One of the biggest myths about burnout is that it can’t happen if you love the work that you’re doing. I am certainly proof positive of the opposite.
In 2015, I was celebrating 10 years of working as the head of advertising for the largest eyewear company in the world. On the surface, I actively loved what I was doing. I had fantastic bosses and an amazing team who I learned from every day. I got to work on interesting projects and was given a lot of creative freedom and opportunity to experiment. I was living in beautiful Italy and regularly traveled around the world for work. All in all, I thought I was living the professional dream.
But my body was sending me warning signs that things weren’t as great as I made them out to be, signs I unfortunately didn’t even know to look out for. I’ll share more about those in a minute, but it all came to a head when I woke up one morning and couldn’t see out of my right eye. What followed was 10 days of extensive testing to rule out all possible causes: MS, stroke, and other autoimmune or neurological diseases. Finally, when I tested negative for everything else, the doctors concluded that my vision loss might be stress-related.
Thankfully, my vision came back after a few weeks of rest—but my drive to return to the way things had been did not. I took more time off to prioritize my health and consider what I wanted to do with the next chapter of my life. Based on my own experience and desire to help others avoid a similar fate, I decided to go back to school to study the neuroscience and psychology of mental health, ultimately getting a master’s degree in Organizational Psychology. Since then, I’ve started Moodally, an app and group training program that uses creative and science-backed strategies to help people better recognize their moods and change them in real time.
Throughout my studies, I learned about all the biological and neurological processes that are affected by stress and the dozens of ways it can show up in the body. Looking back, I can now see the warning signs my body was trying to send me—signs I now keep an eye out for as a busy small business owner. Here they are, along with some of the strategies I now use to keep my stress in check in those moments.
I Was Waking Up With No Energy Every Morning
One of the clearest early signs of burnout is regularly waking up after a full night’s sleep and immediately having no energy: I’m talking sitting on the edge of your bed, head between your hands, not feeling like you can possibly face the day.
For months before I lost my vision, every day felt like a Herculean effort to get out of bed and to get to work. Even though I enjoyed the work I was doing and the people I was with once I got there, getting started each morning took everything out of me.
I now know that I was likely experiencing a cortisol plateau. Cortisol is sometimes known as the “stress hormone” because it’s released during times of stress to give you energy to deal with the situation, but it’s also closely tied to your sleep-wake cycle. Normally, you get a spike of cortisol first thing in the morning to give you a feeling of wakefulness. But, if you’ve had ongoing stress, your body has released so much cortisol that it has nowhere to go.
Too many people, especially small business owners or passionate creatives, think exhaustion is a necessary part of working hard toward something we care about. While it can happen occasionally from a bad night of sleep or a busy week and not be a sign of burnout, if it’s happening consistently over time, I know it means that something needs to shift so that my sympathetic nervous system gets the down time it needs.
I Was Feeling Incredibly Bored With My Day-to-Day
Another common sign that burnout is brewing is a deep feeling of boredom. When I hear people wonder when things are going to change or wish for some sort of disruptive event to shuffle the cards, I often suggest they need to care for their mental health before they make any drastic changes.
Even though I was generally very happy with my job, I’d been there for 10 years, and every day was starting to feel the same. On a deeper level, I was getting tired of making billionaires more billions and wondering if there was something more meaningful I could do with my talents. It was getting harder and harder to feel excited about the projects I was working on and continue bringing my best creative ideas.
I now understand that this was related to a lack of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter some call our brain’s “reward center,” playing a huge role in pleasure and motivation. When we succeed at something at work, we get a hit of dopamine, which motivates us forward. But, when we do the same thing over and over again, even if those things are successful, we don’t get the same dopamine response because we’ve already done it. That makes it harder to feel motivated to keep showing up day after day.
Our dopamine system loves new successes and challenges, so persistent boredom can be a clue that you need to change up your work to avoid getting tired of doing it. Even now, as a small business owner with new challenges every day, this boredom can creep in. Instead of seeing it as a sign that I need to completely overhaul my life, I recognize it as an opportunity to make small tweaks to keep myself engaged in working towards my mission.
I Was More Cynical and Irritable
Finally, a common early warning sign of burnout is a shift in personality, often causing people to become more cynical and jaded and more easily irritated.
Before I lost my vision, I noticed myself dwelling on problems instead of being solution-oriented. Whereas I used to have an attitude of “we can do it!”, I started thinking things like, “I doubt that’s going to work” or “what’s even the point?” It was even worse when someone would ask me for help with something: I lacked the energy or the desire to go to bat for them.
It took me the entire process of healing to realize that I was unable to care for others because I wasn’t taking care of myself. I was taking multiple flights a week, sleeping on planes, not eating well, not exercising. In addition to exacerbating my exhaustion and lack of motivation, it meant I didn’t have any spare energy to give to others. If you think of energy like a well of water, I was giving and giving and giving my water until I was dried up, and then getting mad at others for taking my water, instead of realizing the core issue was that I wasn’t doing anything to protect or replenish it.
Now, when I find myself unable to see solutions or getting frustrated more easily, I know it’s a sign that I probably need to prioritize my own needs.
As so many entrepreneurs know, running a business is stressful, and burnout is always a risk. But now that I know these early warning signs, I can turn things around before they get really bad. I can step away for a few hours or days to care for my needs and let my cortisol levels calm down. (Pro tip: Unless you’re saving lives, nothing is truly so urgent that you can’t ask for more time so you can care for yourself.) I can reframe what I “have to” do as what I “choose to” do, which helps me understand what I need to say no to and reprioritize so I have work I’m excited about.
Or I can just spend some time doing something that brings me joy with no other goal than filling my well back up—so that I can go back to the work I care so deeply about refreshed and with a better mind to get things done