You’ve probably read about my personal experience with burnout. You’ll find the link here.
Anyway, three years on and something quite profound has happened. You see, I used to look at it as being my very worst enemy. I seemed to be moving two steps forward and one step back. Just when I thought it was long behind me, the fatigue would creep up and whack me on the back of my head, rendering me next-to-useless for a day or two and sometimes up to a week.
I hated it. I resented it, but most of all I feared it. I worried that if I took on too many commitments, I might not be able to follow through. At my very worst, I worried if I would ever truly recover.
Well, in a conversation with a very dear and wise friend recently, I came to the realisation that I had my burnout at EXACTLY the same age that my father had a massive and fatal heart attack.
That puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?
This lovely friend of mine made me realise that my burnout came along to protect me and might very well have saved my life.
When my father was diagnosed with heart disease, the causes were placed wholly and solely on physical causes – heredity and high cholesterol. Factors such as stress weren’t even discussed (which is ironic when I think of the number of ‘stress tests’ he was put through – physical stress tests, that is).
The more that I have learned over the years, the more it is very obvious to me that long-term chronic stress was a direct contributor to my dad’s heart disease. You see, he was a very fit, strong, healthy and happy man in his 40s. So much so, that it took years to diagnose his heart disease, and when it was diagnosed, it was simply too little, too late.
However, he had lived quite a stressful life. He was an officer in the Army, had served in Vietnam as well as the Australian SAS. He was also a keen sailor and was responsible for many stressful sailing trips. He sailed our 28 foot ketch between postings from Melbourne to Townsville and Townsville to Brisbane with a family of five – a wife who was terrified of the water and three kids, the youngest (me) was 5. Stressful much?
Possibly the most stressful trip he had was in the same year that he died. Exercise Awash became a race between the Army engineers and the Signal Corps, as they needed to transport two yachts from Vanuatu to Sydney. Dad was responsible for organising the exercise and of course, skippered one of the yachts. When they arrived at Vanuatu, they were shocked to find that the boats were far from sea-worthy, and in dad’s words, “The exercise became one of survival, by maintenance of the yacht, rather than a yacht race.” He was lucky to keep the boat afloat through the various mishaps and dramas and took the safety of his crew VERY seriously.
If my father was ever stressed, he never showed it – perhaps the worst risk factor of all. He was the quintessential Aussie larrikin, always quick with a joke and a laugh and seemed as cool as a cucumber. Besides, he loved his job, had a happy family life and regularly indulged in his passion for sailing.
Ironically, it was after an amazing day of sailing that he had his fatal heart-attack. He left for work on a very normal Wednesday and had taken a team of workmates out sailing for their traditional sports afternoon. They had a wonderful day, conditions were great for sailing and they’d even been given a feed of sand crabs by a local fisherman. When they returned to the marina, dad dropped everybody back to the jetty before proceeding to moor the boat. Pulling the boat up on the mooring took more exertion than normal, due to the strong wind. The last thing he did before he locked up was to write in the ship’s log. He wrote:
“……Good sail back. Jetty at 1630, to mooring at 1730. Good day – all OK except probs getting on mooring due to Northerly. Left 1830.”
He closed the logbook, locked the boat…..and dropped dead in the cockpit of the boat from a massive and fatal heart attack.
He was 45. The same age I was when I had my burnout.
In the future
Since I have realised this, I have completely changed my attitude to my burnout and the subsequent fatigue. Our brain is an organ with just one function – to keep us alive. Whenever we do something to jeopardise that, the brain will do whatever it can to protect us. PTSD is a perfect example of this.
I am now just so very grateful for the wisdom of my own body to force me to come to a live stop, rather than a dead one. Now, when the fatigue raises its ugly head, I can embrace it and allow myself to have some guilt-free rest and I have accepted that this will be the case until my brain deems me responsible to take care of myself again.
You see, I have very little doubt that the same thing that caused me to burn out is the same thing that cause my father’s heart attack – chronic stress.
Chronic stress has now been shown to be a major contributor in the top 6 causes of death and accounts for up to 90% of doctor’s appointments. Chronic stress increases adrenalin and cortisol and subsequently leads to oxidation and inflammation. It is this inflammation of the arteries that has now been shown to cause atherosclerosis. The arteries become inflamed or injured and the body sends cholesterol as a bandaid to patch up the damage. Blaming high cholesterol for atherosclerosis is like blaming the cops after they arrive at the scene of the crime.
Now, because you and I live in the real world, I know that we can’t avoid stress altogether. In fact, let’s be clear – it’s not stress that causes the damage, some stress is actually quite good for us. Rather, it’s the way that we deal with chronic stress over time, that dictates the damage.
Watch this space as I focus more and more on stress-management strategies, particularly for the men in our lives. Blokes are the least likely to admit that they’re feeling stressed or anxious or overwhelmed and tend to bottle things up until it gets to a crisis point. I fear that we are seeing that crisis point now, judging by the alarming rate of suicides and domestic violence incidents.
Prevention, in this case, is certainly the best cure.
To learn more about chronic stress and to determine how chronic stress is affecting you, take this quick quiz here.