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I have written a paper on the subject of burnout once upon a time, after having read a book about it by Swedish author Barbara Bronsberg. I studied it with great interest, interviewed the author and even became friend with her. At that time, I thought I would be well equipped with the knowledge of how to prevent myself from being burnt out.

Well, fast forward eight years, here I am, having burnt out without even realizing it. Can it possibly be burnout, I asked myself, if my daily life has been one without the hassle of a stressful career and the heavy duties of being a mom? I thought I had been living a balanced life, a dream one compared with the kind of slavery that my compatriots here in Hong Kong are going through. How I had been wrong!

To qualify for burnout, one doesn’t need to fit into the profile of a career superwoman or a superbusy soccer mom or the two-in-one. You can be doing all the “right things” and still be burnt. Every day, I’ve been making sure that I eat the right food (compliant for my blood type, cooking three meals a day using only the best and unprocessed ingredients), exercise (aerobics exercise for about 40 minutes almost every day of the week and ballet class twice a week), expose myself to a good dose of sunshine whenever possible, meditate (twice a day), take the necessary supplements, go for acupuncture and physiotherapy once a week and limit my travel to the city to once or twice a week. Perhaps even in filling out my day with beneficial routines, I had been stressing myself out!

It is true what Louise Hay and Cheryl Richardson wrote in their new book, You Can Create an Exceptional Life: “Our thinking either makes us feel good or it makes us feel bad. It is not the events nearly as much as it’s the thoughts.”

From a scientific point of view, psychological stress could be as harmful to us as physical or actual stress. “… our bodies have learned to respond to psychological stress with the same hormonal cascade that happens with exposure to a physical stressor. This means that just by our thinking about a stressful event, even if that event is highly unlikely to actually occur, our endocrine system gets all in an uproar,” wrote Shawn Talbott in The Cortisol Connection.

I have a tendency to worry and get anxious about a myriad different things. Obviously this tendency is not conducive to a low-stress healing life that I strive for. And on top of that, in my attempt to live a lifestyle relatively free from external stress factors in Hong Kong, I had to make a sacrifice. For a year now, I traded for this lifestyle with a rather abnormal work schedule–I worked at home from 6pm to 2am, so that I could have the whole day to do the “good stuff.” I am extremely lucky to have a boss who understands my needs and allows me to have a home office. However, due to the nature of my work, I have had to work late hours and sometimes working overnight, causing physiological damages that took a long time to repair.

Here are the symptoms that preceded my recent “discovery” of the precarious state I was in:
~ Physically and mentally tired
~ Losing steam and zest for life
~ Lacking interest for things that usually drive me, e.g. ballet, cooking
~ Losing zest for life
~ Anti-social
~ Depressed to the point of feeling suicidal
~ Feeling frustrated and hopeless
~ Loss of my usual youthful and cheerful self

What triggered these symptoms? I believe the following events collectively brought me “down”:
~ More than a month’s working round the clock and sleep deprivation, followed by the sudden release of tension as my vacation started
~ Switch to a super hard mattress, which significantly affected the quality and quantity of my sleep
~ Starting a Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment for my fibroids condition, which prolonged my cycle, made my abdominal area extra bloated, and induced depressive episodes before and during my period (it turned out that the granules may have contained corn or soy fillers, which would be the culprits of my going off-balance as these act like “poison” in my body)
~ Being in an exhaustive state, I became extremely emotionally sensitive…
~ … which led me to suddenly feel very jealous toward a friend, who “abused” my trust to get very close to another friend whom I admire and could not get access to due to her possessive behavior. Her crocodile tears and drama queen behavior tired me to no end
~ All my fellow adult ballet students seemed to have progressed to a higher level whereas I remain stagnant in my learning progress
~ My dear husband’s resistance against my well-meaning, caring gestures (mainly in the food department), which increasingly became a form of annoying nagging in his eyes

Going deeper beyond these triggering events, I realize that the fuel of my recent burnout had been boiling under the surface for months. There are a couple of underlying causes:
~ Fibroids getting bigger, causing me to gain weight around the waist, which affects my self-image and sense of self worth, especially when neighbors keep on asking me about my “pregnancy” and when I wear leotards at ballet class
~ Signs of aging, such as the onset of far-sightedness
~ Sleep deprivation for almost a whole year
~ Endless giving/forgetting to give myself priority and to love myself unconditionally, leading to “drying up inside”
~ Letting myself be drawn into the negativity of people who do not deserve my attention, which served only to feed their endless need for more attention
~ Constantly giving in to the habit of self criticism plus letting others’ criticism diminish my self worth
~ Demanding too much of myself for too long/perfectionist tendency

Nature is so smart with its self-regulating mechanism known as “homeostasis.” When something has gone too far, a trigger is pulled to bring it back into balance. This recent episode has been a great lesson for me, telling me that I need to slow down, that I need to take many breaks and give myself priority.

My husband always takes mini breaks throughout the day and never lets himself be governed by the clock. He gives himself “buffers” in between activities, whereas I always run from one activity to another. Even the much-revered quiet time for meditation had become a routine/chore for me to “get it done.” I must learn to take life much much more slowly. And by slow, I mean slower than snail-paced in my book. I think one of the “life lessons” that I get from marrying my husband is “patience”–for life.

I’m glad that Nature has pulled this trigger in me. Despite the extreme angst and unpleasant feelings that I experienced, I came out a winner. Those symptoms I listed above are actually natural defense mechanisms. As a result, I totally slacked off during my three-week year-end vacation. I skipped Christmas celebration almost entirely, did not decorate the apartment nor bake any holiday pastries or sweets. Instead, I let my husband cook dinner on Christmas eve and ate off from left-overs for the following days. I also did not embark on any big projects nor social engagements during this period. In fact, I have been living like a hermit! But it surely feels good. And just a few days ago I came down with a cold, which put me out of commission for 48 hours. During this time I slept a lot, one night for 11 hours, breaking my whole-year record! Gradually, I feel my “qi” coming back and the sparkle of life reignited.

Here are the other lessons I have learned through this burnout episode:
~ Serve yourself first, i.e. give myself priority and love myself MORE… yes, even selfishly!
~ Do not get sucked into the drama of negative people… Ignore their Facebook updates!
~ Stop comparing myself with others; focus on my own development and stick to a learning pace that is comfortable to myself
~ Do not feel personally insulted by “the look” from my dear husband when what I cook doesn’t agree with his taste buds or when he does not want to eat his portion of greens
~ Choose positive things to think about and drop the criticisms and negative thoughts, like glossing over the food you don’t like in a buffet
~ Give thanks to all the little things in life that bring me joy
~ Make the only ultimate goal in life “to feel good”
~ Set mini goals for task completion with an ultra-long time line; aim to complete things in double or triple the time I used to allow myself
~ Learn to allow others to do the stuff they promise to do, even if it takes double or triple the time I expected them to finish the tasks
~ Make sleep the No. 1 priority

Well, I guess I just completed my new year resolution for 2012. Oh, wait a minute! Perhaps I’ll apply the list for the next few years. Snail pace, right?