Afraid of a burnout? This is how you recognize the signals and intervene in time

Taking work home, only planning time on the weekend to recover or setting your limits too late: a selection of the signals prior to a burnout. How do you recognize these – and other – signals in time and what can you do to limit unpleasant consequences? “Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.”

In his own words, Reinoud Prins (41) is ‘the ultimate example’ of intervention too late in the case of stress complaints. In 2012, he was out of action for four years due to a severe burnout. In the meantime Prins has learned the necessary lessons and he helps others in his coaching practice . “It would have saved me a lot of pain and effort if I had taken action earlier, but at the same time I learned many valuable lessons.”

Everything you experience in life contributes to how prone you are to burnout, says Prins. For example, he thinks that his childhood had a lot of influence. “I was bullied and therefore always had the feeling that I had to prove myself. In addition, my mother was life-threateningly ill, which caused a lot of fear and insecurity. Every moment I was afraid of losing her.”

When he got a job as a key account manager at a later age, Prince’s life changed completely. “Suddenly I was respected and I was no longer the bullied, scared little boy I used to be. Everything was under control: I was appreciated, had a good job, a nice car and an excellent salary. I became more and more detached from my past, but because of that also from myself.”

At the same pace

Prins was not aware that he was doing himself violence in that way. The crazier it got, the better it got. At least, that’s what he thought. “Looking back, I was high on adrenaline and cortisol at the time. That went well for a few years, until I started having unpleasant health problems. Blackouts, intense headaches and other physical complaints such as dizziness, tingling fingers and stomach discomfort, which came back more and more.”

“ ‘The longer I stayed at home, the worse it got’

Initially, he did not see the complaints as a problem, so Prins continued at the same pace for at least another two years. Until things went horribly wrong one Saturday morning in 2012: “I was competing in a gaming tournament. Suddenly I had palpitations, followed by a huge panic. My body started shaking incessantly and I felt like I was collapsing. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t go on. My parents picked me up by car and I remember saying ‘Don’t tell anyone, I’ll be better on Monday’ Not knowing it would take me four years from then to get my life back on track get the ride.”

The Monday after his panic attack, he went to work as if nothing had happened. He thought it would be okay, but after half an hour of meeting he burst into tears. “I then went home, and then never came back,” says Reinoud, who was diagnosed with a burnout not much later. “The longer I sat at home, the worse it got. I was mentally and physically exhausted. That was terrible. I suddenly heard nothing from my friends with whom I always went into town. I felt so lonely. I had anxiety disorders and went into suicidal depression.”

The days were long and gray. Prins thought of suicide several times . In order not to give in to his negative thoughts, he took antidepressants. Day in, day out he lived with fears. “I was afraid of losing everything. My job, marriage and dream house. Everything I had worked so hard for. I absolutely did not want that, so I tried to hold on to it with all my might. Only after four years I realized there was no point. The cake was gone.”

Reinoud quit his job, sold his house and divorced his wife. Those turned out to be the choices that set him free. “It was only after I let go that I realized that that was what I needed. I had fought too long and too much, which left me stuck. Nobody could help me at that time. I spoke to psychologists, psychiatrists, a haptonomist, osteopath and homeopath, tried medication, EMDR, mindfulness, hypnotherapy and acupuncture, but to no avail.”

Looking for recognition

What would have helped? “If during his illness I had met someone with the same experience as I did at that time,” says Reinoud, who needed conversations with someone who understood him. Someone with knowledge, who could empathize with his pain. “A lot of therapists had no idea. They went through the standard thread and were not in contact with me, let alone steer me in the right direction.” Reinoud was given a lot of time to recover from his employer. “I am still grateful to them for that. That ensures less pressure from outside. I think an impatient employer can be disastrous for someone with a burnout.”

Though he was ashamed for a long time, now the whole world should know. “I was depressed, suicidal and had to give up everything I had. But now I’m free and I wish everyone that. By talking openly about mental problems, we give others the freedom to ask for help – and that’s still bad important. Being mentally unwell is human. Nobody should be ashamed of that.”

What does the expert say?

