Creatives share their routines when dealing with burnout, shock and overwhelm
Words by Madeleine Dore
Art by Evie Cahir
In our latest interview with Lisa Congdon, the Portland-based artist candidly shared her new approach to structuring her days after a decade of working to the point of overwhelm.
“About five years ago, I started to feel stressed out in a way that I hadn't previously – I was waking up with anxiety and often had a sense of tension in the pit of my stomach. I loved the work I was doing, so it never felt like a chore, but eventually in the tenth year of my career I started to have physical symptoms as a result of the stress.”
Congdon is not alone in her experience of work related stress and burnout. Be it caused by an infectious desire to be busy, never quite knowing when to switch off, the precarious or uncertain nature of creative work, or troubling external events and circumstances, no matter what your profession or career stage, chances are you’re familiar with having felt a little defeated and depleted at some stage.
Yet, all too often when we are feeling threadbare, we do feel alone. Is there something wrong with me for not being able to hack it, push through, pep up, work harder? It doesn’t help that there is an external and sometimes internal pressure to conceal such experiences in favour of keeping the highlight reel on repeat, not skipping a beat to reveal that things might be all too much, that despite your supposed output, you’re flailing.
I was interested to collect a range of experiences from my interview archive as well as new to unpack what happens to our days – and our lives overall – when we go through times of stress. More importantly, this collection aims to uncover tools for helping us to move through such times and remind us we’re not alone.
Writer Ashley C. Ford on taking care of yourself first after shock…
Post-Trump being elected, I was not doing well and I had no idea what to do. My boyfriend and I thought, okay, what do we want to do? What do we do with our money? What do we want to do about our safety? Who do we want to give to? When do we need to be in the streets? When do we need to be in a boardroom? How can we best serve a resistance?
Because the truth is, you don't want me on the street marching. You want to know why? I have a terrible anxiety and I would probably a panic attack no matter what happens because I'm surrounded by bodies. Who wants to be dealing with that when you're trying to resist an oppressive regime? But I can be a person who gives consistently to an organization. I can be a person engages in important discussions. I can be a person who works with disenfranchised people and marginalized people and helps them navigate systems that they otherwise haven’t necessarily had the knowledge base to know how to navigate. There are a lot of things my boyfriend and I sat and thought about it, a lot of things that we can do. It's important to name those things, to engage in those things and explain to other people who are also frustrated that they also have options. And that none of us have to take this sitting down.
Importantly, I went back to therapy. I look after myself first because when I give I'm always trying to give the best of me. I can't even access the best of me if I’m not taking care of myself.
Researcher Susan Carland on the reality behind demeanors and the importance of asking for help, sleep, exercise and self-talk…
I think I can be a bit frenetically busy, I rush around like a maniac, so the calm exterior is just a demeanor.
Dealing with being horrendously busy is a matter of being as organised as I can – lots of lists and everything in diaries – but it's also at the stage now where I am so busy I can't look beyond the next two days on my calendar and I do get caught out. A week feels like it lasts about a year, sometimes I even I look back and think, was that just this morning?
I try to be really strict about sleep, especially when I feel myself getting overwhelmed I know it's time to go to bed. Also, I need to go to the gym to burn off excess adrenalin. I pray five times a day and that is a real recalibration – when I am at the gym, I will read a litany while I'm on the exercise bike and that just really helps settle me as well and clarify my purpose and my intention.
When I’m overwhelmed, it’s a matter of just saying to my friends or Waleed, can you please help me with this or I need you to do this. That makes a big difference – there is no point in feeling miserable or even resentful if you are not telling people you need assistance, so I'm all for telling people, I need your help now.
I am also try to be conscious about my self-talk when I feel myself getting miserable or overwhelmed or negative. The only thing you can change is how you respond to a situation and how you feel about it. You can get agitated and stressed and angry, and all that happens is that you go through the same thing but you are in garbage mood. Or you can think, okay, I'm going to do this I'm going to be positive I'm going to be grateful to be doing a cool job and try to think enthusiastically about the same situation.
A lot of it is in our control – how we behave, how we respond to things. It helps me to try to think of “Future Susan” and think, what would she want in this moment? Future Susan can be a bit of a pain, but it's good to think of it in that way as well because it takes it out of what is immediately easy or comfortable and creates that little shift of delayed gratification. A lot of it is about the long-term goal of how I want to be as a person and certainly who I want to model for my children but also who I want to do be.
