What Burn Out Feels Like

I wrote in a post late last year that I learned in 2012 that burn out is a real thing. (Read it here.)

Not so long ago, I learned that it has a name too. Hypoadrenia. Also known as Adrenal Fatigue, or sometimes Adrenal Exhaustion. And I learned this the hard way, as my doctor was talking about me when she started throwing big words around.

And what, pray tell, does all that mean then? Well, it means that I finally have a reason for the delightful array of symptoms I've been experiencing over the last 6 or so years. Things like:

  • continued fatigue or exhaustion,
  • muscle weakness,
  • sleep disturbance,
  • decreased ability to handle stress, 
  • hypertension,
  • hypoglycaemia,  
  • unusual food cravings,
  • weight gain and inability to lose weight, 
  • oestrogen/progesterone imbalance,
  • chronic anaemia,
  • gut irritation causing digestive issues and food allergies.
  • trouble sleeping,
  • trouble getting out of bed,
  • depression and/or anxiety. 

If only it stopped there. I'm only just getting my head around the magnitude of the flow on effects, all of which have their own charming symptoms. One or two of these issues would be challenging enough, and I'm dealing with a whole list. The sum of it is that I've felt pretty ordinary, all the time, for a long time, but up until this point I couldn't quite put my finger on what was going on. I've seen no less than 7 professionals to try and solve the raft of issues I've been dealing with over a period of 6 years. I've been incorrectly diagnosed with depression and anxiety and medicated, taken more bad tasting pills that one person should, been told there's nothing wrong with me, and spent a lot of money.

And believe me, I thought it was all in my head.  It took some digging to find a progressive doctor who could look at the whole picture and work holistically to get to the bottom of it all. My experiences over the last 6 years made me determined to find someone who would be prepared to treat the problem - not just prescribe a pill to fix the symptoms - and wasn't that a challenge! 

So how does this all happen? What causes your adrenal system to go into meltdown?

The short answer is, stress. And as someone who was once described in her teens as "so laid back she's almost comatose" - thanks mum - it is almost unimaginable for me that I'd eventually end up really struggling with chronic stress.

In my case, apparently, things were set in motion in my early twenties when I was faced with a personal trauma that demanded a level of emotional maturity that I was simply unequipped to handle. And instead of dealing with the trauma then and there, I busied myself with finishing uni, getting (several) jobs, starting a Masters (or two), buying houses, starting businesses... You know, life in your twenties.

Unfortunately for me, it looks like the unresolved stress of the original trauma meant my tolerance for new stress was already greatly reduced. This, combined with too-big ambitions and expectations (my own) and an uninformed willingness to subscribe to "the cult of busy" led to chronically elevated stress hormone levels (cortisol), which gradually corroded my body's ability to regulate adrenal and other hormones and started greatly affecting my ability to function, let alone thrive. When my adrenal system could no longer deal with the pressure it started to give way, disrupting my body's whole eco-system in the process.

Prognosis is good though. My body will eventually get back to functioning normally, but recovering from Hypoadrenia takes a long time - beyond two years for chronic cases. I'm still having tests to gauge the severity of my case. There's no quick fix - treatment is pretty much a slow process of really focusing on healthy living - all that stuff they tell us to do, but we mostly ignore. Changing my diet to level out blood sugar, getting lots of sleep, more yoga and meditation rather than high intensity/high stress exercise, much more time in nature... So far so good. But the biggest challenge is eliminating stressors that may be adding to the problem.  

It seems GPs rarely look at stress as a contributor to illness, in spite of widespread evidence that it is starting to have some major impacts. We know lifestyle issues are increasingly contributing to huge levels of chronic illness, but for the most part stress has been ignored while poor diets and sedentary lifestyles are copping most of the blame. 

Despite this, I'd venture a guess that the majority of my high-achieving friends are experiencing some (if not ALL) of the symptoms of prolonged elevated stress levels. According to my doctor, the long term effects used to be called a nervous breakdown - hardly a medical diagnosis, but surely something we want to avoid!

I guess what I'm interested in is how did we get ourselves into this mess in the first place? Why, if stress can have such dramatic effects on our bodies, do we subject ourselves to it? No doubt I'll deal with that in many posts to come. 

In the meantime, I'd love to hear from anyone dealing with similar issues, any cynics, or anyone who'd like to give their opinion really. I just ask that you play nice.

Here come the comments...