Surviving Burnout – How to restore your health and happiness starting right now

surviving burnout

I haven’t always lived a healthy lifestyle. In fact, it was quite the opposite for a long time. My “aha moment” came at a time in my life when I was at the peak of my career and going downhill fast. Surviving burnout was one of the biggest struggles I have ever had to deal with. But truly, it was also a gift in disguise.

My story

It’s 5:30am and still dark out. The wind howls outside and my partner is fast asleep beside me. I have just reluctantly turned off my alarm clock for the second time. My body hurts.

In the darkness, I grab a white t-shirt, a pair of baggy, greasy, stained chef pants; underwear and socks and walk to the bathroom. I turn on the light. It’s bright, too bright. I squint my way over to the shower and turn it on. I shiver as I undress and hop in. My shower won’t even be long enough to warm my body through.

I get dressed, throw my hair up in a bun and pop my contact lenses into my squinty, burning eyes. I grab a hoodie, pea coat and scarf and a Yoplait yogurt on my way out the door. My morning routine is now complete.

As I walk to the subway station, eating my yogurt, I call my fish purveyor to place the day’s order. Talking to him for ten minutes is the highlight of my day. He is kind, makes me laugh and sympathizes with me. I need it, it lifts my spirits.

If there aren’t any issues with Muni that day and my train actually shows up I get to work at 6:45am. The linen truck and my prep cook are already there waiting for me. I joke around with them for a minute, push aside the homeless man who has made a bed in front of the back door to the restaurant, and walk in. I relish the few minutes I’m in the chef’s office putting away my coat because it’s warm in there.

I get my prep cook going on the tasks for the day and then assume my duty of going into the walk-in cooler for a half an hour to gather items I need for the day. By the time I finish I’m so cold I can’t feel my fingers or feet.

If I don’t get continually interrupted by deliveries while I’m in the walk-in, then I can resume my day on schedule not feeling like I am starting off on the back foot. Though, this pretty much never happens.

The next twelve plus hours are spent on my feet, half way between panic mode and adrenalin high. I try my best to get through a never ending prep list, deal with line cooks and their personal problems, try not to lose my shit when I’m hit with large surprise catering orders (that I don’t have time for) and two fast and hard lunch and dinner services. In between “putting out fires” and covering cooks, so they can take breaks,  I have to magically find time to complete my administrative tasks and be “creative”.

With the exhaustion I am feeling I don’t have a single creative thought in my brain, nor do I have the time to steal one out of a cookbook or magazine. The daily specials start to look the same and I can see the line cooks growing bored with them. Shit, I’m bored of them. But, I’m in survival mode. Every day.

When I get home that evening I cook my partner and I dinner, we eat, drink a few beers and then I go to sleep and do it all over again the next day. I do this over and over every day like a rusty drone ready to short circuit at any given moment.

This used to be my life. I was pale, skinny, malnourished, and had chronic headaches and backaches. My feet hurt all the time. I had a horrible diet, didn’t exercise, didn’t rest and had wicked mood swings. Sure, there were people in my life who made me smile and who I loved, but for the most part I faked a smile to cover up how I was feeling inside, which was exhausted and miserable.

I remember being so stressed out one day that I had to stop in the street and sit down. My heart was racing, I couldn’t breath and tears were streaming down my face. I was having my first panic attack. On my day off.

I had never had a panic attack before. Was this the new normal? Was this going to be my life? I couldn’t even enjoy a day off without panicking about what was happening at the restaurant? It was then, that I knew.

I started to think about my life. What I had missed out on, what I would continue to miss. How little joy was left. When my father passed away I hadn’t seen him in almost two years. He was my best friend, but I barely had time to talk to him when he would call. I thank god now, that I had at least picked up the phone. I missed him terribly and I blamed work for not being able to have had more memories with him.

After twelve years the restaurant industry had finally won. I had officially been defeated mentally and physically, and I was done.

A career that I had worked so hard for and given my whole life to had chewed me up and spit me out. I felt weak and embarrassed. But I also felt free. My last day managing a restaurant kitchen was probably one of the happiest days of my life.

A new normal

The healing process began immediately afterward. I took about two months off where I didn’t even think about work. I started traveling – going to places I had never been, visiting family and taking time to relax, eat and sleep.

I started eating three meals a day (sitting down even!), and although my hips were so tight I couldn’t even sit Indian style, I started a yoga practice, which I now accredit to saving my life.

It took a while for me to slow down. Being a chef had trained me to do everything in my life fast, from brushing my teeth to walking down the sidewalk. Impatient didn’t even begin to start to describe who I was. I was a “master” at multi-tasking (at least that’s what I thought) and I planned everything I did for efficiency, rather than enjoying the process. I was also extremely pessimistic, sarcastic and pretty closed off emotionally to my friends and family.

I had a lot of work to do.

After bumming around a couple years working part time in a few friends’ restaurants, helping out with prep and doing some consulting, I decided it was time to get serious and get back to work. But this time, on my own terms.

I became an entrepreneur and started taking on freelance work.

I was motivated by one thing and one thing only — a flexible schedule. Until now, I had never had that in my life, since I started working at the age of 15.

I realize now, that it was in that moment, I started living my life according to my own personal values, instead of chasing status, recognition or money. It was one of the most important shifts I ever made.

Over the past several years, I have changed my life dramatically and have never felt better. There are so many things that I have learned that I wish I knew back than.

There is a combination of healthy habits that I have adopted slowly overtime, since leaving the restaurant industry. I truly believe that with the right mindset and framework that anyone can make these changes in order to restore their health and bring peace to their life, whether you are in a demanding job or not.