Writer and photographer Nirrimi Firebrace on the romanticism of busyness and not losing sight of why you create…
There’s romanticism around working terribly hard, even at the expense of our sleep, free time and mental health. Our fast paced culture celebrates busyness. It pushes the idea that if you’re not reaching your goals you’re just not working hard enough. Are you sharing content daily? Are you answering the flood of emails quickly enough? Are you keeping up with the whir of social media?
There is beauty in hard work, but burn out is not a trophy. Working yourself at the expense of your life will kill the heart of your work because the heart of your work isn’t your work, it’s you. It’s the adventures you’ve chased, the love and heartbreak you’ve felt and all the little thoughts and feelings and connections that add up to equal you.
I read this book recently that outlined the way well-known creatives worked in their daily lives. It struck me how many prolific artists or authors (those who’d written hundreds of novels or created countless artworks in their lives) only spent a few hours each day creating. It is a lesson I’ve learned over and over in my 10 years as a working creative. You don’t need every hour of every day to accomplish great things. Which is lucky, because our work should supplement our life, not be our life.
People won’t connect to how little sleep you lost over a project or how often you post, they will connect to how deeply they can relate to your work. Those flames burning inside you need to be fed. That well that you draw your ideas from needs to be filled. For the sake of good art, spend more time daydreaming and exploring. You’ve got time.
There are two ways I avoid burning out. One is through clarity. I get clear on what I want to accomplish, and all the little steps I need to take to get there. When I lay it all out I can figure out what’s important. I make daily plans, just like a map to keep me from getting lost. Without my map I waste so much time drifting aimlessly. Neil Gaiman talks about imagining his goals are distant mountains and asks himself if an action is going to take him toward the mountain, or not.
Another is by stepping away from my work often. My daughter helps me with this one, she’s my living laughing pause button. I also prioritise things like travel and being in nature and cooking and doing yoga and meeting other creatives and leaving my comfort zone. I am cautious with social media, I unfollow people who make me feel like I’m not successful or busy enough and frequently take digital breaks. I try to create for the journey, not the destination and I never lose sight of why I create in the first place.
Writer Brodie Lancaster on not knowing until it's too late, but eventually getting clearer…
I never know I’m burning out until it’s too late. I say yes to freelance work and social events weeks or months in advance, when my planner has empty space and I desperately try to fill it so as not to feel like I’m doing *nothing*.
By the time the deadlines loom, simple things like grocery shopping and laundry feel at once urgent and impossible. My brain gets foggy and my patience wears thin. The smallest thing can set me off; a plan I’d thought was concrete becomes hypothetical, a shift in my responsibilities at my day job that is realistic seems suddenly like the butterfly that lands on the bonnet of a teetering car and sends it careening off a cliff. It’s during these times when kind texts and emails and tweets and Facebook messages and Instagram DMs all feel like a million people demanding something of me at once. A gentle request feels like a shout. The mere act of writing this, of trying to articulate how it feels to be so overwhelmed that not even listening to the One Direction song with the chorus that goes “Don’t burn out” can soothe me as I’m doing just that, was impossible a few weeks ago.
But then one thing gets done. It gets done under duress and anxiety, but it still gets done. And then there’s one fewer thing to do. And as one thing gets ticked off, one email gets answered, one apologetic text gets sent, one invoice gets paid, it becomes lighter and clearer. And it feels possible again.
Artist and podcaster Honor Eastly on the two phases of burnout…
I've learned recently that for me there's two distinct phases of burn out: crispy, and burnt out. The first phase – first because it usually comes first – is when I'm stretching myself in a way that I'm still enjoying, the second is when I'm down for the count, will not be moved, questioning all my life choices up until that point.
My podcast Starving Artist has been a big lesson in both these phases. In the months leading up to launching that project, I actually lost my shit a little bit. Those folks playing at home could really tell, as I diarised my decent into project madness online – lots of seeing the sunrise (something I rarely do), and just working 12-16 hour days at my desk. Absolutely unsustainable. At the time I was both hating it – it's difficult to be that *on* for a month or two – but also loving it – there's something humbling about becoming better acquainted with that deliriously sublime morning sky.
There's an aliveness to these points in my life that is both terrifying, and well, alive. Laugh crying at the sky alive. Falling over with exhaustion alive. The kind of alive that I don't want to do at the time but I will also miss.
But then comes phase two, which really hit hard for me this time round. Right after launching Starving Artist I got salmonella poisoning, which had me down for the count much longer than I expected. That was a big wake up call. And in terms of my routine, it has just, well, evaporated.
