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Burnout: the different levels

We’ve been getting double the number of daily visitors we had just two months ago, so I have been quite eager to post something. And. yet, we posted our last article 22 days ago now. And I haven’t been active on Twitter, Reddit, and for the most part Facebook. So what has been going on?

I think the title of this article already offers the answer. Yes, I’m burned out. But what I have been surprised by is that in the last weeks, I went through several stages, each time thinking *this* is what burnout is. But each time, I managed to achieve a higher level. I hope the stage I am in now is the epitome of burnout. If there are levels beyond this, I rather want to be dead.

So anyway, let me briefly take you on a journey through the different levels of burnout I experienced in the last weeks.


Caveat

First, I should clarify that these different levels are arbitrary. You could add or subtract levels, and the description of each level doesn’t necessarily compare with how you might experience or describe each level. Maybe your burnout starts at what I would consider level 3, or you already recognized signs of burnout long before what I describe as level 1. Burnout is quite subjective, and can gradually creep up on you without you realizing it, until you are unmistakably experiencing burnout.

Also, alexithymia (which is present in 40–65%[1]The validity of using self-reports to assess emotion regulation abilities in adults with autism spectrum disorder (Berthoz & Hill, 2005)[2]Brief report: cognitive processing of own emotions in individuals with autistic spectrum disorder and in their relatives (Hill et al., 2004) of autistic people, or even as high as 70%[3]Measuring the effects of alexithymia on perception of emotional vocalizations in autistic spectrum disorder and typical development (Heaton, 2012)) can cause us to overlook and not sense or feel certain things—anxiety, anger, exhaustion, upsetness, etc.—until they reach a certain threshold, with potentially severe consequences.

So here are my levels.


Embrace ASD | Burnout: the different levels | logo EmbraceASD Burnout01

Level 1

Procrastination

A level 1 burnout is barely noticeable to me, especially in hindsight. What I mean by barely noticeable is that although I did recognize some signs, and I felt a bit different, I didn’t attribute any significance to it. Now and then, things would get too much to me, and I would put certain projects to the side to deal with later, as I didn’t have the energy to see the project through. With help from others though, I could easily get through it.

When I’m experiencing a level 1 burnout, I will probably not respond to messages immediately, and only when it regards something urgent. Purely social engagements I will largely ignore at this point. Since I am quicker to get overwhelmed, I am more selective in who I respond to, for my own wellbeing.

It’s often said that during burnout, work just gets too much. But during my burnout, I work a bit less than usual, but people would still tell me I have an impressive and even intimidating work ethic. Working with burnout is of course not sustainable, but with some luck, I drop in and out of a level 1 burnout and kind of make it all work.


Embrace ASD | Burnout: the different levels | logo EmbraceASD Burnout02

Level 2

Going offline

During a level 2 burnout, sometimes I get too overwhelmed with things, and so I will take a few days off of work to regain my energy. And by taking days off of work, what I actually mean is that I would stop interacting with people for a few days, but I don’t necessarily stop working.

During a level 2 burnout, I tend to work on things offline. Sure, I might also just practice a hobby such as miniature painting. But more often than not, I am still working on Embrace ASD in some capacity. Because of my lack of consistent presence online during a level 2 burnout, people could easily think I’m not doing much. But once I get online and publish everything I have been working on, you might be surprised with what I still managed to do.

The different levels of burnout also indicate more or less what kind of work I can still do. As a graphic designer, I can keep going to a degree. But being the CEO of Embrace ASD, I obviously have to deal with other people as well and manage and plan projects. These are tasks and responsibilities that become challenging at times during a level 2 burnout, but can become quite impossible to do at the higher levels.


Embrace ASD | Burnout: the different levels | logo EmbraceASD Burnout03

Level 3

Self-denial

A level 3 burnout is what I was in during the last 9 days. Natalie was on a trip to London, so I had to take care of the household myself. I’m not entirely sure level 3 was qualitatively different from level 2. Or maybe I just sort of fluctuated between different levels at this point. What I would mark as level 3 was quite similar to level 2, and in some ways, I actually felt more capable of doing things than I was at level 2.

I fixed several things in the house, like painting the basement stairs, I hung up a curtain in the kitchen—and I finished an illustration for Natalie’s birthday last year, which I was too overwhelmed to finish before. So being alone in the house with Pluto but no other people, I managed to finish projects I have been putting off for so long because I have problems with executive functioning and often get overwhelmed. In other words, I managed to complete tasks I was unable to complete during a level 1 burnout which I have sustained for over a year. So honestly, everything felt like such a relief, but due to my alexithymia, I did not know what was brewing underneath!

