Collaboration • Knowledge • Leadership
Veteran ABC reporter Sophie Scott was at the peak of her career when in 2021 she suffered an unexpected health episode. Here she shares how she came to be burnt out, and the simple steps that have helped her get her health back on track.
I thought I would share my story about recovering from burnout.
It was a black-tie dinner for about 500 people. I had been looking forward to hosting it even though it was a busy time for me. I had been working non-stop on television stories, writing, speaking and hosting health events. My focus was on improving the health and wellbeing of Australians, bringing our audiences the latest scientific research breakthroughs. Somehow, as well, I had become an investigative reporter, uncovering safety scandals that had left so many patients’ lives ruined. But I couldn’t resist the invitation to fly interstate in the afternoon to host the glittering event that night, honouring health workers.
I felt good in my sparkly dress and high heels as I made my way onto the stage to welcome everyone. When I got to the podium, that’s when it hit me. All of a sudden, I felt dizzy and unsteady on my feet and had to hold onto the podium so I didn’t fall over. I smiled even more as I could feel my heart pounding harder and harder in my chest.
This wasn’t anxiety. I had had that feeling before and this was way worse. I have always had low blood pressure, but this was something I had never felt before. My one consolation, I thought, was that if I fell over in a room full of doctors and nurses, someone would be able to look after me!
In hindsight, I should have seen it coming. I had been increasingly tired on weekends. I had been working long days during the week and using the weekends to catch up on sleep. Some Sundays, I was so tired I could barely make it along the promenade of my favourite beach when my husband and I took our puppy for a walk. I had to keep stopping on benches for a rest.
To the outside world, I was happy. But deep inside, the joy I usually gleaned from my work, from interacting with patients, viewers and readers, had significantly lessened.
After several rounds of medical tests that all came back normal, I found out that my autonomic nervous system had stopped working the way it should. Constant stress and overwork had led to what doctors call ‘autonomic dysfunction’.
I was burnt out.
If you think of the body like a computer, the autonomic nervous system is like software that runs silently in the background controlling bodily functions we are not even aware of, such as breathing, blood pressure and digestion. Part of it is the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares your body for stressful or emergency situations. It increases your heart rate and dilates your airways to make breathing easier. It causes you to sweat, your pupils to dilate and your hair to stand on end. Your body thinks you are facing a serious emergency, so it slows down processes like digestion. My nervous system had been switched to ‘on’ for so long that my body was constantly primed and ready for attack, leaving me drained and fatigued as a result.
I held onto the podium while I was presenting the awards and sat down, rested and caught my breath in the few moments in between presentations.
Somehow, I managed to get through it and back to the hotel without anyone realising what had happened.
On the flight back home, I realised something had to change. I had to find the magic bullet that would give me more energy, more clarity and focus, and calm my switched-on autonomic nervous system. I had to start working differently, not working harder.
I didn’t want to give up the work I was doing, which I knew was making a difference in people’s lives. My job involves reading scientific papers and interviewing the world’s leading medical experts. I had written books on mental health, exercise and living a healthy life. Of all people, I should have been able to fix what I was feeling.
My 'aha!' moment was realising I had to listen to that science. Stress had made my cortisol levels spike so much and for so long that my body just thought that’s what I was meant to feel all the time.
I knew the impact stress has on the mind and body. Some stress is good for you. Knowing this was a good thing. I had written about the work of American psychologist Kelly McGonigal. She found that if we believe stress is bad for us, then being in a stressful situation is more likely to have negative health consequences.
But I was also well aware of the science into the effect of prolonged stress. Research clearly shows ongoing stress can lead to inflammation in the arteries and boost your heart attack risk, impact brain and memory function and mess with your hormones, among other things.
Like so many other people, I was so over-scheduled, overworked and over-committed that I had burnt away any reserves my mind and body had left. And I had no one to blame but myself. No one was piling on the commitments. No one was forcing me to say yes to everything.
I had always enjoyed working hard but somehow being motivated and conscientious had morphed into perfectionism, setting unrealistic expectations for myself and focusing on the results, rather than the journey. No one was pushing me into a corner saying your self-worth depends on doing everything, showing up to everything and having nothing left for your family, friends and people you care about.
I had to learn that you can change and improve how you feel physically, emotionally and mentally. But it wasn’t going to be by taking a magic pill. It wasn’t going to be one single supplement, one special diet, one enlightened ‘expert’ or one book. I realised that ‘nothing will change unless you do’. Unless I could fundamentally change how I approached living my life, nothing was going to improve.
We all want solutions, quick ones if possible. But I had to wrest the power back from assuming one person or one action was the one simple answer to my problems. I had to focus on rebuilding my nervous system one day at a time. And science could show me the way.
Knowledge is power, but I realised it was next to useless if you didn’t act on that knowledge. That was where the real power for change lies. Science showed me that even though I was busy and burnt out, there was a way forward, and I didn’t have to live my life in the same way I always had.
Science also showed me that even small changes could make a difference to my health and wellness. And it wasn’t about doing more (thankfully!) and adding to an already over-scheduled life. It wasn’t about getting up at 5.30am to run 10 kilometres (though if that’s what you love doing, all power to you). Instead, it was about taking small, simple steps that were achievable.
I asked myself: what is the smallest action I can take that will move me forward? I started with eight minutes a day, three times a day.
The first was some gentle tai chi in the mornings before work — I was so tired that I started with a tai chi video for seniors. The second was a walk in the sunshine to clear my head instead of eating lunch at my desk. Research shows movement can reduce the activity of stress response systems in the body, particularly if it is something you do regularly.
The last was mindfulness meditation just before bed. Shifting my mindset could help me reframe my thinking. In other words, I could acknowledge I was feeling busy and burnt out without being defined by those feelings.
Deep breathing can reduce cortisol levels by 25 per cent and reduce emotional exhaustion by bringing down the stress response.
What I found was making those small changes and sticking with them started to make a difference. I was able to shift my mindset from all or nothing to realising that small changes can improve how you feel every day. (I called it my ‘feel great in eight’ strategy.)
What had been blocking me was my all-or-nothing thinking and picking a massive goal. I wanted to feel full of energy, happy, motivated, productive and successful all the time, as well as calm and relaxed. But if your goal is too big (e.g. start a million-dollar business, have a perfect body), it’s intimidating and you don’t ever feel like making a start. Instead, by taking small and simple steps, finally, I overcame those feelings of being burnt out and having nothing left. I was able to set boundaries, saying ‘yes’ to those things that really mattered while giving a firm but polite ‘no’ to things that didn’t.
Finally, I had the energy to take my dog, Sammi, for a walk at the beach. I had the energy to focus on regular connections with my friends and family. I had the mental energy to think clearly about my life and how to be the best mother, partner, friend and colleague.
Staying where I was had consequences on my physical and mental health. I had forgotten what it felt like to be calm, living in the moment and feeling good.
Using practices such as mindfulness meditation, gentle movement and adjusting my mindset works. It allows me to enjoy what I am doing, saying no to what isn’t bringing me joy and savouring how good I feel. But these practices are just that — ‘practices’, and you have to keep going with such practices, recalibrating them when life, as it will, throws you something unexpected.
Now, when life feels out of control, I can bring myself back to those eight minutes a day each day that I know make a difference: movement, mindset, meditation.
Those practices bring me back to the present and help me remember it took only eight minutes a few times a day to turn my life around.
This is an edited extract written by Sophie. It was taken from “Burnout: A Guide to Identifying Burnout and Pathways to Recovery” by lead author Professor Gordon Parker, published by Allen & Unwin. Read more at www.sophiescott.com.au/blog