It's interesting to see these two sides actually, the crispy verses the burnt out. To me they are so different: crispy is when you're stretched but on fire, burnt out is when you're down-for-the-count, don't-anyone-look-at-me, please-world-go-the-fuck-away. I find burnt out way more scary, because I feel like I lose all my fire, and this time around, with illness, I've been scared that I've somehow, irreparably broken my work ethic.
I guess I'm just learning how to be burnt out better, and one thing that I've really learned is that when you're burnt out, you *should* be disappointing people – and yourself! Like, if you're not disappointing people then you're not doing it right, cause you're not resting. So I've been practicing that. I've been practicing disappointing people. Often I'll say yes to things that really put me out without even asking for some flexibility. Most people know what being sick is like, and they just want you to communicate with them. Everything can be worked around, so postpone it. There's more life ahead of you.
Children's book author Lori Richmond on doing something unrelated to your work...
As a children's author-illustrator, I spend a lot of time in stories and make-believe worlds with characters that don't exist in real life. Even with this endless stream of possibility and creativity, I get burned out. Working on a picture book is a very intense experience. I go through about two to three months of sketches, another three to four months of final artwork, then create the cover art, and whatever other art the publisher may need to promote the book. By the end of this process, while I love my characters, I need a long break from them.
Doing something *completely different* helps me a lot. If I've been working with certain materials all those months, I'll find whatever is the complete opposite and use that instead.
Sometimes I'll devote some time to a personal project that has *nothing* to do with children's books – recently I started the #viewfrommyrun series of drawings on Instagram and it's been very therapeutic and a lot of fun. Through this project I am also discovering new drawing styles that I would love to incorporate into future books.
And, of course, the old adage of getting your butt out of the chair and outside is 110% true. Go for a walk, meet up with a friend, hit a museum. As creatives, we have to remember to live life in order to keep filling up the mental tank.
Journalist and magazine founder Amy Middleton on creating a symptoms list and what can help…
We publish Archer Magazine twice a year, and each deadline is like my own personal emotional endurance trial.
I mean the work is hard, sure, but it’s the emotional side of things I really struggle with. Crucially, as a magazine about sexuality and gender, Archer Magazine is unique in the personal nature of the stories and images we publish. So between running a business on next to no wage, there’s the added pressure of ensuring everyone is represented in ways that suit them, and doing our best to contribute something to the world that’s going to have a positive impact.
At deadline, this process involves a lot of tears, feelings of isolation, and many hours spent on the couch despite the intense amount of work piled up next to me. Did I mention the tears?
A few deadlines ago, my mum, who is one of my key supports during these challenging and chaotic periods, suggested I start a document that outlines what happens to me at deadline, and what can sometimes help. This has been super helpful to revisit, when I feel overwhelmed and lose the ability to settle myself.
So here’s a bit of insight into that document, which is a mix between very practical solutions, and inexplicably comforting whimsies:
At deadline time, you might:
+ Feel extremely anxious for extended periods of time (sometimes days)
+ Become quite intolerant of mess
+ Become quite intolerant of your wife
+ Feel like you need to move house/city/country
+ Become very self-focused
+ Feel heightened sensitivity to comments from friends or family
+ Feel like no-one understands you and you’re alone
+ Feel REALLY alone
+ Think the magazine is a pile of crap and you are terrible at your job
+ Wonder why the hell you’re doing this
+ Become fearful of hurting people with your content
+ Become fearful of public opinion
+ Become unable to work for hours on end (sometimes days)
+ Burn out completely
What can sometimes help:
+ First, let your loved ones know what’s going on, incl. wife, sister, mum and friends
+ Second, consider setting an email auto-response to ease the communication pressure (this has the added bonus of promoting the new issue release date!)
+ Get down on the floor and either just lie there OR do downward dog, followed by child’s pose
+ Take three deep breaths (like really deep)
+ Walk to Rucker’s Hill and look at the city lights
+ Jog there, if you feel up to it
+ Phone a friend (see list of friends that might be helpful)
+ Have dinner out of the house with a member of the support team
+ Buy fresh flowers and put them in a vase
+ Book in a massage
+ If things get really bad, drive to the beach. Go in up to your shins if it’s not too freezing
+ Go to the mall and buy a cushion/planter pot/new jumper/new socks
+ Take a yoga class
If none of these work, it’s time to stop for the day – yes, even if you stopped yesterday. This work is unpaid, for the sole purpose of bettering people’s lives. It should not be an unbearably awful experience for you.
