The 6 Habits That Helped Me Bounce Back from Burnout
This post originally appeared on Thrive Global.
Note: I’m not a medical professional, and this post is based on personal experience and is not meant to be a substitute for professional care. As always, do your research and speak to a certified healthcare provider before making any major changes to your diet or lifestyle.
In a prior post, I talk about how I finally realized that the run-down way I’d been feeling for years wasn’t normal — at all. Here, I’ll talk about how I began to heal.
I knew I’d been stressed, but I didn’t realize the toll that mental stress was taking on my physical health. The combination of moving to a new city, the toxic new job I’d moved for, and uncertainty about my future made me to feel more stressed than I’d ever felt in my life.
Even though I didn’t connect the dots at first, these stressors led to a multitude of physical symptoms: fatigue, weight gain, listlessness, and definitely an over-reliance on alcohol and food as coping mechanisms to drown out the noise in my mind.
Once I realized the way I was feeling wasn’t normal, I sought out a functional medicine doctor. These doctors are trained as traditional MDs, but they also look at the whole person and try to figure out the root cause of health issues. (I wrote more about functional medicine here, if you’re curious.) I got my blood drawn (a lot of it — 14 vials worth) and did a cortisol test, which involves saliva samples at various times of day.
After walking me through my results, the doctor made things sound pretty dire, even though nothing was life-threatening. I had all the symptoms of adrenal fatigue (whether or not it’s an actual “condition”). I also had digestive issues (I didn’t even realize that it was normal to “go” every day!), hormonal imbalances (low progesterone), hypothyroidism, elevated inflammation levels, iron deficiency, low vitamin D, and even slightly high blood pressure.
The crazy thing: You’d never know it just looking at me. And most traditional doctors wouldn’t even determine anything was wrong. That’s the worst part about stress. You know you feel off, but you don’t always get answers or validation from doctors or even people close to you.
I walked out of the doctor’s office with a long list of foods to eat (and avoid), and even prescriptions for a hormone replacement and thyroid medication.
Below, I outline this protocol in more detail. It’s a mix of the doctor’s recommendations, as well as some advice I discovered through my own research and trial and error, and I would recommend anyone else to do the same! Note: Because of my experience, I decided to attend Emory’s health coaching program. So if you want to chat more and/or have a coach to encourage you along the way, I’d love to help. (Schedule your free intro call here!)
And I’ll be honest: These are not quick fixes. In the first two months or so, there was no change. I felt disappointed, thinking I’d never lose the weight, the bloat, the tiredness. Then, a couple months in, I slowly but surely began to feel better. It almost felt like someone had popped me with a pin as I lost the bloat and the extra weight. It was like my body deflated (physically), but my mood elevated!
Still, a year later, I’m still not 100%. And whenever I let these habits fall by the wayside, I start to drag and some of the symptoms start to come back. It’s a lifelong undertaking to avoid falling back into old habits, but it’s worth it. :)
Here are the six habits that helped me heal.
1. Cut back on cardio.
It sounds completely counterintuitive, but extreme cardio and intense workouts can actually cause you to gain weight when you’re chronically stressed or suffering from adrenal fatigue, according to holistic health experts. Plus, they can leave you feeling completely depleted and exhausted—the opposite of what you're hoping to feel after a workout.
I didn’t look sick, but I remember feeling so exhausted this day, when my mom was visiting.
No, I’m not saying that cardio will make you fat, but here’s the deal: When your already elevated cortisol levels due to chronic stress combine the cortisol spikes from daily cardio sessions (especially long, steady-state cardio), you’re essentially creating a “fat trap.” These intense workout sessions make your body to think you’re in fight-or-flight mode, constantly. In response, it holds on to extra calories and stores fuel as body fat (especially around your midsection)—a good thing when you’re trying to survive in the desert; not so good when you live in modern-day America.
Instead of going to spin or bootcamp classes, I started taking long walks and doing more strength training and yoga. If I felt like doing cardio, I’d do running intervals or just a 15 or 20-minute jog. This helped balance my energy and as a happy side effect, didn’t make me crazy-hungry like I used to get after a tough cardio session.
2. Do yoga and meditate.
Chances are you’ve heard that yoga helps you conquer stress. It’s true! Getting your body into those weird twisty poses and breathing through the discomfort teaches you how to deal with discomfort and stress IRL. I found a yoga studio in my new neighborhood that offered heated vinyasa flow classes that I try to take at least once a week. Each time I go, I walk out feeling like a new person.
