Body & Fitness

Burning out was the best thing that happened to me

Anyone can suffer from burn out. Here, three successful women reveal the impact chronic stress had on their health – and how they transformed their lives for the better.
Zelda Edwards

Hands up if this sounds familiar: you have just left work after a long day but before you collapse into bed you have a report to write, groceries to buy, children to feed, dry-cleaning to collect and library books to return.

Somewhere in the next 48 hours you also have to fit in a spin class, a parent-teacher interview and a visit to your elderly parents.

Is it any wonder your stressometer is off the charts? According to experts, stress is key for survival, but too much of it can be detrimental.

“Stress is an automatic response developed by our ancient ancestors as a way to protect them from predators and other threats,” says life coach Sarah Ellis.

“When the brain perceives some kind of danger, it floods the body with hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. This creates a variety of reactions including an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and energy, which helps you deal with the problem.”

According to research by the American Psychological Association, money and work are considered the top two sources of stress (67 per cent and 65 per cent respectively) but losing keys (37 per cent) and being stuck in traffic (35 per cent) also throw out the welcome mat for stress.

And, of course, there’s the big-ticket items: death, divorce, and career changes.

While research confirms some stress can be positive, helping you to meet daily challenges, boosting your immune system and motivating you to reach goals, chronic or long-term stress can cause anxiety and even health problems.

“If your body’s natural alarm system is permanently stuck in the on-position, that can have serious consequences for your health, from high blood pressure and fatigue to depression, anxiety and even heart disease,” says Ellis.

In fact, studies have shown that stress can be a major contributor, either directly or indirectly, to cancer, lung ailments, accidental injury and suicide.

Auckland-based Dr Frances Pitsilis, who has worked with patients on managing stress for 30 years, says prolonged stress is a key contributor to burnout.

“Burnout is a condition that impacts on sleep, nutrition and hormones and is worsened by environmental toxins,” she says. “Those most likely to suffer from burnout are passionate, busy and often successful people who push themselves physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. They may try to ignore feelings of a chronic sense of exhaustion and instead reach for quick fixes of caffeine, sugary foods and alcohol to keep going.”

Pitsilis says the key is to get your priorities right.

“Basically, put your health and your partner’s and family’s health first, then work and definitely other people last. Apart from good sleep, diet and stress management, the key is learning to chill out – to keep sight of the fact most things are really not that important.”

Zelda Edwards – Zumba fitness instructor/business owner

For 16 years, Zelda Edwards lived what she calls a “bipolar lifestyle”. A producer/production manager in the film, TV and theatre industries, her life was akin to a roller-coaster ride.

“In the film industry you’re either working 14-plus-hour days under extreme stress for three to four months, or you’re unemployed, broke and looking for the next gig. It’s an incredibly stressful way to live,” says the 33-year-old.

But Edwards, one of the youngest ever graduates of the Avalon Film and TV School when she was 17, says there was never any question over whether she would work in the film industry. Her parents were actors – her father Frank Edwards had a long-running role on Shortland Street – and her younger sister Lucy is an actor and producer.

Following film school, Wellington-born Edwards did everything from producing the NZ Comedy Festival and the Fringe Festival to production managing TV programmes such as Wild Survivor.

“A typical day on set would start around 4am and I’d consume vast amounts of coffee and cigarettes to deal with the stress. I’d stuff myself at the catering table and when we wrapped at 7-8pm, I’d go out partying with the crew before doing it all again the next day.”

Having found her dream job, Edwards says her career came before everything else – including health, relationships and mental wellbeing.

“After finishing a contract, I would often be bedridden for weeks, suffering from exhaustion and depression. At the time I was plus-size but felt extreme pressure to lose weight; I got caught up in dangerous competitive weight-loss competitions with colleagues to see who could drop the most weight in the shortest time. One year I’d be tiny and the next twice the size. It would send me into a downward spiral of body shame and mental instability.”

Add to that an abusive relationship with a former partner and a laundry list of illnesses from endometriosis and gout to bulimia and chronic back pain, and it’s easy to see why Edwards was so unhappy.

“My body and mind were completely disconnected but I simply refused to acknowledge it.”

In 2013, during the birth of her second child with husband Simon Smith, Edwards was forced to face her demons.

“The birth of our daughter Zadie (now five) was fine but with Ripley (now two) it was horrible and involved a desperate dash to hospital in an ambulance, emergency surgery and eight doctors.

“There’s nothing like a near-death experience to focus the mind.”

Not long after, the couple moved an hour north of Wellington to the Kapiti Coast where they were able to buy their first home, have a garden and keep chickens.

“We both wanted a break from our busy city lives and to be able to breathe again.”

