First published on Saturday the 5th of August, 2017, this piece comes in at number 6 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2017.
Let’s be honest: no-one really wants to talk about it. After all, aren’t we all supposed to be Wonder Women? But we’re long overdue for a probing conversation on the subject – at least as a new documentary tells it.
Sometimes called the “overachiever’s syndrome,” burnout is becoming increasingly common, especially among young women. With more pressure than ever before to “do it all,” it’s perhaps unsurprising that more young women are experiencing burnout than ever before.
That’s one of the topics of the documentary series called “In My Mind” that discusses mental health and young women. Emily McLean, the star of the “burnout” episode, says it’s a topic that needs to be discussed, now.
“Burnout becomes really dangerous when it starts to affect your physical and emotional health,” she explains. “When you start to experience panic attacks because the cortisol in your brain is too high, or have repeated illness, gut problems or persistent anxiety. The effects of stress seem temporary when you’re young, but they can actually do some permanent damage to your body if you don’t learn to slow down.”
Ashton Scott, the director of the episode, says something similar. “Most people don’t know or are in denial about the symptoms they may be feeling when they are approaching burn out,” she says. “They often keep pushing and pushing themselves until they eventually crash. This denial is perhaps the most dangerous aspect as people also become great at masking how they are feeling to please others. Because of this, it often goes untreated until it’s so bad that people crash.”
McLean says she believes part of the problem is the sheer amount of pressure young women are subjected to, which is compounded by social media. “We’re consistently bombarded with images of people who are ‘succeeding’ and we feel we should try and push ourselves to attain that.”
Scott agrees. “Young women have now grown up using social media, comparing themselves to others and living in a world that is ever changing, increasingly fast paced and unpredictable. This, combined with being fed the belief that we can and therefore should do anything and everything, is definitely a factor.”
McLean says part of the problem is many young women might not recognise they are experiencing burnout – or feel pressured to “tough it out” despite its negative effects. “To be honest I don’t think many women realise they have it,” she says. “In my case, I just had a severe panic attack while driving and couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t until I realised I had been ignoring my feelings and body for way too long and got back in touch with them that I realised I’d been running on zero.”
McLean adds burnout can be more than just physical exhaustion. “I also believe that women only think they can get burnout from work in the traditional sense, but burnout can be emotional or physical. It’s embarrassing to admit that you’re emotionally spent or physically spent, as our society doesn’t offer much compassion for those who are burnt out in areas outside of the workplace.
“As young women, we’re very relational creatures which takes a lot of our emotional and mental resources. When you put an extra layer on that in the form of achievement in work and business and at the gym, we suddenly end up very stressed.
“Young women in New Zealand are also trying to live up to traditional gender roles, which often means being married by 30 and having kids shortly after that, and that relational part is an area that many men feel less stressed about.”
Scott agrees. “Mental health has only recently become more talked about, and it’s only in recent years (in the last 50 or so) that it has become acceptable for women to complete both their mother’s and father’s traditional roles. We have been told that ‘we can do it all’, but somewhere along the line we have misinterpreted it as ‘we must do everything.’”
Scott also believes burnout will become an even bigger problem for young women in the future. “People are becoming more competitive. The generation entering the work force now have been told their whole lives that they can be whoever they want to be and that has set them up for failure.”
But if it’s not going away, how can young women stave off the effects of burnout? McLean says there’s a few things that can be done – such as being comfortable with the fact that you don’t have to do everything all at once. “It’s the hardest pill to swallow as we have been sold the lie that we can,” she explains.
Similar sentiments are echoed by Scott. “Listen to your body,” she says. “Slow down, learn to breathe properly, learn to say ‘no’ and take some time out for yourself. Perfect is impossible. That all sounds really cliché, but it’s for a reason.”
McLean also advises young women to be proactive, by recognising warning signs of burnout. “Early warning signs are when you start to feel you don’t have the same enthusiasm and energy you once had for everyday life,” she explains. “When you want to retreat more than you want to engage with life. It may feel a bit like a mild case of depression. When you start feeling ‘wired but tired’ it’s another big warning sign, where you can seem to switch off or sleep properly, yet you don’t feel energised as such.
“If you start having persistent anxiety or panic attacks out of the blue (as in not provoked by any particular stimulus – and they usually happen when you’re relaxing), then this is the final warning sign that your brain and body have had enough.”
There are other things we can do, too, she says. “We need to start cultivating a society where taking care of ourselves is highly valued,” McLean says. “In New Zealand, we have a ‘harden up’ culture that doesn’t allow us to cultivate a great self-care attitude. We also need to celebrate people for ‘being’ rather than ‘doing.’ My mum once said to me ‘life isn’t a competition’ and I’ve always remembered that and tried to apply it, even when I feel like striving to be the best at the cost of my health.
“We need to be honest with ourselves and others and not be afraid to ask for help if we need it. No human is an island. On an individual level, it’s about setting realistic goals for yourself and making sure you have some fun or relaxation everyday – it sounds simple but for overachievers this is really hard to do!”
And McLean’s biggest piece of advice to fight burnout? “My biggest aim is that people realise that their worth shouldn’t lie in what they do but who they are – and remember you’re enough as you are!”
Advice to keep in mind no matter how much we have going on.
The “Burnout” episode of the “In My Mind” documentary series airs at 8.30am on Sunday, August 6 on TVNZ 1.Support Villainesse