Michelle Siemons is a social psychologist. In her practice in Rotterdam she helps people with stress and burnout complaints. “A burnout is described in different ways. Empty battery, no energy, inexhaustible fatigue or ‘completely exhausted’. If you have a burnout, it is no longer possible to function normally. Everything feels heavy and you are constantly tired.” According to the psychologist, it often happens that people do not immediately realize that they are heading towards a burnout. “That gradually creeps in. It is therefore all the more important that you know what the signals are prior to a burnout. If you catch it on time, you can limit a lot of suffering and unrest.”

“ ‘The trick is to recognize complaints in yourself and to take a step back in time’

Before you end up in a burnout, you first go through two other stages: acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress is temporary and occurs, for example, with fright. Then your body goes into stress mode, also known as survival mode. Your pupils dilate, your breathing speeds up and your heart rate goes up. “This allows your body to respond as quickly and appropriately as possible.” According to Siemons, acute stress serves an important function, so that we could react quickly in prehistoric times when, for example, we encountered a lion. “In such a situation you immediately knew whether you had acted correctly. It was fatal or you survived the situation, after which your body could relax again.

Because it takes longer for you to know if you have done something right, this high level of stress can last longer and turn into chronic stress. This happens, for example, if you have to meet an important deadline. “For a long time you work towards a certain moment, and then have to wait for weeks before you know if you did it right. During that time you get the chance to think, worry and be anxious about a possible outcome. These kinds of situations are becoming more common these days and cause us to experience constant stress on a regular basis.” Which can eventually lead to burnout complaints.

The signs of burnout can be recognized in different ways. “You have physical, but also emotional and mental signals. The trick is to recognize complaints in yourself and to take a step back in time. This is only possible if you listen to your body carefully.”

Various burnout complaints

Please note: complaints are not limited to the following, and they can express themselves in different ways. This differs per person.

Physical Signs

  • Exercise headache
  • Migraine
  • Muscle tension in the back or neck
  • Disordered Digestion
  • Dizziness
  • Blurry sight
  • palpitations
  • Moist hands
  • Sleep problems

Emotional Signals

  • Being very sensitive and vulnerable
  • Being emotionally unstable
  • Suffering from fear
  • Crying faster than usual
  • Nervousness
  • Boredom
  • Focus on mostly negative things
  • Feeling of helplessness

Mental signals

  • Feeling of exhaustion
  • Not being able to properly absorb/process information
  • Forgetfulness
  • Excitement
  • unrest
  • Difficulty dividing attention
  • Can’t handle noise or a lot of stimuli well

Recovering from a burnout takes a lot of time, take that time too. “You have been looting your body for a long time. That is not just fixed again. Be aware of the factors that can promote or complicate your recovery and determine where you can exercise control. A good night’s sleep, the right diet and enough exercise are crucial in recovery from burnout.”

According to Siemons, it is precisely the people who are most motivated and have a lot of ambition that end up in the danger zone of getting a burnout. “They are constantly making an effort and deliver a lot of energy. Actually too much. They take work home, work through the breaks, start early and finish late. That is dangerous, because it means you don’t take the time to relax .”

Provide exhaust valves

Building in enough outlets helps your body to relax and unwind on a regular basis. “Often people only plan time on the weekend to recover,” says Siemons, who encourages you to relax enough not only on the weekend, but every day. By scheduling several moments every week when you can change your mind, you ensure mental recovery and give your brain a break. “For some it’s playing or painting a musical instrument and for others it could be running.”

Finally, Siemons believes it is important to state that a burnout is a concurrence of circumstances – and that it cannot arise from a work situation alone, for example. “A burnout can arise in any situation if you have to deal with stress for a long time.” Whether you are a caregiver, have financial problems or have a difficult relationship with your children: these are also situations that contribute to stress and can lead to burnout.

“Be aware of this, discuss it with those around you and ring the bell in time”, advises the psychologist. “You can do that by taking a step back yourself, but sometimes professional help is needed. Don’t feel ashamed to ask for professional help: that can ultimately ensure that you prevent worse and can recover in a sustainable way.”

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