Ourselves Some Much Needed Love:)

    • Yikes – I’m especially sorry to hear about the sleep! We have that issue in our household as well and it is frustrating. I assume you’ve tried everything?

      I love Hawaii and love that you can go regularly. But your international trip sounds great too. I also love your other daily escapes – the gym, writing, etc. I guess we can only do what we’re already doing, and hope that all the benefits will build up day by day.

      • I have tried just about everything – have not physically knocked myself out, but that is too extreme. I love the daily explorations and escapes too:) Yes, to LIVING IT each and every day Sweetie!!!

  5. I think I’ve been going through burnout for several months now and haven’t been handling it too well, as we’ve discussed before. I think the best thing I can do for myself at this point is to sleep more. I’m glad you had some time away with your family and some time for yourself.

    • I’m sorry to hear that it’s ongoing, Ngan. I know that burnout can be chronic in a lot of lines of work or life situations. I hope that you’re able to get the sleep you need. I have trouble with that too during my work season, and sometimes resort to using sleep aids…

  6. I’m very glad you got a chance to get away for a few days in South Carolina. If you don’t mind me asking, what is the nature of your work? The distribution (80% in 5 months) definitely sounds very demanding.

    I loved your allusion to The Awakening. I think I was one of two people in my high school English class who found the book worthwhile. πŸ™‚

    • Ha ha, it’s been many many years since I’ve read The Awakening but the main character walking into the ocean is an image that has always stayed with me.

      I apologize in advance for being cryptic (only because I am making a conscious effort to keep my professional identity separate from my blog identity), but I work in education (related to school applications).

  7. I’m so glad you skipped the suicide part πŸ˜‰ But yes, what a gorgeous vista! I can see how it helps you recover your center.

    I was overwhelmed before the holidays, and knowing that burnout was very possible, I wrote my client a difficult letter explaining why I had to cut my hours and take time off to focus on my family. I was surprised at how well she took it, and now she’s very cautious with what she sends my way, making sure to not overload me. I’m so grateful that it all worked out well in the end. I’m also lucky I have an understanding client, because I wouldn’t have been able to escape a complete meltdown otherwise.

    • Good for you, Justine! I know that so often we keep trying to push ourselves because we don’t want to displease the other person, or because we don’t want to admit that we can’t handle it all. But knowing our limits and priorities is so important. I love that you took care of yourself first (and of course that your client was understanding!).

  8. Yes, I know this. In my post yesterday, I mentioned a particularly bad time period. Because I had such a busy schedule at that time, my family and I couldn’t take time off even for a few days. My coping mechanism is such that I need to go away from troubles for a while; that helps me gain perspective. I think this was one of the reasons why I could only see the problems. I think it’s great that you could take this vacation. And I totally hear you on the sea-related freedom cliches; it happens to me too!

    Literary travel sounds a terrific idea, by the way. I hope I can do something like that too someday. Great post! πŸ™‚

    • I like how our posts have tied in together πŸ™‚ You raise an interesting point. I think that whenever we begin to feel negative, the first thing we should ask ourselves is if we are under strain…lack of sleep, burnout, etc. I hope that you’re able to get away, even if it is going far. Maybe there is a favorite place you can go to for some quiet and relaxation – a favorite spot in a library, a bookstore, a cafe?

      • Well, neither of those things helped me during those two years. It has been another three years since that time, and I still don’t know how I managed to live through it all. At least I learnt what I needed to keep stress at bay.

        Luckily, yesterday was just one such day; all I needed was a little time. And going to the bookstore is definitely one of my ways to deal with stress. As a matter of fact, though I was fine by evening, I still did go to the bookstore to browse, just for good measure! πŸ™‚

  9. I loved those gorgeous sunset shots! I am so glad that you were able to find moments to replenish on your break. I was right there with you on the beach! When I need “time off” I feel selfish to insist on the solitude that is crucial for my mental health, especially if what has been stressing me has NOT been my family. I feel like I am being selfish to demand time alone when my family wants to take a break too. I like the way you implied that just because you have an ocean view not everything becomes idyllic! Being an introvert, my biggest burn out factor is simply too much interaction and not enough time to recharge. Now that the girls are older I have more freedom to take those moments for myself. Solitude in nature with a very flexible timeline is my way of coping. My favourite escapes are extended walking or Nordic skiing days. Or, alternately, hours in a bookshop. Curiously, I find old-fashioned small-town hardware shops very therapeutic πŸ™‚

    • YES – exactly! Somehow once we become mothers we feel that we have to be available 100%, even during vacations! But the truth is we have the same needs that we did when we were younger/single/not parents. I am the same as you; I’m quite sensitive to interaction and I need a lot of time to recharge. Solitude, nature and books/bookstores sound perfect. That’s also interesting that you like old-fashioned hardware shops! But I can see that…there’s something very homey and nostalgic about them. I love small cafes and gift shops for the same reason…simply because they’re such a contrast to all things modern and huge. I feel overloaded by the internet, chain establishments, etc.

  10. Gorgeous pictures! I’m glad you got away for a little bit. Feeling overwhelmed is sort of a constant for me (I have a couple of anxiety disorders) — I cope with lots and lots of organization and a clean house, and remembering to look forward to weekends and breaks and even little daily rituals (like tea after H is in bed).

    • Thanks for sharing and mentioning that, Carolyn. I haven’t blogged about it, but I suffer from anxiety as well, which is the whole backdrop of my recent post on my “mid life crisis.” I have to keep my schedule very low-keyed in order to cope. Anyway, I can relate and appreciate knowing that I am not alone. That’s great that you have found ways to cope.

  11. Cecilia,

    As others have mentioned, I am glad that you recognized what was happening and took measures to recharge.

    The current of anxiety runs in my life at different times and some situations throw me into a tailspin. I tend to run, try to breathe, and write to deal with it. I am glad you found solace in the ocean and in the bookstore. I cannot think of a better way to de-stress.

    The pictures are gorgeous. You definitely have an eye. Looking forward to seeing more of your snapshots, Cecilia.

  12. First, your pictures are gorgeous. Now to your question, when facing stress or burnout, I usually try to do the things that make me feel most relaxed: reading, listening to music, writing. Sleep helps, too, since I find that stress often makes for rotten sleepless nights for me.

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