Managing Stress and Burnout

I never learned how to manage stress.

All through college (which took me 6 years to complete due to switching majors) I worked a full-time job while taking 15 credits, and picking up the occasional odd jobs to make ends meet. Now, I work a full-time “day job” and operate my small business on the side. For nearly a decade now I’ve been a consummate workaholic. I’ve worked hard, studied hard, and packed my schedule to the brim. For years everyone has been asking me how I manage stress and avoid burnout. When they ask, I am forced to make an embarrassing confession: I don’t.

I never learn how to avoid burnout.

I am 27 years old, and product of the “hustle culture” generation. We have been taught all our lives that any moment we aren’t being productive is a moment wasted. “If you have time to sleep, you have time to work” is the motto of our times. No hobby of ours is left unmonitized, no party or gathering is passed up for a networking opportunity. While the year 2020 did leave some people with free time (through unemployment, or just a lack of chances to go out to “hustle”), but I was not one of those people. While I am glad I didn’t lose my job in 2020, this does mean that I’ve had no break, no vacation, and no “unplugging” from corporate America since my last trip in 2019. Inevitably, I am feeling the early warning signs of burn out creeping in.

How did it get this way?

I’ve been asking myself this for years now. Why do I work myself to the level I do? Since I was 17 I always had both a job, and some sort of side hustle. It was always work and school, or work and freelance, or work and business owning- never giving myself time to breathe and relax. Why am I so obsessed with working myself sick? I have worked myself to physical illness 3 times now: at ages 18, 22, and 25. Each time I the combination of preexisting mental illness, excessive work, high stress, and lack of sleep ended with me having literal seizures (see passed posts about CPTSD, GAD, and seizures). How and when did I decide that I am only worth what I produce? How and when did I decide that my physical and mental health is less important than work?

I learned to associate stress with productivity.

Maybe it’s my generation. Maybe it’s my personal upbringing. Maybe it’s just my own anxiety, but I learned to associate stress with productivity. In turn, productivity is linked with positivity in our current social and economic system. From the moment we enter school we are taught to compete for good grades, scholarships and awards. We are told we have to work harder, win bigger, and study more so we can get into a good college, so we can compete for better jobs, and make more money. If you fail, or if you don’t do as much as someone else, it’s always your fault because you didn’t try hard enough. Everything we do from the age of 5 is a measurable competition. We aren’t told to do things because we enjoy it. We are told to learn to enjoy things that we can profit from. Don’t just play an instrument: join band and do competitions. Don’t paint because you enjoy it: paint well so you can sell them. Don’t write because it’s fun: publish your stories or monetize a blog. Any moment we aren’t working, producing,and competing becomes a waste of time. As a result, the stress of overwork is deemed as a virtue. I’m never relaxed, therefore I never waste time. My stress is now a symbol of my worth.

Obviously, this isn’t healthy.

You don’t have to be a therapist to know that overworking isn’t healthy. It also doesn’t take a genius to realize that burnout is counterproductive: If you become so overworked that you can’t work- then nothing actually gets done. So, how do you avoid burnout, especially when you feel too overwhelmed to take a break? once again, I don’t know. I am literally asking for advice right now. I can’t just drop my duties and responsibilities to take a vacation, but I can’t keep working at the pace I have been either. Right now, I’m just trying to prioritize my “Have To Dos” and “Want to dos”, my “needs attention now” and my “Can wait” lists. In all likelihood, I am running head-first into the fire, and I’ll come out burned down from both ends. But, if I can at least medigate the depth of my self-destruction, maybe I can come out of my 4th overwork crash with more dignity and grace than my last ones.

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