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A Privileged Wreck

Jonas Achouri Sihlén
Jonas Achouri Sihlén
11 min read
A Privileged Wreck
Photo by Pablo Heimplatz / Unsplash

A Story On How You Can Find Your Way Out From Burnout


Disclaimer: This is not an attempt to provide medical advice. Please consult with your doctor or psychiatrist if you feel you need professional guidance. This article is created based on subjective and personal experiences while consulting with medical professionals in the Swedish healthcare system.


A Personal Confession

I'll get straight to it. In mid-August I had to pull the break. Things had been spinning too fast for too long and I was feeling languished. I desperately needed a change of how I streamline my work and life. I was having chest pains, heart-aces and my mind was not where it supposed to be. As if it was constantly down in a grey, mental mist.

This wasn't the first time. Last time I burned out was 2013, when working as a consultant. Same feeling today as back then. Same lack of focus and the emerging feeling of not being able to keep up with the work.

I have contemplated a lot whether I should post this or not. Then I  connected a few dots and observations I had lately. The situation we are in today. Where moments of self-isolation, restrictions, less social interactions have been combined with hyper-productivity I realise there are people who can relate.

To clarify the context a bit, my wife and I decided to move out from our old 2 bedroom-apartment this year since we grew out of it a long time back (we have 3 kids). Living in Stockholm means that we had to move away from the surroundings of the beautiful capital of Sweden. We ended up in a lovely place north-west from the city.

This sounds lovely right? So how is this related to burnout you might think?

On top of the project of moving with my family this move was not only a physical one. It was also a mental move. Adapting to a new society, routines, schools, commutes etc. shakes things up in a fellow human being, who seeks comfort for his family. After +18 months of restrictions, isolations and a work-life with remote and hybrid setups I thought I would enjoy this new way of living. But I quickly realised that my mind was constantly somewhere else. Not able to focus and lately, not even able to function properly.

During the last couple of months I have been adding commitments to my life and the feeling of responsibility has left me in a very stressful state. This goes against my nature and philosophy since I strive to do LESS things, not more. Besides my full-time job as project manager in the financial services industry I also added the following commitments to my life:

These commitments are added upon a situation where me and my wife are raising our beloved kids, currently aged in a nice Fibonacci sequence: 2,3 & 5. Yeah, writing this out and re-reading it myself makes me think: 'What the hell am I doing?'
Even though I am doing things I love, there is a threshold for how much I can do sequentially and in parallell over a certain period of time, without regular breaks.

Listening To Signals

We tend to believe that the best time to rest is when we have consumed all our energy. This can be a devastating approach. We all know that preservation of energy is key for sustainable growth.  As Mr. Churchill once famously answered on the following question:

“Mr Churchill, to what do you attribute your success in life?"

His answer was:

Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down. And never sit down when you can lie down. - Winston S. Churchill

This quote resonates so much with me at the moment. What it means in practice for ambitious people like us is not only to make space and time for rest, but also to trust that everything has its time. No need to rush into something just because you can.

Most of us go so far that they don't feel they deserve a break until they "empty the tank". I have been one of those. Almost living by the mantra; "work hard, play hard". Always in an ON state.
Who in the world can live like that for a sustainable amount of time? Even though the majority of us know that it is not good for our wellbeing, we tend to fall into the trap. As if we didn't know when to stop.

LizAndMollie illustrates this so good in the sketch that Adam Grant also tweeted in relation to workplace culture.

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/E_GaY1hVcAY4FZW.png

For us human beings that don't have a clear view on our biological "fuel gauge" (or "electric indicator" for that matter), how would we know WHEN to take these breaks? Do we really need to wait for the signals to appear before we pull the break?

Every human works differently but what we seem to have in common is that we all like predictability and we seem to dislike surprises in our daily life (unless there is a birthday cake included).

So whenever you have the opportunity, try to lean into your daily life and scan your environment and behaviour:

Are you acting with the energy, empathy and clarity as you would like to in order to lead yourself and your relations forward?