Surviving burnout

When you are experiencing burnout it is hard to see anything else. You don’t have time for anything. I mean, that’s one of the reasons why you are burning out in the first place right?

For the sake of your life, and the lives of those you love around you, you need to stop, look at your situation and reassess it in order for things to change and get better.

Take one afternoon and think about how you are going to do the following:

  1. Set boundaries: Before you can start to do any type of work on yourself no matter what it is you have to build the courage and strength to set boundaries and reclaim your life. This might mean pissing people off, letting others down, being made fun of and/or having to isolate yourself temporarily. It does not matter. This is the first and most crucial part of recovering from burnout. To do this, you must first figure out how much time you need to take back for yourself in order for you to regain your health and sanity. You will then make yourself an “ideal” daily schedule and share it with the people whom it will affect the most. Then you do your very best to stick to it, not allowing anyone to alter it with their own personal agendas. This is where you learn to say NO (for probably the first time in your life).
  2. Get on a sleep schedule: If you are burned out chances are you are not getting enough sleep every night. Sleep is absolutely crucial for your mental and physical health. Get yourself on a schedule that allows you to get 7-9 hours of sleep every night. Not getting enough sleep every night can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, low energy, lowered immune system, poor mental health and can lead to diseases like Alzheimer’s cancer and diabetes. According to Matthew Walker, the director for the Center for Human Sleep at UC Berkeley and the author of Why We Sleep, “..after just one night of only four or five hour’s sleep, your natural killer cells – the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in you body every day – drop by 70%” and “the shorter you sleep, the shorter your life”. So, make sleep your first priority.
  3. Look at the way you handle stress: Are you in panic or worry mode everyday? Do you feel constantly frustrated, pissed off, tense or anxious? Do you feel like “nothing can ever just be easy” or that you can’t seem to get your life into a good place? Chances are this is something you have actually manifested yourself. Is it really just a coincidence that something “goes wrong” every day? The reality, is that even with jobs that are more stressful like a police officer, a fire fighter (or a restaurant chef!) you always have a choice in the way you handle yourself. It may not seem like it, but you do. Have you ever noticed that there are people in your life, maybe even people you work with, that just never seem phased by anything? You are running around like your hair is on fire trying your hardest to keep up and keep the proverbial “boat” from sinking and they are just cruising. That person should get fired you say or maybe you just personally loathe them. But why? Isn’t what you want for your life for it to be easier and less stressful? In a way, you want what they have. Harping on the past and worrying about the future rarely brings anything productive to the present moment. Know that you are doing your best. Trust that you are doing everything in that moment that you can, in order to be successful in the future, and just let life happen. If you are working with integrity and effort than that is all you can do. Are you worried that someone is going to say you didn’t try hard enough? Are you worried about being a failure? That is your ego taking over. Tell it to shut up and go about your day being the rock star that you are at an even keeled pace. And just remember this, the way you do anything is the way you do everything. So the next time you have to manage your emotions or a situation, no matter how big or small, keep that in mind. Make sure the way you handle yourself is the way you want to show up in this world, to yourself and to others. That, and the proven fact that stress causes the same major health issues that sleep deprivation does. Eventually it will literally kill you.
  4. Create a solid morning routine: The old days of me giving myself a half an hour between waking up and running out the door are over. The best way to ensure you have a good day is to set yourself up for success. This starts with making your to-do list the night before and getting a good night’s sleep. Give yourself at least an hour before you have to hit the shower and leave for work to mentally prepare yourself for the day. For me this includes, drinking a full glass of room temperature lemon water, to cleanse my liver and boost my metabolism; meditating, journaling, reading and having a healthy breakfast. Everyone should create a custom morning routine that fits their own needs yet gives you ample time to ease into your day with intention.
  5. Eat healthier: This has just as much to do with the food you eat as it does the way you eat it and think about it. You could be eating the cleanest, most nutrient packed food everyday but if you are shoving it in your mouth on the run, eating more than your body needs or moralizing every piece of food you put (or don’t put) in your mouth than you are not eating healthy. Find the foods that make you feel good and give you energy, drink lots of water and enjoy what you eat. Food restriction does not help you maintain a desired weight and it screws with your head. You know deep down what you need and how much you need of it to thrive. Less processed foods, more REAL food. Don’t over complicate it.
  6. Move: It may sound counterproductive to someone who is on their feet 12 hours a day to develop an exercise routine. After all, “I’m running around moving all day, aren’t I?” Working on your feet all day and exercising are not the same thing. You need at least 30 minutes a day where you are moving without having to think about anything except the movement that you are performing. My current favorite workouts involve swimming, TRX and yoga. I also sold my car and walk a lot more now. It doesn’t matter what you choose as long as it gets your blood pumping and helps strengthen your muscles. Yoga is my favorite because it incorporates mindfulness, meditation and movement all in one – three things crucial for balancing burnout symptoms. If you are lethargic and tired from being burned out exercise will actually give you the energy and mental clarity that you need.
  7. Practice self-compassion: Above all give yourself a break. You have been pushing yourself past your limits for too long. It is time to show yourself some love and care so that you can then show the same to others. It is OK to be a hard worker but not at the cost of sacrificing yourself.

If you are suffering from burnout, it is time to take back your life right now. Best of luck to you.

Do you have a burn out story? How did you survive? What were the changes that you made in your life that helped you recover? Tell us all about it in the comments section. And if you liked this article I invite you to subscribe to The Healthy Locavore for more health tips, cooking ideas and resources. I am so grateful for this community, thank you so much for being a part of it!