I had a burnout that ended up in severe depression in my early 50s. Ever since I’ve learned to pay attention to the warning signs that my body and mind send me. And I’ve become aware of my prior needs and objectives and how I can achieve them. This frightful experience changed my life for the best and gave me a sense of purpose.
What is it like to burn out in your 50s? Burning out in our 50s is particularly challenging because we are under the impression that it will be much more difficult to recover, find an appropriate job and reintegrate society as a contributing person that adds value. However, my personal experience is proof that none of this has to be true. Burning out can be the perfect occasion to take back control over your life and change it for the best.
The 5 signs that I was burning out in my 50s
1. Physical fatigue
Physical fatigue can be a warning sign of a pending burnout when you find no other explanation to it. When I burned out I had already been experiencing several weeks of physical fatigue. Walking up the stairs to my office had become tiring. I was out of breath after walking up only one or two floors. And there was no other apparent physical reason for this exhaustion.
2. Emotional fatigue
Another factor which is often preceding a burnout is emotional weakness. Overreacting in everyday situations is a real red flag. When (negative) emotions such as anger, sadness, hopelessness become overwhelming then it is time to pause and self-reflect.
I remember a discussion with my boss on a recurrent problem at work. The way he spoke to me made me feel really angry and deceived. When I got home, I burst out into tears and could not calm down. At the office, I often had moments when I had to pull myself together just so that I would not start crying.
3. Lack of motivation
When you begin to lose the taste for things you normally like, that’s a definite sign that you should pay close attention. We are not always equally motivated to do our jogging or to look after our garden. But a persistent lack of motivation is a sign of something going seriously wrong.
It struck me the day before leaving for a holiday. I realized that I was not happy to leave. In fact, that’s when I understood that I was not happy at all and that something was really off.
4. Too much stress and too little confidence
An imminent burnout can also be spotted when:
- You are incapable of coping with stressful situations.
- Or, on the contrary, you do not feel stressed at all although you know you should!
When you are burning out, you’re afraid not to be able to cope with difficult or conflictual situations. You are afraid either not to find a solution or, even if you do, not to be capable of acting.
Problems that I had solved a thousand times in the past became a burden. I started having doubts about my ability to cope with them. Then there was the fear that my colleagues and my boss could discover my weakness.
5. Lack of interest
This can indicate that you have already given up any struggle.
That’s what happened to me just before my breakdown. I was completely unable to defend myself when confronted with criticism.
When someone would give me negative feedback, a paralyzing panic would take over me at first, and then I would just listen passively without showing any interest. A few hours after the conversation, I would not even be able to remember half of what had been said.
This lack of concentration, faltering memory and lack of interest are clear indicators of a depressed state.
You can find other signs of burnout in Psychology Today’s article about the topic.
How I reacted to burning out in my 50s
I burned out when I would have least suspected that things could go wrong.
The journey to hell began when I was on holiday! And it threw me in a deep, dark hole within days.
I was neither able to eat, nor to sleep. I was so exhausted that I fell on my bed gasping after walking up a flight of stairs. In my desperation I cried for help, feeling that THE END was coming. And I instantly became anxious as I realized that I had fallen into depression. What would I do, and what would become of me?
1. Acknowledge that you are sick
The most decisive thing for me was to admit that I needed help. Yes, for sure, this was an illness, and it was deeply affecting me.
Our mind and body cannot function separately. When your body is ill your mind is affected and when your mind is ill your body won’t work properly.
2. Look for help
So, the first step I took was to see my doctor and tell him exactly what happened and how I felt. He told me to stop working immediately and to take medication that would help stabilize my condition.
I know that we are so often unable to admit our weaknesses and want to prove that we are worthy, whatever this means.
Sometimes, we are tempted to treat serious mental illnesses as if they were a simple flu. We want to treat them with medication to return as quickly as possible to whatever we think is expected from us. But if we do not take the time and put in the effort to cure them, they will weaken our body and turn into chronic illnesses. In the end, they will threaten to affect us so deeply that other parts of our body will begin to fail.
3. Take a step back
My doctor told me that I had to take a sick leave for 3 months. I was in shock. I had never missed a single day at work in my whole professional life!
But I realized that I needed time to recover, to think about myself and to uncover the reasons why I felt so ill, weak and helpless.
If you need more information and ideas on how to react and recover from burnout, please read more about it on workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com.
What helped me recover from my burnout
1. Analyze the causes
I quickly recognized that I knew the reasons for my depression very well. But I had to admit that I had refused to take the necessary steps for years just because I knew that they would have to be radical. And I hadn’t been willing to put in the effort until now.