Anxiety means you still care, and you’re being considered about what you put out into the world. To a point, stress is useful and productive.
Artist Spenceroni on recognising your energy levels, rest, and working on multiple projects as an antidote to overwhelm…
My general theory is that you only have a certain amount of energy that you can expend on something – it's like a credit card, if you overdraw that energy, you have to repay it. If I work more than my energy limit and push through with coffee, I know that it's going to bounce back at some point and potentially cause me to burnout.
It can be difficult to remember what it feels like when you’re not in it, but generally for me, it’s a mix of physical and mental exhaustion and my self-motivation is completely depleted – everything just seems way more dire than it probably actually is.
Once you have a good rest, the work or the situation hasn't changed, but everything is better again. For example, during the burnout period it's like, "Oh this is rubbish. What am I doing?" As soon as I'm out of that period and look back on my work, I'm like "Oh it's not so bad. I don't know what I was thinking!"
I'm learning to go with the flow and recognise when I have lower energy and it’s time to have a rest. But then, towards the end of a rest period, you have to push yourself out of it and get back into the habit of creating. You have to get the momentum going again on whatever projects you're on. Now I’m trying to work on multiple projects simultaneously so there is always something going on at a different process stage, and it doesn't always have to feel like you have to push a rock up a mountain to start something.
There’s a quote I like to remember – "Don’t ask the mountain to move, just take a pebble every time you visit."
Maker and blogger Kate Berry on quitting, honesty, and prioritising health & family
When I burnt out and finished at Lunch Lady, I was often told that I shouldn’t speak about it – that if I did, it was going to paint me in a bad light and I probably wouldn’t get any work because it will look like I couldn't cope with pressure. To be perfectly honest, I found that advice a little insulting. We're fucking human beings. We're not machines. We have needs that are not just related to producing work. I think sharing a true, real story presents a more realistic picture to other people that might be going through the same thing – what creative person hasn't ended up in a fucking puddle on the floor?
I initially took on the magazine project because I thought it would allow me to spend more time with my kids and family. In a way, it did. I was physically around them, but I wasn't fully present with them because I had a job where it didn't matter how many hours you worked, there was always a to-do list that was never completely ticked off. I never really got to switch off at all, and in a way, I was also cashing in on our family time by turning it into content.
Around a year ago on my daughter's 12th birthday, I asked her what she wanted and her answer was for me to have the day off. I also remember her asking me things like, “Are we doing this for fun, or is this for the magazine?"
Things like that made me step back and realise what was happening wasn't healthy. I also started to feel negative about the thing that I initially loved so much. That's quite confronting and quite hard to deal with. All of a sudden you start to put your head in the sand a little bit, and don’t want to deal with the day-to-day chores of doing your job. I didn't want to do anything. I would have been quite happy to have stayed in bed every day and just pretend that the world wasn't there, which is very unlike me because I love getting out and being adventurous.
In the end, I actually got quite sick from the stress and my whole body just went into shutdown and I ended up in hospital. Nothing is worth that. Nothing is worth sacrificing your happiness, other people's happiness, and your health.
The decision to finally quit Lunch Lady was hard. I felt like I was letting everyone down. And it was definitely a process in grieving – I think a lot of people around me just assumed that I would be relieved and happy. Eventually, I did get there, but I really did feel quite lost because it had been my life for many years.
I know it is controversial, but I think sometimes making a career out of your passion can be total bullshit because it can destroy everything that you love about it. I just feel that there is so much pressure to be incredible and successful and to do it in such a beautiful way that sometimes it's not beautiful.
Sometimes there's a real liberation in not caring and just doing something and being the way you are and sharing that. I don't care that people know that I ended up the way that I did, because it means I'm not there now.
Notes on dealing with burnout, overwhelm and shock
+ Listen to your self-talk and as Susan Carland suggests, picture your “future self”
+ Ask for help from friends, colleagues and loved ones – no one can read your mind
+ Take care of yourself first so you be your best for others
+ Remember burnout is not a trophy
+ Creativity is like breathing – you need to breathe in order to breathe out
+ Remember you have time
+ Step away from your work
+ Take digital breaks
+ Distinguish between burning out and feeling crispy, as Honor Eastly details
+ Allow yourself to disappoint people
+ Do something unrelated to your work – be it a new project or going for a walk
+ Create a list for yourself that reminds you of the symptoms of burnout and what helps, as suggested by Amy Middleton
+ Get to know your own energy levels and cycles
+ Consider seeking help from a professional to develop strategies for stress and anxiety
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