'I'm a psychologist who treats people with burnout. Yet it's happened to me twice.'

Listen to this story being read by Katie Stow, here.

Christmas 2014, my mum passed away. Early 2015, I opened a new business while caring for an unwell father and my two kids. One day, I went to bed and, very simply, didn’t go to sleep. After a few nights of this, I knew I was heading down the familiar path of burnout. It was a path I had been down before, and I couldn’t believe I was heading down again. I mean, I had so many tools and so much knowledge but even that was not enough to catch me from slipping.

In my early 20s, I remember learning about burnout in a psychology lecture and reading about it in the textbook. It wasn’t until, as a qualified psychologist, I was sitting in front of a distressed client and found myself disengaged (one of the first signs of burnout), rather than attending to their distress - that I really understood what burnout was. 

Like pretty much everything, burnout sits on a spectrum. It ranges from being a little tired and disengaged to being completely exhausted, disconnected from life and unable to function. Unluckily for me, I have trundled up and down that spectrum much of my professional life. Until now. Now I know better.

Watch: If you're struggling to cope, here are some things you can do. Story continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

But, in 2015, lying awake in bed all night - I had no idea what was happening. I was unaware of the pivotal role our nervous systems play in regulating everything and I had no idea that mine was completely out of balance. I mean, I was doing exactly what I thought I was meant to be doing with my life. I was passionately driven and working hard to build an incredible business that was going to help thousands of people learn to integrate mindfulness and meditation into their lives. 


The problem was, I had absolutely no boundaries (I was working seven days a week!), was in business with partners who didn’t have young kids like I did, and I was chasing goals that my ego wanted, rather than my heart. Oh, and grief, there was all that mother grief there too. To add insult to injury, I was “using” mindfulness to control my thoughts and emotions, rather than to enquire into them and learn what they were trying to teach me. And so, I was exhausted and went to bed – and I stayed there for pretty much two months. 

This was not the first time; it had happened 15 years earlier while working in mental health (ironically). But in 2015, the experience was completely different. Unlike my maiden voyage into the burnout ocean, where I was dumped by waves of fear, anger and depression, this time, there was a steady ground for me to rest in and an unending river of unconditional love and acceptance. It was like I had my internal best friend holding me and loving me as I rested and healed. I realised, this difference was because over the previous five years, I had cultivated a rather deep meditation practice and unbeknownst to me I had built myself a little refuge, a buffer from life’s swell. 

This discovery was massive. I had originally started to meditate to fix myself, but it turned out, the gift it gave me, was an ability to love myself. This experience has changed the way I teach meditation – it has gone from being a “cure-all” to being an invaluable resource that creates a strong foundation upon which we can build all of our other resources. It also was the birthplace of my debut children’s book - YOU ARE LOVED. I want to give others access to this inner resource, so they don’t have to be flailing and lost like I had been. However, mindfulness and meditation are not enough for most of us. Us “busy folk” each need to find our own recipe for wellbeing, our own life raft but, in an effort to help others work out theirs, here is mine:


Mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness and meditation continue to be the strongest tools in my toolkit as they help me build my self-awareness and my self-compassion. The benefit of these superpowers is to a) support me to catch myself before I slip and b) love myself when I do.


Learning how to set them is one of the most important life skills we can develop. Boundaries are very simply knowing where our stuff ends, and another’s begins and then being clear on what kind of behaviour we will or won’t stand for. Our body usually knows the answer, we just need to get still enough to listen.


Clarity has also been a massive support for me. I realised I had adopted my parents' values which meant I was chasing the wrong goals and exhausting myself in the process.

Definition of success

Our definition of success is very personal; for some it is having a big house, while for some it is spending time with their kids, neither is better nor worse, they are just different. I have had to get really clear on my definition and stop comparing myself to others.

Knowing my signs

Knowing my signs that I am becoming overwhelmed or stressed and making the changes required quickly, rather than pushing on. For me, I know I need to change something if it disrupted my sleep for more than a few nights in a row, or if I am overly irritable with the kids (or the poor dog) or I stop seeing my friends or exercising. I need to give myself a good talking to and get back on track. 


Completing the stress cycle

'Completing the stress cycle' is a concept I learned from a brilliant book called Burnout (conveniently) by the Nagoski sisters. It offers us many research-backed approaches to moving stress through our system such as exercise, deep breathing, laughing, hugging, kissing, dancing or doing something creative.

I have always run rather high and hot. I am what might be called 'a doer'. Always busy, lots of projects on and lots of 'to do' lists to get through. I would get to the end of every day and ask, “what have I achieved?” and thought that people who sit on the couch were lazy.  

As a society, we reward my kind of people. We praise them for working hard and achieving goals and being perfect and fitting in. We can’t blame society or workplaces for this, however, ultimately it is the responsibility of us as individuals to build enough insight and skills to not let ourselves slide into the tumultuous ocean of burnout. The hard truth is, we get to choose.

Image: Supplied.


Liv Downing is a Melbourne-based psychologist who has drawn on her own personal experience of burnout to release a new children’s book, ‘You are Loved’ to reassure children that they are loved, no matter what.

As a mother of two boys, Liv has experienced first-hand the benefits of mindfulness and meditation in parenting. Through her work, she was involved in the development of the Beyond Blue mindfulness-based parenting program, Mind the Bump, and Smiling Mind, Australia’s leading mindfulness app – which involved working directly with children and educators in schools. 

‘You are Loved’, released this month by Allen & Unwin, illustrated by Mel Mathews and available from leading book stores, comes with a meditation for families and educators to share with their little ones and practical skills to take into their daily lives. Find out more at livmindfully.com.

Feature Image: Supplied/Mamamia.

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