Unfortunately, the work situation wasn’t so positive and Edwards ended up cleaning houses and working part-time at a retirement village.

“I’d gone from being an executive at the New Zealand Film Commission to caring for the elderly and being a cleaner. It was a pretty humbling experience.”

In September 2014, Edwards saw an advert for a zumba instructor. She’d tried the dance/exercise craze a few years earlier, enjoyed it and thought it would be the perfect vehicle for her own business. And although she was “terrible” at the training (“I felt completely overwhelmed, vulnerable and out of my depth”), Edwards was determined to succeed.

She sent out flyers and held her first class in a community hall in Paekakariki. It wasn’t a success.

“Sometimes I’d get only two or three students. The first year I operated at a huge loss. But I listened to the voice that said ‘keep dancing’ and carried on.”

Two years later, Edwards now teaches up to 12 classes a week, including sessions for children, the elderly and those who can’t afford traditional dance classes. She’s even built up a community dance troupe of women aged between 10 and 86.

“I’ve had students come after heart surgery and to escape postnatal depression, while others have been able to come off diabetes and blood pressure medication just from attending my classes.”

Setting up the business has also completely transformed Edwards’ diet and body shape.

“I’ve become a stronger version of myself physically and mentally and most of my illnesses are non-existent. I also get really, really excited about empowering other women to enjoy their bodies.”

Janelle Brunton-Rennie: PR company director

Janelle Brunton-Rennie knows only too well the irony of burning out from being ‘too healthy’. Two years ago the former marathon runner, fitness instructor, triathlete and body builder developed Hashimoto’s disease, an auto-immune condition that attacks the thyroid.

It was, says the 33-year-old, a perfect storm: “I had pushed my body to its physical limits. I was stressed and suffering from severe adrenal fatigue from overtraining and running my own business, and my diet was more about being lean than healthy.”

The Aucklander admits she should have seen it coming.

“When you’re a type-A perfectionist, with an I-would-rather-die-than-quit personality, you can do a lot of damage to yourself, your health and wellbeing.”

The tipping point was two years ago, after a body-building tournament.

“My body literally blew up – I was putting on weight for no reason, I was down and incredibly exhausted all the time.”

A few months later, Brunton-Rennie met a friend, wellness expert Kaytee Boyd, who asked her how her wedding plans were coming along.

“I burst into tears! I was a high-performing athlete, used to making my body look any way I wanted it to, but I couldn’t figure out why I was putting on weight or why I couldn’t lose it.”

Boyd sent her friend for hormone and thyroid function tests, which resulted in the Hashimoto’s diagnosis. Specialists said it was most likely caused by the severe stress she had put her mind and body through for so many years. But medication wasn’t an option.

“I didn’t want to be on drugs for the rest of my life. So I started educating myself to see how I could get better naturally.”

The first decision she made was to take a year off exercise.

“I couldn’t even go for a walk, I was so exhausted. I had to completely retrain myself how to experience life.”

Canterbury-born, farm-raised Brunton-Rennie dumped the chemical-laden beauty and cleaning products she’d been using and spent two years cycling through various diets.

“I was vegan for a while, then vegetarian and then paleo. Basically I tried lots of different dietary options until I found the one that worked best for me.”

Her diet is now gluten-free, plant-based and as organic and natural as it can be, with small amounts of meat, minimal dairy and no refined sugar.

In January last year, she married long-time partner Kurt Brunton, a business owner and amateur body builder who supported his wife’s lifestyle changes, even accompanying her to yoga and Buddhist meditation classes.

“Part of the change I made was about mindfulness and learning to be present in the moment. For someone used to doing 100 things a minute, it was hard. But every day I try to take five minutes to rest and clear my mind, which has helped enormously with my recovery.”

For Brunton-Rennie, it’s been a long, hard slog back to health.

“After my diagnosis I took responsib-ility for my own wellness journey. I read everything I could on health, Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, as well as meditation and mindfulness. I practised yoga and breathing techniques in an effort to heal myself.”

Late last year, she eased herself back into exercise and now runs three to four times a week.

“The distance and duration totally depends on how I’m feeling that day. Sometimes it will be 3km, sometimes eight, sometimes I only run for five minutes and walk the rest of the way.”

She also does a couple of light weight sessions at the gym each week, a contrast to the hour-long daily sessions she routinely did during her body building and triathlon days.

“I’ve learned that aggressive forms of exercise and self-punishment aren’t good for me. Exercise should give you energy, not take it, so now I use exercise as a tool for endorphins and fun rather than working out to exhaustion.”

Naturally, the changes Brunton-Rennie made to her lifestyle crossed over into the public relations agency she founded five years ago.

