I’m less than a week away from my last day of full-time employment. I know I should be more stressed, more anxious about the uncertainty, but I find myself more relieved than anything. It seems a rash decision to some to just leave the 9-to-5 world without stepping directly into another full-time position, but my brain and my body need the break before my body enforces one. Burnout is hitting hard with medical as well as mental health consequences that have really changed my capacity in this past year.
The thing that NT’s just can’t grasp about this kind of burnout, hitting this kind of crisis point, is how all consuming the overload state becomes. Your brain being constantly stressed means that your body is under constant chemical attack from your own hormones. Your heart rate and blood pressure elevate, your stomach is in knots, and your anxiety rises in turn. Your body is in a vicious feedback loop that is impossible to break out of without intensive, significant rest.
Your brain and body are exhausted constantly. Little problems become overwhelming, your problem-solving and logical thinking abilities become increasingly poorer, your memory has gaps and holes that start affecting your work. You start forgetting about things you said you’d do, self-care seems less and less worth it, homework is impossible to focus on, you never seem to be able to relax. A feeling of profound fatigue and depression sets in, and your outlook just becomes hopeless.
The traditional approach to the symptoms of anhedonia (loss of enjoyment of things you used to like), apathy, emotional numbness, and sleeping too much is for the person to engage more with their supports. Spend time with your family, get outside, don’t isolate yourself, don’t sleep too much, keep going to school or to work so you don’t get too withdrawn. But that advice is all for someone in a depressive episode - what if it’s actually acute autistic burnout and the beginning of a total nervous system collapse?
Autistic burnout affects functioning on so many levels. Sensory sensitivities become more severe, since your exhausted brain has less energy to spend on filtering things out. Relationships suffer as your ability to navigate social situations and pick up on others’ cues diminishes. Having to engage in verbal conversations is exhausting and sometimes you just can’t get your mouth to say the things you’re trying to express. Loved ones get frustrated with you, work performance suffers, housework falls behind, and it becomes incredibly easy to spiral.
Add on any further burden of disability, co-occurring mental health conditions, responsibility of caregiving, and marginalized identity, and it’s almost impossible to keep up with everything you’re “supposed to” do. It takes a lot more planning and effort for someone with mobility needs to leave the house, and a person with fluctuating pain levels may not be able to predict how they’ll feel when making weekend plans. Interacting with the public becomes more difficult if you have to defend your identity in any way, and there is additional pressure on caregivers as childcare options are increasingly scarce.
All of that is to say, autistic and otherwise ND individuals face barriers that many others do not when it comes to engaging with community life and responsibilities like work, school, self-care, and socializing. The common advice to push yourself and not detach and rest too much will do more harm than good to someone whose nervous system is already overloaded and constantly on the verge of dysregulation. Living in a constant state of stress does damage to your body and organs, apart from the obvious impacts on mental health.
If you want to address functioning issues, like focus and time management and motivation, your brain and body cannot be on constant overload. You must find ways to reduce your stress and help your nervous system find its calm center so your brain can return to logic mode. In most cases, it’s almost impossible for your body to clear those stress hormones from your system without adequate rest. You guessed it - that means sleeping more than usual.
That’s not to say that someone in burnout should stay bedbound all day. It’s important to balance resting with gentle movement practices, which will help your emotions as well as your nervous system recalibrate. Something like going on an easy walk first thing in the morning will get that important natural light as well as movement to help your brain and body stay resilient throughout the day. And maintaining social connection gives our nervous system that coregulation that it craves, further creating space for us to heal.
At this point, I need to make time to take care of my physical and nervous system wellbeing. My body’s joints and tendons don’t function as well as most, and my heart rate gets out of control really easily, so just moving throughout my day and being upright takes a lot more energy than it does for most people. If I push myself and work a straight 8 or 9 hour day, my whole body is inflamed by the time I get home in the evening. My temperature is over 100, my joints are throbbing, and my dexterity is gone to the point where I can’t text or open a bottle of water. The 8 hour work day leaves me non functional and in pretty awful pain by the end of the day and it’s just not sustainable.
My day needs to start a little slower - not hitting the road right at 7am means that I don’t have to fight through the waves of nausea from getting up too quickly. Not having to get dressed in work clothes means that I can brace my wobbly joints and prevent pain later on in the day. Working on something fully remote means that I can put my feet up, and not being “on call” means that I can lie down for an hour if my blood pressure spikes.
Knowing that I only have a certain amount of gas in the tank means that if my workload is cut back, and my hours are my own, I can plan ahead. If I have a coaching client scheduled in the evening, I will get my morning work done in a focused burst and take some down time midday to conserve my energy. Meeting and working virtually is a huge accessibility factor, and will likely always be a core part of my work/life balance.
My hope is to slow the hectic pace of my work life, be selective about accepting work that plays to my strengths, leverage my knowledge to create relevant and accessible resources, and find a way to sustainably grow and give to my community. I will prioritize rest and listening to my body, I will connect with others in a healthy and compassionate way, and I will do my best to live the example that I want to show everyone who is thinking about changing their life to accommodate and heal their burnout.
I am incredibly privileged to be able to leverage generational wealth, technological savvy, and a good bit of savings so I can take the summer and just catch my breath. My heart hurts for everyone who does not have that chance. For the breadwinners who cannot reduce their workload, for the students who are obligated to keep attending a school that traumatizes them, for the children whose home lives are too chaotic to allow for true rest, for those whose loved ones simply don't believe how hard things are for them.
For those people, I will work to find little accessible bits of self-care and support, to help you see the glimmers of joy and hope among the fog of everyday living, to advocate with employers and schools and parents to make the world a less difficult place.
Follow along in my journey to rebuild my life post-health crisis and burnout, create and grow an inclusive small business, and educate my community on accessibility, acceptance, and advocacy. This is a tiny weird corner of the internet, but it’s mine, and I’m so glad you have chosen to visit!