By the end of last December, I was exhausted.
For the past year and a half, burnout had been a regular part of my life as I worked two jobs and studied for my second degree, all while living alone in a lonely, wintry city in northern Michigan. My burnout was not unique—many of my friends around the country were having similar experiences, feeling the combination of unrelenting stress from our post-college careers or academic programs and the severe lack of supporting communities.
Then, on one of the last days of the year, I flew to Oakland, California and signed onto a cargo ship as an officer-in-training for the next 72 days on the way to my goal to become a licensed ship officer. I’ll admit that, at first, this didn’t seem like the best idea. Commercial ships are hard-working places, and I thought surely the cure for my burnout would involve rest and relaxation, or at least less work. But as the ship sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and I began to feel the rolling of the sea under my feet, it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders. The stressful world of tests and dark evenings studying alone fell away behind us; in the open ocean air, I felt like I could breathe again. Yes, here was hard work aplenty, but as I was to discover, here also was the cure for my burnout.
Working on a ship was in every way different from the lifestyle I’d been living in the months prior. While before I’d eaten every hastily-prepared meal alone in my small apartment, now I ate good meals with my friends in the officer’s mess. Before I had lived alone; now I lived with a couple dozen people in a fairly small space. Before it had been up to me to structure my days, but now I lived and worked on the ship’s watch schedule, a series of four-hour blocks of time throughout the day that created a dependable and comforting routine I didn’t have to organize myself. I left a state locked in winter; while on the ship we sailed to Honolulu every other weekend. And best of all, the maritime world I had been studying on my own through homework and tests was now coming to life on a real ship with real sailors.
As the weeks went by, it was as if sunlight was breaking into my mind again. I had more energy, I felt less intimidated by new or difficult things, and I grew in experience and self-confidence. Most of all, I felt relief. The grinding effort it had taken to accomplish even small things was no longer necessary. The underlying and constant stress I had learned to live with in the past years was gone, replaced with curiosity and gratitude. I didn’t worry about things any more. Not that every day was a walk in the park—there were plenty of early mornings and late nights, and hours spent doing boring or repetitive things. But something had changed. What?
While my burnout had been caused by a slow slide into stress and distraction, at least for me, it was not cured by an equally slow process. I learned three things when my life changed overnight: first, a profound lifestyle change can work wonders. Second, real recovery from burnout requires help from other people. Third, since burnout is primarily rooted in mental exhaustion, the cure for it involves a deep investment in mental rest.
A complete lifestyle change
For me, the descent into burnout was a slow and steady downward slope, not a swift fall from a precipice. No one gets burned out after one day of stressful work or exhausting tasks—in my case, it came from constant low-level stress and persistent loneliness over the course of a couple years. Small, incremental changes to daily life (which I had attempted many times during the burnout years) just didn’t cut it. Reading more, less screen time, changing the times of day I studied or cleaned or ate, and making more efforts to spend time with friends certainly helped slow the slide, but those efforts couldn’t ultimately address the cause of my chronic stress and restore to me a whole and peaceful mind.
On the ship, I got to learn and practice my trade without the stress of constant testing, which helped a lot. More importantly, rather than isolating different habits in my life to adjust them one at a time, life on the ship forced me to leave some bad habits behind (you can’t binge YouTube without the internet, right?) and to adopt some healthier ones (eating three regular meals a day and getting regular exercise, lots of fresh air, and sunshine) all at once, without having to exert a lot of effort. They just came with the dramatic change.
At an even more fundamental level, I had to rethink how I interacted with lots of things I took for granted. Parts of my brain I hadn’t challenged in a while had to “stretch” a bit to adapt to the new environment. Just walking, for instance, is severely complicated by rolling in heavy seas. Interior design on ships hovers somewhere between Home Depot and an airplane bathroom, so simple things like opening drawers, taking showers, or climbing stairs required small but significant learning curves. Sitting down for dinner sometimes involved sliding across the dining room if we took a big wave. The open skies and watch schedule meant I was able to begin to follow the patterns of the sun and moon as they rose and set, and at the risk of sounding like an Instagram post, I loved experiencing the natural rhythms of the earth every day.