No? Would it be enough to re-design your day a bit and take a step back from a few of your commitments, or all of them for a shorter wile?  What do you think it would take to feel less languished?

We are all on separate paths but most of us modern humans are facing mental challenges that are related to continuous context switching. Constantly on - phone, video, podcast, meeting, daycare, school, activity planning, meal-preps...etc. We simply don't let ourselves to BREATHE.

One thing I have improved the last decade is to listen to the signals of my body. Including listening to my wise wife, not going to lie. For me and most living human beings, those signals appear very clear as mood variations, exhaustion and lack of focus. When these signals appear I seem to have a privilege laid out for me: That is having my wife and kids who are emotionally aware and honest as soon as they feel something is wrong. What I mean is that I get a clear signal from my relations whether I am behaving as I should or if I am going down the hill.

I realise not everyone has got this privilege of having relations close to us who can tell you to slow down.  
Even if you don't live together with your loved ones, maybe there are ways you can reach out and connect? Maybe there are friends and family that need to hear you, who appreciate that you call them for help?
My own experience is that I have for too long been holding all of my mental issues for myself instead of talking and reflecting with others. Some days during the last couple of months have really been turned from despair to joy after one single phone call.

A huge change in my life was simply enabled by shifting from texting to making that phone call, or even going for that walk with a friend (thank you Erik and Pluto 🐕 ).

Sleep & Serotonin

A basic routine that helped me gain back a lot of energy was: SLEEP. It may not come as a surprise, right? For me it wasn't obvious since I believed I had enough sleep already. Probably I thought I became immortal after all these years of constant sleep deprivation raising 3 small kids.

What I truly learned was I didn't get the quality of sleep, nor the variety of sleep I desperately needed. To understand this more in depth, let's explore an important hormone in our bodies:

The hormone that governs posture, mood and other traits in our human behaviour is called serotonin. A chemical that can be the game-changer for absolute income, happiness, pain, anxiety and illness.

Just being aware of that our bodies and minds are directed through chemical (in)balances and that we can control those levels takes us back into accountability state. We are able to control this!

After having been in a low 'mushy' state of serotonin myself with periods of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, I started to connect the dots on what has been working for me earlier.

2 years back I experimented a lot with different protocols to level up my physical mobility, strength and general wellbeing. A few examples of my daily routines consisted of:

  • Morning stretch including gazing at the sunrise (D-vitamin boost)
  • Cold exposure (showers and bath)
  • Waking up the same time (even though it included nightly diaper changes)
  • High protein and fat intake early in the day
  • Close to obsessive training regimen everyday (lunch, morning and/or afternoon)

Even though I didn't immediately knew the direct link to serotonin levels, the important part was that I have never been in a better physical and mental state as I was back then. I was continuously approaching the days with a positive approach, tackling problems with a mindset that affected my surroundings in a good way. My levels of focus was also on a peak level. This was the time I started my own business as a personal trainer. No joke, I was feeling as if I was high on something.
Today I know what that was: SEROTONIN.

These are some key traits and foundational behaviours we all want, especially if we want to be role models for our kids, friends and co-workers.

So a simple protocol for you if you want to start boosting your serotonin levels (no, you don't have to do 20 minutes ice-baths every morning):

  • Daily light exposure approx 10-20 minutes, early in the day (cloudy days counts).
  • Wind-down routine before you go to sleep.
  • Wake up the same time every day.
  • Eat good food (I will not promote any religious diet here, I assume you are aware of the benefits of fats, proteins and carbohydrates).
  • Get some regular daily exercise whenever possible.

Depending on your personal condition you can adjust the levels on this basic protocol. A daily walk is enough for many of us. For some people, an hour at the gym is enough. We are all different. But what we all have in common is the foundational need for a good night of sleep.

Relationships & Routines

I would not have been able to get my life together without the beautiful support given by my wife, brothers and sisters as well as my extended family. Without having access to them the road back would have been much darker.

