Long before COVID19, there was already another epidemic silently over-taking the world. Adrenal fatigue aka burn out or the “21st century stress syndrome” is a condition which probably affects millions of people but often goes undiagnosed or untreated because it is just seen as normal in our busy society.
Have you ever felt totally exhausted, overwhelmed and like you just can’t handle the stresses of life? Maybe you have experienced it already. Burn out is a phrase people often use lightly but it can actually be pretty serious and have a huge impact on your life and health.
What is adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is the effect of being too stressed over a long period of time. Our nervous systems are only supposed cope with a certain amount of stress and pressure and usually for only a short duration. Our fight or flight responses are designed to give us a quick burst of stress hormones to help us to get out of a dangerous situation and then to relax and go back to baseline once the danger has passed.
Unfortunately, these days we are constantly bombarded with stressors. From news alerts direct to our phone to high-pressure jobs which demand us to be switched on and ready to respond for most of the day. Our adrenal glands are constantly pumping out cortisol and adrenalin to help us to cope and survive the day. Combine this with too much caffeine, unhealthy habits and poor self-care and you have a recipe for adrenal fatigue.
The literal idea of a gland becoming tired is disputed by medicine. I am not here to say whether adrenal fatigue is “real” or not. But the functional state of chronic exhaustion which comes after a long period of stress cannot be denied. And more and more of us are experiencing the symptoms. Whether you call it adrenal fatigue, burn out or any other name doesn’t really matter.
How to recognise burn out or adrenal fatigue
Often the symptoms of burn out start gradually. You hit snooze a couple of extra times in the morning, you feel more tired throughout the day and you start to lose interest and motivation for your work or your daily activities. Over time it can gradually get worse to the point where you don’t feel like yourself anymore.
Some symptoms of adrenal fatigue to watch out for:
- Feeling tired even after a good nights sleep
- Not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep (insomnia)
- Low energy and lethargy
- Loss of interest in work and hobbies
- Feeling heavy and achy, especially in your legs
- Not wanting to socialise and preferring to be alone
- Blood sugar issues, craving sweets and crashing an hour after a high carbohydrate meal
- Craving salty foods more than usual
- Relying more on coffee and tea to get through the day
- Feeling zoned out or “brain fog”
The symptoms experienced depend on the stage of adrenal fatigue. Dr Lam, adrenal fatigue expert, writes in detail about this. Stage 1 is the state of chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels. Often this stage can be ignored and pushed through using stimulants such as caffeine, sugar and high fat junk foods which stimulate the nervous system.
During stage 2 you will likely experience increasing fatigue as cortisol levels are no longer able to keep up with the demand. Stimulants may no longer work and increasing levels of will power are needed to make it through the day. You might experience other symptoms such as insomnia or PMS. By stage 3 you feel like the walking dead! This represents total collapse, when you no longer can function normally.
My experience with adrenal fatigue
I shared my own experiences with adrenal fatigue and insomnia in a previous post. It really is something that is close to my heart as it had a huge impact on my life. I couldn’t sleep, I was experiencing all sorts of weird physical symptoms and I had nearly constant brain fog. I was able to push through and keep up my job, studies and some form of a social life but everything felt like so much effort.
On the outside I probably seemed like I had it altogether but I looked completely exhausted and inside I felt drained. Even fun things became a chore and I just wanted to hide away. Looking back I was probably at stage 2 of adrenal fatigue. Luckily I was able to get myself out of the hole and now I want to help others who are struggling with the same thing. I know it’s such a dark place to be and I want to give hope that recovery is possible!
What to do if you have burn out or adrenal fatigue
1. Identify stressors
The most important thing to do first is to identify your stressors. Take some time to reflect on all areas of life including work, family, relationships, hobbies, diet, exercise and creative projects. Make two lists, one of the things that steal your energy and the other of things that boost your energy.
Once you have your lists, you can make a plan for how you will decrease the “energy stealers” and how you will increase the “energy boosters” in your life. Some things will be harder than others but start with a few of the low-hanging fruit and notice the impact it has on your overall wellbeing. Then move onto the more challenging things on the list.
|Energy stealers||Energy boosters|
|Working 2 hours overtime a day||Taking a full hour lunch break|
|Responding to email notifications immediately||5 minutes of deep breathing|
|Drinking coffee in the afternoon||Drinking more water|
|Speaking on the phone with X friend||Going to a dance class|
2. Get organised
Another really important thing is planning and organizing. Being reactive and responsive is one thing that keeps us constantly on alert. Maybe you work in the emergency services where you have to be ready to respond at all times, but if you work in an office job, feeling like you have to react and respond to every phone call or email right away could be contributing to your stress and feelings of burn out.
If you can, try turning off your email notifications and setting a couple of windows throughout the day to go in and check your inbox. Use your calendar to block out time windows for specific tasks and try to stay focused. Being interrupted and distracted by multi-tasking uses up a lot of brain power! Keeping a task list with both to-do today and a “later list” can be helpful for prioritizing so that you don’t spend your day fire-fighting small tasks and can actually get something done which helps you to feel accomplished.
3. Rest fully
Next up is getting true rest and downtime. You might think you are resting and relaxing when you are watching TV or Youtube videos but your brain is still being active and stimulated. If you are suffering from burn out, you want to try to get yourself into a deep relaxation state at least once a day, more if you can. You can do this by lying down and listening to relaxing music or a guided meditation, sitting outside or going for a slow, mindful walk, taking the time to stretch out your body or having a bubble bath.
These things might feel difficult, especially if you are in the stressed phase of adrenal fatigue where you are stuck on high alert mode. It might feel challenging to sit and do nothing, you might feel like you are wasting time and you should be doing something productive. You might feel agitated and restless in your body or your thoughts might start to go crazy once you let go of busyness and find stillness. All of these are signs that you need to stick at it!
Let yourself feel the agitation and notice any thoughts and resistance that comes up. Stay with the feelings and wait until the dust settles. If you are feeling physically restless, yoga or moving your body to music can be a great way to release some of that trapped energy and soothe your nervous system enough that you are able to let go and allow yourself to be still and relaxed.
You’ll know you are there once you start to feel your body melt and your mind drift. You want to be in that almost-sleep brain state where you aren’t actively thinking or planning and thoughts can drift in and out of your mind. This is such a healing state to be in for anyone with burn out as the parasympathetic nervous system state is engaged and the adrenals are able to rest and recharge.
4. Let go of stress
Taking time to relax a few times throughout the day is like emptying your “stress cup”. Imagine your stress capacity being a glass and every stressor throughout the day adds a drop or a splash of water to the cup. Once the cup is full and starts to overflow, you are going to be experiencing a state of stress or over-whelm. Taking breaks to breath deeply, go outside or just to be with yourself is like emptying out a bit of that water to give you more space in your cup i.e. more capacity to deal with stress.
The idea is to keep the level as low as possible, either by reducing the inputs (stressors) or increasing the outputs (relaxing activities). If you can reach the end of the day with your cup half empty then you are on the right path to healing your adrenals and recovering from burn out. Having a solid morning routine including yoga, breathwork and meditation can also be a way to strengthen your nervous system and increase the capacity of your stress-cup over time.
Over to you..
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