My children had left our house to work and live abroad. “Our home” felt empty and it made no sense to stay any longer. I was yearning to go back to my home country where I still had family and friends. Besides, I was living in the countryside very far away from any airport and it was a long journey to get anywhere.
Even my job, which was interesting and had given me a lot of satisfaction for so many years, had begun to alter. With a new executive board in place, the general attitude between colleagues had strongly degenerated. I knew that I had to quit my job, hence leaving the financial security it gave me and also the respect of my colleagues behind.
I was going to lose all of this at 53! Given my age, other people would simply think that I’d lost my mind when I’d present them my plans…
But this is exactly what I had – lost my mind! And I knew that anything was worth trying to find myself again.
Even if you are not ill to the point I was, there is a strong need to face these issues.
If you don’t, the causes may keep worsening and, eventually, make you ill.
If you find that there are several issues that are strongly lowering the quality of your life, try to define the one that you can tackle easiest first. You will feel the burden lighten and this positive effect will give you the strength to cope with the next challenge.
Anyways, everyone is different, and so are the causes of burnout. If you’re not sure what they are in your case, this article from mayoclinic.org will layout other possible reasons for job burnout.
2. Free yourself from social conventions
At this stage, I had overcome social conventions and prejudices.
As you may know, social conventions normally dictate that you’re not meant to leave your job when you have a certain status, income, even security. Especially not when you are 53!
I was so afraid that I was too old and no longer would be wanted on the job market. I really believed long-term unemployment would be my fate.
3. Set priorities
But then, I realized that I did not need to meet such high expectations. I suddenly understood that even a much less elaborate job would be enough for me to survive. All I needed was enough income to pay my bills.
Yes, this was the most important thing, to be able to live!
I just needed to take the first step, and then, the next one.
The mere fact of being able to make a decision is a positive move towards life. It calmed me down and helped me concentrate on how to get organized. I managed to quit my job in an orderly manner, thus closing an important chapter of my life.
And I started looking for another job in my home country at the same time. This was not running away but looking for a better quality of life, following a plan that I had designed for myself. I relied on the fact that I WAS THE ONE WHO BEST KNEW what was good for me and this gave me the strength I needed.
It felt like I finally spoke up for myself.
4. Focus on what is positive
At the same time, I realized that my self-confidence grew as I began to think about the skills I had to offer to a potential employer. Very often we tend to forget about our abilities in our daily work routine.
But applying for a new job was forcing me to think in a new way. I realized that I had more abilities than I thought. This boosted my self-confidence and I began to believe in a new professional future.
5. Seek advice
At the same time, I got a lot of help discussing with dear friends and good acquaintances. I knew they would give me their honest opinion about my plans. If you don’t have this possibility, I would recommend consulting specialized websites such as the American Psychiatric Association. In any case, it’s important that you also seek professional advice if you feel like you are on the way to burnout.
What makes burning out in your fifties different?
I was over fifty when I burned out. At that time, I was heading towards the end of my professional career.
Burning out in my fifties was particularly difficult for me. I had always been afraid of retirement because I felt the strong need to participate in useful and interesting activities, as well as to add value to society in some way.
And I knew that it would be statistically more difficult for me to find an interesting job, as there is the widespread opinion that we are less productive and adaptive in our fifties. The prospect of being idle and not being able to provide for my living was frightening.
How burning out in my fifties changed my life for the best!
1. Positive attitude
When I decided to leave my home and my job, I set myself a deadline. I gave myself 6 months to find a job, which motivated me to stay focused on this objective. The positive feedback I had during my job search surprised me. But if you are aware of your abilities and experience, and willing to learn, people tend to react positively. I was able to find a good job and moved to Austria one week before the deadline I had set myself!
2. New consciousness
The most important consequence of my burnout several years ago is that I achieved a new consciousness by going through the whole process.
Today I know that I had ignored the warning signs of burnout for far too long and that this lead to depression. I now know that I have to be careful and try to solve important problems before they become overwhelming. Thus, I’ve learned to avoid things that will harm me as far as I can and look for positive alternatives.
3. New outlook
I am now really able to influence my quality of life by trying things that I feel could be good for me. And I now refuse other things that I feel will be harmful. I am still learning how to grab opportunities when they present themselves. I will continuously have to solve problems in every aspect of my life.
The important thing is the way we face challenges. And the process of finding solutions in itself is inspiring and motivating. Today I am grateful for this incredibly painful experience which has turned out to be the starting point of a second, happier life.