Also, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely heard that meditation is also a no-brainer when it comes to stress. I’ll admit I’ve never meditated every day for more than a week (I’m working on it!). But through health coach training and my writing, I’ve learned a lot about mindfulness-based stress reduction, which I try to practice on a daily basis—noticing my thoughts, becoming more aware of my reactions, etc. I also love the Calm app.
3. Eat the right foods at the right times.
This is probably the least fun part: I had to seriously clean up my diet. My doctor suggested a Paleo-Mediterranean style diet, focusing on low-glycemic, whole foods. This included lots of fruits, veggies, fish, lean protein, healthy fats, and as little sugar and empty carbs as possible.
A typical lunch: salmon, veggies, sweet potatoes, avocado, olives, roasted chickpeas, and a tahini dressing.
I also tried to avoid inflammatory foods like dairy, gluten, and alcohol. I’ve heard people say to cut out coffee, but I love the stuff, so my doctor said one or two cups a day is fine. I also tried to eat breakfast before 10 a.m. to (no intermittent fasting here) and make sure I had three 4-ounce servings of fatty fish a week. That was easy enough—I love salmon—but cutting out french fries, bread, and alcohol was much harder.
Fortunately, I had quit the stressful job and was freelancing at this point, so I was working at home, which made it easy to stock my fridge and cook most of my meals at home. (I know this would be much harder to do with a family and/or a crazy work schedule, and I know I’m lucky.)
Breakfast was either a smoothie (made with berries, banana, almond milk, and plant-based protein powder) or toast and an egg. Lunch was pretty much always a big salad (mixed greens, some sort of protein, avocado, tomato, pumpkin seeds, and whatever other toppings I felt like throwing in.) Dinners were usually something like zucchini with turkey bolognese; some sort of homemade chili or soup; or salmon and veggies.
4. Say no to unnecessary events.
Uttering that little word has always been difficult for me, and I think my tendency to want to please everyone and do everything is what got me into this mess in the first place! I had to remind myself over and over again that I didn’t have to do everything for everyone. Getting rest and focusing on my health, at this point, was more important than going out or going to a party.
That was easier said than done, however, since I’d just moved to a new city and was trying to make friends... and date. Personally, staying home and staying sober in a new city would be more stressful for me—not what I needed. So I just had to pick and choose what events and plans were worth it, and which weren’t, and make a concerted effort to stop after one drink (or two).
5. Go to sleep early.
The funny thing about adrenal fatigue, or burnout, is that simply “getting more sleep” isn’t always the answer. But it is an important part of the puzzle. During the week, I tried to be in bed by 10 and asleep by 10:30.
A few tips that helped me improve my sleep quality:
Get a white noise machine! I’m obsessed with mine, and have a white noise app on my phone that I use when I travel.
Read a book (and stop scrolling) before bed
Use an eye mask to block out ambient light
This is weird, but I have a ritual of putting on Aquaphor on my lips and a lavender hand cream on my hands every night, which always helps me relax and feel ready for sleep. It’s the little things!
6. Practice self-care.
To be honest, I think a lot of my symptoms had built up throughout my twenties, during my fast-paced, on-the-go years in New York City. Plus, although it was just a few years ago, people didn’t talk as much about “self-care” or the importance of slowing down back then. The thought of taking a day — or even an hour — to simply focus on whatever I felt like I needed just sounded lazy.
Now, there’s a ton of talk about self-care in the wellness world. Almost too much, in fact, which can be both good and bad. The overabundance of crystals, bubble baths, and cozy socks on our Instagram feeds makes us think we need to buy more stuff and do more things in order to truly practice self-care.
But that’s not really what self-care is all about. Self-care, to me, means simply listening to your mind and body and giving yourself what you truly want. This could mean slowing down, eating well, skipping that party, or simply vegging out on the couch all day with Netflix.
Self-care means not pushing yourself when your body is telling you to stop. Self-care is not doing things someone else wants you to do.
Most of all, remember this: Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s essential for your health so you can be the best version of you.
In conclusion, I hope my story gives hope to others who have felt this way, helps to validate your feelings, and get you on the way to feeling better. Remember, our bodies are resilient. We can take control of the way we feel. And it’s never too late to make a change.