I was also on the phone a lot with several people to work on Embrace ASD business, or to discuss potential future projects. I honestly thought I was doing really well. Yes, I was taking plenty of time to myself as well, watching videos while I ate in order to decompress. But I also felt very driven by my accomplishments, and the fact that I was talking to people on the phone while that usually drains my energy. But I told Natalie, “Look at everything I am managing to do! I feel so much better!”

Did I, though?


Embrace ASD | Burnout: the different levels | logo EmbraceASD Burnout04

Level 4

Meltdown

I think my successes—both in terms of business accomplishments as well as being able to talk with people for an extended time on the phone—gave me such a high drive that it sort of overcame the pressures I felt. There was a pressure to perform, but there were so many tasks I was completing, that it also gave me a big surge of dopamine. It felt amazing! Some of the projects I completed I had put off for 4 months. There is such a sense of relief when you finish something that has caused so much anxiety for so long. In some cases the tasks themselves didn’t even take long, so you are left wondering why you put it off for so long. I guess sometimes the world weighs so heavily on your shoulders that even a very small task can seem way too much to handle.

The last two nights before Natalie came back from London, I worked mostly through the night to finish a few big projects. It felt amazing. I realize, I keep saying that. Maybe that shows my lack as a writer and a restricted means of expression, but I hope it emphasizes the thrill I was experiencing. Can burnout really feel so good? It sure can when you are on that dopamine high, and have yet to come down!

Then Natalie came back. I was excited about her return, and thrilled to show her what I had done. That day was great. We weren’t going to do anything other than relaxing. The next day on Monday, there were just two more projects to work on, which Natalie could help with. It was all good…

Did you see those three dots right there? That’s an ellipsis. In this context, it means calm before the storm. The storm being at minimum an F4 on the Fujita scale, meaning devastating damage.

A lot of anxiety built within me without knowing it, as Natalie’s return brought changes in my schedule (being autistic, I don’t necessarily do well with changes), and suddenly people were around me again. Being alone for 9 days, at least I could control how much I would speak to people, and even then I would take on more than I could handle.

Because we were both dealing with a lot of anxiety, we got into conflict, and I became completely overwhelmed, which lead to a meltdown and consequent shutdowns. Read more about the experience of a meltdown, a shutdown, and other forms of overwhelm below.

The autistic experience of overwhelm

My anxiety was through the roof, and there was nothing positive happening anymore. I was perpetually overwhelmed and did not want to experience the day anymore. So I took an anti-anxiety pill and went to sleep at around 4 pm. I woke up at 9:30 pm and was still anxious. I went out for a smoke, which didn’t help, so I went back to sleep.


Embrace ASD | Burnout: the different levels | logo EmbraceASD Burnout05

Level 5

Incapacitation

Now we enter level 5. I did not realize there was such a height to burnout! I honestly thought I was very familiar with what burnout actually entails; feeling too pressured to do anything anymore, feeling exhausted, and checking out for days to decompress. But at least I still felt like I could exert some level of control over my life; during a level 3 burnout, checking out for a few days would have been a deliberate choice to keep my sanity. But during a level 5 burnout, all of that flies out of the window!

The way I experienced a level 5 burnout, you have no choice but to succumb to it. On Tuesday, Natalie went back to work in the clinic. I usually take care of Pluto and some household chores before I get to work on Embrace ASD. But we had another conflict before lunch—nothing significant, really; just a momentary clash of two autistic people dealing with anxiety. But I became completely overwhelmed again and had another meltdown. I say “again”, but I don’t think the overwhelm really went away in the first play. I was already on edge, and probably even something as trivial as a typo would have overflown the metaphorical bucket. I am only slightly exaggerating.

Either way, I ended up back in bed. I was apathetic about everything, and too exhausted to do anything. I simply felt no reason to get out of bed, nor did I really have the ability to even if I did find a reason. Well, I sort of had one. Internally, I fought for an hour with myself to get the will to get up and put the recycling outside, walk Pluto, feed him, and then go back to bed. I almost didn’t do any of it, but I couldn’t take the potential consequences of not doing it, whether it’s my own self-criticism, or Natalie’s disappointment or anger. I wouldn’t have been able to take it.

