Burnout as Trauma – Part 2

A year earlier

I was digging through storage boxes in my parents’ garage when I came across an old newspaper clipping. It was awkward to see. Mum had asked me to sort through the boxes of memorabilia that I’d kept stored there over the years, with a view to culling some of them. Holding the thin piece of newsprint in my hands, I realised she must have cut this article out years ago and kept it.

It showed a black and white photo of me, newly graduated from high school, and a bold headline that read ‘Bright future for high achiever’. It went on to tell of my recent accolades: dux of my high school, champion swimmer, multiple subject awards, school prefect, my name on the school honour board. My future career was sure to be successful, blah, blah, blah. With a wry grimace, I put the clipping back in the box. I was 34 years old, living back at my parents’ house, sick, unemployed, and hiding myself away from the world, my life having fallen apart.

***

I had been on a long search for answers around how to recover from my health challenges. Halfway up the Queensland coast I had begun to see my burnout symptoms as a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or closely resembling it. My years of chronic stress had rewired my brain, leaving my nervous system dysregulated and keeping me stuck in a state of hyperarousal.

Burnout had left a big, fat trauma thumbprint on my mind, brain and body, and this was keeping me tired and sick.

But where did this leave me? If I was to think of burnout as a form of trauma, what could I do about it? Was there a way to retrain my brain, to recalibrate my nervous system and reconnect with my body, my world, and the people around me?

Research into burnout treatments may have been lacking, but trauma treatment research had come a long way in comparison. Looking at burnout through the lens of trauma opened up new pathways forward for me.

In my previous chapter about Burnout as Trauma, I obtained most of the information while I was on my bike journey, but I bolstered it with further research I did after the journey ended. This sequel chapter, however, is filled mostly with ideas I learnt after the journey, but I have decided to share them here.

Trauma treatment was still an evolving field of study, with advances being made all the time. I took most of my cues on this from Dr van der Kolk, a world expert on traumatic stress. In ‘The Body Keeps the Score’, published in 2014, he provides a comprehensive overview of the last several decades of trauma treatment development, moving away from standard talking and drug therapies and towards an alternative approach that heals mind, brain and body.

He describes individual and group talking therapies, from psychotherapy and support groups, through to internal family systems therapy and psychomotor therapy, that help people to express and process distressing experiences, grow self-understanding and self-leadership, and rebuild trust in people. To complete, and perhaps even rewrite, some of the stories running on repeat in our heads; the narratives seared into our brains by trauma.

He points towards physical therapy programs that help people to attune to their emotional arousal and recalibrate their dysregulated nervous system. Movement practices such as yoga and numerous martial arts, with elements of bodywork, breathwork and meditation, that help people to reinhabit their body, calm arousal, and cultivate a caring, loving, sensual relationship to the self.

He describes rewiring the brain using ‘neurofeedback’, a brain-based therapy that helps rapidly retrain the brain out of certain brain-wave patterns, such as hyperarousal, and towards more coherent and stable patterns. A study had ten surgical residents with severe burnout and depression scores do eight weeks of neurofeedback therapy. The participants reported significant improvements in symptoms such as sleep, anxiety and cognitive workload, which were not noted in the control participants (Kratze and Campbell, 2020).

Dr van der Kolk also explains the value of music and dance groups involving synchronised movement or singing, that help to retrain the part of the brain that specialises in attuning to other people. Since ancient times, communal chanting, singing, drumming and/or dancing have been found to have an amazing power to soothe and connect people. As a therapy, the internal rhythms, visceral awareness, and vocal and facial communication help shift people out of fight-or-flight states, reorganise their perception of danger, and increase their ability to manage relationships.

I ought to acknowledge here too that standard treatments for trauma, including cognitive behaviour therapy and medications, have helped many people. Organisations such as the Black Dog Institute also describe the value of exercise, mindfulness and a range of self-care and relaxation strategies that have been found to be beneficial for trauma patients.

The growing science of neuroplasticity teaches us of the amazing power of the brain to reorganise itself; to break out of old habitual brain patterns and create new ones, if we repeatedly do activities that reinforce them. I wanted to believe that I could rewire my brain and body, and undo the damage done by burnout.

But what if I couldn’t?

What if I would never get better? What if all those burnt out environmental activists I’d met would carry their stress damage and trauma wounds with them forever? It was a question I didn’t want to face.

I phoned up Bronwyn Gresham again, a clinical psychologist, senior advisor for mental well-being at RMIT University, and on the board of the organisation ‘Psychology for a Safe Climate’. ‘What does recovery even mean?’ she asked. ‘Trauma changes people. Healing isn’t a state that you attain, it’s a continuous process.’

I did a video-call with an activist named Suzanne from the Sierra Club in the U.S., who I’d met previously through James Whelan’s training program. She told me of her spiral into burnout and chronic illness, and how she spent a lot of time looking inward and understanding why she worked herself sick. She had come to recognise that she would be healing forever, and that she needed to shape her work and life in a way that was continuously regenerating. She was now doing a Masters degree on developing a new leadership practice, both for herself and to ensure she didn’t reinforce a model that burnt out others.

I thought about the various people I’d met on this bike trip, many of whom were on their own healing journeys.

When I was in Airlie Beach, the young woman convening the Boomerang Bags Whitsundays sewing bee, Kylee, was in a wheelchair. I’d noticed that she sported a tattoo of a semicolon on her neck, and when I asked her ‘Why a semicolon?’ she told me her story. After the accident that left her half-paralysed, she had become depressed and tried to take her own life. She pulled through though, and eventually discovered new life and happiness afterwards. In English grammar, a semicolon marks a pause, a divider between two separate clauses, but not the end of the sentence. The tattoo was a reminder that when something bad happens that changes your life, it doesn’t have to be the end; it can merely be a pause before the start of something new.

An international movement ‘Project Semicolon’ had sprung up around this idea, encouraging solidarity between people dealing with mental illness and showing that there is hope for a brighter future. Phoenix Australia, a national centre of excellence in posttraumatic mental health, chose the phoenix for their name, it being a symbol of rebirth and renewal after the fire of trauma.

People talk about ‘post-traumatic growth’, how deep adversity can challenge a person’s core beliefs, so that after a period of psychological struggle they undergo a positive life-changing shift in thinking and relating to the world.

When I was in Canberra, the retired bike mechanic Doug, who had helped get me and my bike back on the road, had told me he believed that everyone goes through at least one big depression in their life; when we’re confronted with the fact that our old ways of doing things are no longer working and we’re forced to reassess and learn new ways.

Perhaps it’s only when we’ve reached our lowest point that we’re most open to making drastic changes. I wanted to believe that my experience would make me a wiser, happier and more balanced person than before. In so many ways, this was a chance for me to grow as a person. My story was far from over.