“I had been struggling for some time with mindless consumerism, disposable lifestyles and the role I potentially played in that. I wanted to work with businesses that have a similar ethos to my own, who are doing their bit to make the world a better place.”

She recently relaunched her business as an ethical/sustainable PR company which she believes is the first of its kind in New Zealand.

“For a long time I felt exhausted and frustrated but now I feel balanced and happy again. Life is good on every possible level.”

Lisa Voigt: Jeweller/gallery owner

When Lisa Voigt was 30, she ran her hand through her dark hair, only to have a clump come off in her hand. But she was so busy account managing around 500 clients for a large telecoms company, she didn’t have the time to stop and think about it.

“I had the classic rushing woman’s syndrome – I’d rush to work, eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at my desk and apply my makeup at the traffic lights,” admits Voigt, now 44. “It was a culture of work hard, play hard, so there was a lot of partying, eating bad food and not exercising.”

Voigt says she’d felt unwell for a long time: “Nothing specific but I was always tired and it was compounded by the stress of my job. I’d finish a task and then something else would land on me. The pressure was on all the time and by the end of the day I’d feel worn down”.

Not long after the hair incident the former Aucklander found a growth on her nose.

“I knew something wasn’t right, but when the doctor said I had to get it checked urgently, the alarm bells started going off.”

One biopsy and a battery of tests later, Voigt was diagnosed with discoid lupus erythematosus, a chronic skin condition that results in inflammed sores and scarring, often on the face and scalp.

It was her wake-up call.

“One of the triggers of this disease is stress; I’d spend my days in a high state of adrenaline and nights not being able to wind down. I decided I needed to change my life quick smart.”

Two days after being diagnosed, Voigt resigned from her corporate job.

“My colleagues thought I was nuts giving up the corporate bells and whistles, the six-figure salary, company car and phone. I had all the materialistic trimmings anyone would want. My boss even said ‘You’ll be back’.”

But she knew she wouldn’t, spurning job offers from other companies and ignoring those who questioned her decision.

“Even my partner Simeon asked if I knew what I was doing. But I didn’t care about how poor I was going to be or the fact I no longer had a job. I know it sounds cliched, but if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything. Being diagnosed with lupus was like a light bulb going on and I knew I had to get out.”

It helped that Simeon supported Voigt emotionally and financially, reassuring her they’d make it work. The transition, however, wasn’t easy and Voigt says it was an unusual feeling “going from 100 to zero miles an hour. I’m not the kind of person who can sit around doing nothing.”

The only daughter of acclaimed photographer Peter Voigt, she had inherited his artistic sensibilities, spending years “dabbling” in acrylic painting. The enforced career break was an opportunity for Voigt to re-examine her priorities.

“I’d always wanted to be an artist and realised it was now or never.”

She signed up for art school in Puhoi which was, she says, a huge culture shock.

“I’d gone from being a full-on, super organised corporate warrior to being surrounded by arty, waffly people who, to my eyes, looked pretty disorganised. Not to mention transitioning from a great salary to the $260 a week student allowance! It took me a good year to let go of the corporate life and relax.

“I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing but going back to the corporate world wasn’t an option so I just kept chipping away at it. I began to see it as a challenge – how to live on a budget, how to scour op shops and how to do free things, like going to the beach.”

Voigt spent four years at art school, learning everything from painting and ceramics to jewellery. A year in, she switched allegiance to chunky, colourful jewellery.

“I became passionate about creating beautiful objects with my hands that could be treasured by others. When I was stuck behind a desk all day, I never thought I’d love this craft so much.”

For the next decade, she made necklaces, earrings and rings from her Auckland garage that she sold to shops and galleries nationwide. It was a career that accommodated not only the arrival of son Will in 2006 but also a move to Hamilton with Simeon’s job. Two years after moving south, one of the local galleries Voigt supplied jewellery to asked if she’d liked to buy it.

“I jumped at the chance. It was always my dream to own a gallery but there’s no way I could have afforded that in Auckland.”

Today, Soul Gallery showcases around 150 Kiwi craftspeople, including emerging artists. Running the business swallows so much of her time, Voigt isn’t able to make jewellery any more.

“But I love giving other artists a platform for their work because it can be so hard to find that when you’re starting out. I will get back to making jewellery one day but for now, this feeds my creativity.”

Her illness has been in remission for seven years now, aided by a healthy diet (she’s a cheerleader for gluten and sugar-free eating) and regular Bowen therapy (a type of remedial massage).

“If I hadn’t got sick, I may have never found this fabulous life I have now. In some ways, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.”

Words: Sharon Stephenson

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