On top of friends and family I have also setup a continuous dialogue with a therapist. I used to be embarrassed for saying I needed professional help but today I have a different mindset. Today I feel proud of reaching out and saying the three words:

I need help!

I remember a story that one of my therapists shared with me. It was related to the situation of the modern parent, in my case having the privilege of being a Swedish dad.

She compared the life of Swedish fathers with those from other cultures, like from southern Europe. Or other parts of the world where the culture of going out after work with friends is more common. She said that the non-Swedes were chocked about how the Swedes cope with their lives.
Let me explain: For a normal Swedish dad it is more common for us to directly go to daycare after work, pick up the kids. Go home and prepare the kids for activities and dinner. And later bedtime. That is a normal afternoon routine. If you do this every day all year round, switching with your partner of course. But without maintaining your social relations, only having digital access to them is devastating for our wellbeing.

Social life is not the only thing we are craving. We desperately need routines and traditions. I like the concept of routines and the continuous benefit of creating comfort and predictability in our daily life. The recurring traditions, habits and routines we setup for ourselves and families can be seen as a continuous beat of nurturing. Like a social rhythm. The predictability of knowing that next week I am going to meet him or her, or do this or that. It is as vital for our health as getting fresh air.

One of the things I completely failed in my own promises was to neglect my daily practices for my mind, body and soul. After a lovely summer with the family I ended up deviating from my morning routines, daily journaling and even my regular training habits and movement practice. These have been fundamental parts of my wellbeing for several years and I know that it was only a matter of time when my mind would say: NO MORE!

One day of deviation from time to time is fine, as long as I don't transform good habits into bad ones. Because we all know that the compounding effects of habits work both ways, right? We better stay on the right path between order and chaos, whatever that means for each one of us.

Powerful Passions - Prioritise You Without Feeling Guilty

Ever since I became a father I have started to feel guilty as soon as I got out from the house to do what I enjoy the most. Anything from going to the gym or meet up with some friends to watch a movie or simply going out for a run. After some guidance from friends and my therapist I quickly realised this has nothing to do with ego. It is a prerequisite for me being human.

Thankfully, writing is one of those activities that not only helps me to think, but is one of those outlets that help me through states of mental struggle. Even though it takes more energy at the moment, I am also gaining feelings of completion that are vital to get back up again.

Another passion of mine is music. Music is so engrained in my daily life that I cannot go through a day without playing or listening to music.

One of the songs that truly helped me get back on track was this masterpiece from the Icelandic instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds 👇🏽

What are the passions that make you tick?
Is there a way to start with that passion of yours for, let's say; 5-10 minutes per day?

It is important for us as human beings to spend time on activities that we identify ourselves with and where we get energy from. Some enjoy cooking, some enjoy knitting, some enjoy playing music and some enjoy gardening. We all want to connect with our inner selves through these meditative practices.

It Is A Privilege After All

Going back to that word again. I cannot go through this process without reflecting on my: privilege. Besides having a supportive family, extended family and friends that reach out and are there for me have been keystones in my way to navigate out from this pit of despair. I cannot thank them enough on how much their support mean to me.

On top of this, having an employer that enables me to take time off from work and a manager that checks in with me from time to time to make sure I get the help needed. And also making sure we can find a long-term solution. I cannot feel anything else than appreciation but also a sense of privilege.

So I have decided. I choose to not go down the valley of despair anymore. Even though it is not always a choice, I believe I am enough healthy to decide:

  • Who am I going to surround myself with going forward?
  • How can I be of service for my family and friends?
  • How do I want to spend my time off and how much time do I need for myself on a daily basis?

And finally the most important question we can ask ourselves:

Besides family and friends, what should I spend my time on to become more meaningful in this world?

Thank you for reading. If you found it useful maybe you want to share the link with a friend?

Resources that I recommend for further research:

📺  Understanding & Conquering Depression - Huberman Lab

📺  The Science of Emotions & Relationships - Huberman Lab

📖  Full Catastrophe Living - Jon Kabat Zinn

📖  Why We Sleep - Matthew Walker

Personal Growth