My experience of burnout, poor mental health and regaining balance

Notes, reflections and learnings on my mental health journey

8 min readNov 10, 2023
From the top of Box Hill, a happy place!


  • The “brain crash” (or, panic attack)
  • The next few months
  • How I got better and regained balance
  • Probable causes of my burnout and poor mental health
  • Final thoughts

The “brain crash” (or, panic attack)

March, 2022: I was working with the team at my previous company, SIDE Labs. It was a busy day. Lots of in-person meetings and Zoom calls.

I was on a Zoom call in the afternoon when I started feeling weary, uneasy, and struggled to focus on the conversation. I tried to ignore the feelings.

I finished the call. That felt weird, I thought.

I went outside to get some fresh air, hoping a few deep breaths would sort me out. Nope, still felt strange. Standing on Whitechapel High Street, I started feeling hot, cold, dizzy, faint, edgy, isolated, disconnected.

Now I felt a bit scared.

I went back inside, hoping the feelings would pass. They didn’t. I tried to gather myself for my next meeting. I couldn’t do it. It was like my brain had crashed and refused to switch on back on. Like when a computer runs too many processes.

I told the team I wasn’t feeling right. They looked at me, surprised. I apologised and headed home.

They texted me thoughtful messages, encouraging me to relax.

I didn’t know it at the time, but later learned this was a panic attack.

A new experience for me.

The next few months

I didn’t feel myself.

I felt fragile and mentally fractured. Like a broken mirror.

I often felt edgy and anxious. My mind and body seemed on high-alert.

I sometimes felt sad and lacked morale. Especially when I was tired.

I occasionally woke around 6am with a restless mind. Thoughts swirling.

I didn’t relish or enjoy things as much as I normally did.

I didn’t have the energy for a full day of work. By the end of most days, I felt frazzled. I struggled to have conversations about strategy or new business.

I had some negative thoughts, and feelings of futility. Like, “what’s the point of all of this?”

It felt like my brain had failed me. I remember thinking to myself, “if I can’t rely on myself, how can others rely on me?”

I felt a bit useless, broken. I made fixing myself my top priority.

How I got better and regained balance

I got very curious about mental health.

With clinical depression, people talk about their recovery. I wasn’t diagnosed with a mental illness. It felt like I needed to regain balance.

Here are the things I did, roughly in chronological order.

👁️ Externalisation

This is the first thing I did a few days after my brain crash. I Googled “brain crash” and came across this article: When Your Brain Crashes.

Externalisation involves putting everything down on paper. All the things in my head. Relationships, projects, behaviours, concerns, commitments. It was liberating and helped me see where I could make changes.

🚧 Set boundaries

After externalising everything, it was easy to see where I needed to set healthier boundaries.

For example, most days I would check email and Slack on my phone as early as 6am and as late as 11pm. To control this unhealthy behaviour, I decided to remove email and Slack from my phone. I started checking work messages when at my computer, typically between 9am to 5pm.

Another thing I noticed was just how much I was trying to help others. I was too involved in other people’s problems and taking them on as my own. I couldn’t continue like that. I dialled down my levels of support and I was open with people about why I had to do this.

I love this quote from Prentis Hemphill:

Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.

👩‍⚕️ Visited the doctor

I visited the doctor a week after my brain crash. I shared that experience, my feelings over the last week, my typical working day and a few things going on in my life.

The doctor said it sounded like I had burnout. She encouraged me to take some time off or reduce my hours, and to schedule in time for myself.

This left me feeling perplexed and relieved. Perplexed, because I thought that burnout was something that happened to other people. Relieved, because burnout felt manageable and something I could work with.

⏱️ Worked less

I took a week off shortly after I visited the doctor.

I reduced my work hours for a couple of months. Finishing by 4 or 5pm most days. This meant I had more time for myself to rest and recharge.

👨‍💻 Self-assessed

I found a couple of NHS self-assessment tests.

Depression self-assessment — Score: 5 out of 27 — “It’s unlikely you’re suffering from depression.”

Mood self-assessment — Depression score: 6 out of 21 — “Based on your responses, you’re not experiencing many of the symptoms seen in depression.” Anxiety score: 4 out of 21 — “Based on your responses, you are experiencing some symptoms seen in anxiety.”

I’m not sure how useful these were, but they made me feel re-assured.

💬 Talking & sharing

I was very open with people about how I was feeling.