I also acquired a different understanding of the meaning of burnout. I thought it was more or less analogy; it made me think of a candle burning out as its fuel or its oxygen is exhausted. But it quite literally felt like I burned through my emotions—a feeling I tend to experience during a shutdown as well, after an explosive meltdown. There was a sensation deep in my chest that was akin to a sort of burning feeling, or the absence of emotions. But it wasn’t true absence, I could go from apathy to overwhelm and even rage.

I took an anti-anxiety pill and smoked cannabis to try to alleviate my extreme anxiety, but none of it helped. I had so much anxiety I felt I was going to throw up. I took anti-nausea medication and I, fortunately, managed to fall asleep, so I didn’t have to experience anything anymore. I slept all day while Natalie was working. That has never happened before! As I said before, I usually have a very strong work ethic, even to the point I drive Natalie crazy sometimes as she begs for me to take a break. But at this point, I had not done any work in two days.

I briefly woke up at 7 pm. I was in too much emotional and physical pain, so I took another anti-anxiety pill and Gravol to fall asleep.


Embrace ASD | Burnout: the different levels | logo EmbraceASD Burnout06

Level 6

Dread

On my arbitrary scale, level 5 is probably the height of a burnout. What I’m going to describe as level 6 is a proper burnout that ventures into psychosis. I guess you can consider this bonus material, or perhaps a look at what other things a burnout might unlock.

The next morning, I woke up with an extreme level of anxiety. Usually, after a night of sleep, my stress is more or less gone, as I feel it’s a new day with new opportunities. This day, however, there were no opportunities. I could not handle certain smells and sounds, and all I could think of was to go back to bed, even though my back hurt tremendously from the approximately 35 hours I spent in bed in the last two days. At one point my face went numb—something I remember experiencing once before during a PTSD flashback, and once as a child. Some of the things I was experiencing and reacting to were probably linked to my past; I don’t know if all of my experiences were necessarily firmly grounded in the present.

I also started somatizing a lot; I was experiencing so much mental anguish that my body decided to take some of the burdens. I experienced aches all over my body, and my limbs became stiff and weak. I suddenly walked with an arched back, and felt like I aged 40 years. It’s incredible how the brain can basically cripple the body.

Here is something I wrote during a level 6 burnout:

I just want all the physical and mental pain to stop. I want to stop being overwhelmed, and I don’t want to process anything. Right now, I just want the world to leave me alone. Or perhaps better yet, I want to not exist anymore.

The profound exhaustion I experienced could be attributed to burnout, but the other symptoms stemmed from other things. The world suddenly felt very threatening. Funnily enough, wearing my trapper hat made me feel marginally safer. I wore it inside. While in bed, I also had to lie on the side, as lying on my back felt like my heart was too exposed which made me feel vulnerable. My brain chemistry was way off, and I experienced irrational fears.

My psychologist suggested I may have been experiencing latent PTSD. I think that is a distinct possibility, as in previous days I have been getting triggered often by childhood wounds. So it seems the burnout caused so much overwhelm that it triggered a perpetual state of distress. Natalie tells me what I experienced was a mental breakdown, and acute stress disorder.

The fact that my alexithymia has reduced in recent years I think has actually caused me problems in this case. As you can read in the post below, although alexithymia can be annoying, it also acts as a protection mechanism. So with my alexithymia being reduced and being more in tune with my feelings, that opens up certain vulnerabilities, and makes it possible to tap into emotional experiences that were previously shut off from me—and thank goodness they were. The upside though is that because I now have access to those emotional experiences and childhood traumas, I am able to process them—in principle.

Alexithymia & autism guide

Recovery

I do hope I processed things, so that this week has not been in vain. I hope the hell I experienced might still have been constructive in some way, despite my lack of functionality and productivity. But I also wonder, did I actually experience the height of it, or can burnout go even deeper?

Right now, I am still recovering, but feeling quite comfortable in my level 2 burnout. I imagine tomorrow I will be back to level 1. After what I experienced this week, that is pure bliss!


Embrace ASD | Burnout: the different levels | illustration Flame

What is your experience of burnout like? Do you enter different stages? What was your worst burnout like, and how long did it last?

Acute stress disorder, Alexithymia, Anxiety, Burnout, Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), Executive functions, Meltdown, Overwhelm, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Shutdown, Somatization, Trauma


Martin Silvertant

Martin Silvertant

Co-founder of Embrace ASD, autism researcher, writer, ironically silver award-winning graphic designer, and type designer. I am also autistic, and I fight dodecahedragons during sleep onset.

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