It might seem counterintuitive that an environment like this would be conducive to inner healing, but when I was forced to direct my attention outwards and rediscover the world around me, things that seemed big and scary (like homework) began to fall into their proper place. A teacup poodle can seem as big as a mastiff if one’s perspective is wrong; my perspective, previously focused on a narrow slice of life, expanded a lot in a short time and things that had filled up my field of vision (and filled me with stress) shrank down to manageable proportions.
Burnout recovery requires the help of others
Living so closely with the crew on the ship opened my eyes to the role others play in finding relief from burnout. In all my reading about burnout, I’d picked up the message that overcoming my burnout involved, well, just me. To adjust my lifestyle, alter my attitude, or solve my problems was all on me and me alone. At first this seems rational—no one else can fix your attitude or lift you out of your own mental slump, right? Well, actually, not so fast. For me, the cure for burnout absolutely required other people. Just as it would take a team of rescuers to help me if I had slid into a crevasse on a glacier, it took other people to help me climb back out of burnout.
I had some excellent shipmates. The first step was simply spending time with them—eating meals with them, working alongside them, going out for drinks in port, passing each other in the hallways, or sticking my head into their offices countless times per day. It’s well known that human beings are highly social creatures—without other people, we struggle to regulate our emotions, eat well, or exercise self-discipline. Simply being around other people already helped me recover from the effects of long-term stress.
Hanging out with my fellow sailors wouldn’t have been what I expected therapy would look like, but it involved challenges, boosts to my confidence, increased responsibility, and ultimately earned trust and friendship. My supervisor, the chief mate, encouraged me to problem-solve and figure things out on my own, and when I did he gave me more responsibility, a sign of approval and trust. He also had a knack for making boring or difficult things fun and interesting again. With his help, I was able to review navigation problems I had been struggling with for months and not only solve them but have fun doing so. Thanks to my boss’s patience and good humor, the stress of studying alone was gone. Even now, when I study by myself and the feeling of overwhelm begins to rear its head, I remember my supervisor’s confidence in me and the fun we had working through math problems on watch, and those feelings fade away. I also gained more confidence in my ability to handle future challenges. I had similar experiences with other members of the crew—not long after I joined the ship I felt like I was part of the family.
Recovery from burnout requires mental rest
And finally, while working on the ship was, well, hard work, the mental load was far less compared to the past years of academic work. Sure, standing watch, sounding ballast tanks, or checking the cargo manifest took time and, if the ship was rolling, a little bit of dexterity, but they didn’t require constant stress or hard thinking. Also, the mundane daily tasks that had previously demanded a lot of my energy and attention were now gone: I didn’t have to run to the store or the bank, return the tax rebate forms, remember to fill the car up with gas, or wash the dishes. There were no deadlines, no homework, no emails, no phone calls, no meetings. In short, I suddenly had some relief from the mental demands that can push an already overworked person over the edge into burnout.
Now before you roll your eyes and say, “Well, that’s nice for you,” hear me out. I learned that the key to mental rest is not eliminating work itself; work gives us meaning and structure, and offers connection to the people around us while allowing us to innovate and help others. Rather, the key is eliminating long strings of tiny, attention-sucking tasks that cause you stress, aren’t essential or meaningful, and get in the way of work and rest. I firmly believe you don’t have to join the Merchant Marine to do this, and that mental rest is possible even when you’re trying to balance work, family, and a worldwide pandemic. To help you get started, I’d like to direct you to two excellent authors who can say much more about this than I can. First, in her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte examines the American culture of “busyness” and the mental stress it can cause (I definitely saw myself in many of the examples she gives). And in 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, author Laura Vanderkam offers some excellent solutions to help you honestly evaluate your time habits and let go of that I’m-not-using-my-time-perfectly guilt once and for all. In both of these books I found a lot of useful tools to eliminate attention-shattering tasks and control my time so that even when I’m on land, I can rest my mind when I need to while still working hard.
I’m profoundly grateful for my time on the ship, not only for the experiences I had and friendships I formed, but also for showing me that there are curative solutions to burnout. Just as burnout isn’t caused by one isolated thing, no one thing will fix it—ending my burnout involved a number of different factors. And the best part? I didn’t have to “fix” myself to heal, because I wasn’t the problem. Changing my environment and working with good people in the real world while allowing my mind to rest reversed the symptoms of burnout and helped me feel like myself again.