My colleagues at SIDE Labs were understanding. They gave me space.

My professional community were supportive. Many work in the social sector and seemed familiar with my plight. They listened and didn’t judge. Some shared stories of their own mental health challenges. I’m so grateful to them. They helped me feel less alone and see ways forward.

Friends helped. They reminded me of my intentions, especially around work. They could see I had veered off course and wasn’t entirely happy.

Earlier this year, I went along to a men’s mental health peer support group. I was accompanying someone else. So, although I didn’t do peer support for me, I can see how it’s useful. Hearing stories. Not judging. Supporting each other. Feeling less alone.

🌳 Being outdoors

I spent loads of time outdoors, mostly walking the dog. There’s lots of things written about the link between mental health and being in nature, see Mind and Mental Health Foundation.

For me, being outdoors was about having time to process, reflect and slow down. Walking around the river near Hammersmith and cycling in Surrey (see the pic) are a couple of my happy places.

📔 Journaling

I journaled every day for 14 months. I noted different things, such as length of sleep, main activities that day, any exercise, feelings and thoughts.

Journaling got stuff out of my head. I was able to spot patterns, tiggers and trends. For example, days when I exercised, I felt more robust mentally. Busy working days left me feeling frazzled. I felt recharged after spending time relaxing with my family.

I journaled on my phone, using Notion. I wrote 31,480 words in total.

🧘‍♂️ Meditation

I’d never meditated. The idea of sitting in silence felt like a waste of time.

A few people suggested I try Headspace. I really got into it. I mediated every day for 250 days. Morning and evening. It became routine.

Meditation made me feel peaceful and grounded. It taught me to be more present. More gentle with myself. And to step back from my thoughts and observe them, rather than get caught up in them.

Nowadays I meditate once or twice a week. They’re like little top-ups.

What I once thought was a waste of time, I now see as a gift.

💭 Therapy

I never thought I’d be the kind of person that needed therapy.

Someone recommended a good therapist. We did sessions over video chat. We started with weekly sessions, then did every month or so. We stopped before the end of the year.

Therapy was revelatory. It complemented my meditation and journalling. I clicked with Richard, my therapist. Richard explained things clearly, for example how “fight or flight” response works.

Richard gave me the tools to spot my triggers so I could address them properly. He helped me to see things differently. To let go of unhealthy and unhelpful thoughts. Some I’d been carrying around for decades.

I used to find it easy to let go. But somewhere along the line, things changed. Therapy and mediation helped me rediscover the art of letting go.

📚 Reading

I’ve read a few books that are either directly or indirectly related to mental health and wellbeing.

They’ve helped in different ways, here they are:

🪞 Reflection

I’ve made space to process, question and learn from my experiences.

I’ve become increasingly curious about mental health. Earlier in the year I completed a two-day Mental Health First Aid course. It’s been empowering. I feel better prepared to support other people and care for myself.

I now see my burnout as a warning shot.

Probable causes of my burnout and poor mental health

It’s hard to know where it all began and what has contributed.

I think it began shortly after my older brother died in 2014. I took on a lot of responsibility. Sorting out probate. Making sure his 14 and 11 year-old sons could keep their house with their mum. I didn’t think much about it at the time. But on reflection, it was stressful.

Working in the non-profit sector for the last few years hasn’t helped my mental health. It can be a bit relentless, with little evidence that things are getting better for beneficiaries — sometimes traumatised communities. I’ve not made the impact I was hoping for.

Starting a new agency during the pandemic was tough. Building a team while working remotely didn’t feel natural. It required more effort to bond and create belonging. I enjoyed SIDE and the work we did, but my heart wasn’t in an agency-building journey. There was cognitive dissonance.

My overall health and home life are good. But some of my family and friends have had serious health and relationship problems to deal with. I got a bit too close to these problems and felt them as my own. I wasn’t really aware of boundaries at the time.

Final thoughts

As the middle sibling, I’ve always been the bridge builder. An empathiser, trying to please everyone. Since my older brother died, I’ve become the rescuer. I always felt mentally sturdy, but I guess I wasn’t ready.

Having poor mental health was difficult. It bought dark clouds, but I’m grateful for the experience. I’ve learned that the blue skies are always there. I’ve learned so much more about myself.

I feel more ready to deal with life’s ups and downs.

My own and other people’s.