On a sunny Friday afternoon seemingly like any other, a man walked into Siv Harstad’s office and asked her an everyday question that changed the course of her life.
As Head of HR, Siv was busy, in demand and often worked long hours with few moments to pause. She was used to scrambling to fit everything in and doing her best to fulfill everything her role entailed, even when that meant skipping lunch. Her role had become increasingly demanding and in the absence of a long-promised new employee, Siv was desperately trying to finish her tasks, so she could escape for the weekend to get some temporary breathing space.
She had just two weeks to keep going. Her vacation was booked and then she would get some respite after a hectic few months that quietly left her feeling exhausted. When her colleague Jacob walked into her office, she assumed he was there to ask for help. But instead, he asked how she was doing. Not just how she was doing, but how she was REALLY doing.
Have you ever had one of those moments when you know someone sees right through your professional veneer, to how you really feel?Dr. Andrea Pennington
In those moments, you have two choices: carry on pretending… knowing neither of you will be convinced. Or lean into the relief of being given the opportunity to drop the mask for awhile. Even if that feels scary.
In Siv’s case, her default ‘pretend everything is ok’ response lasted mere seconds, before her bottled-up emotions seized the moment and took over.
It was painful, uncomfortable and confronting. But for Siv, even though she didn’t know it at the time, this moment was her catalyst. It started her on an incredible journey from having severe, debilitating burnout to becoming so strong and healthy, she was able to climb Mount Everest – twice.
As the first Norwegian woman to climb Mount Everest from the Nepal side, Siv is now an entrepreneur, adventurer and TEDx speaker. She has an incredible story about what happened when she climbed Everest the second time, after her first attempt was thwarted during Nepal’s 2015 major earthquake.
We got together online to talk about her journey. You can watch our conversation here or over on YouTube and read more below about what Siv shares in the book about how she overcame severe burnout and became someone who loves reaching tough goals and helping others do the same.
Why healing burnout is vital.
The hustling and striving culture so prevalent in many corporate and entrepreneurial settings has normalized a way of working that is far from normal.
Being busy all the time and meeting unrealistic demands can become so engrained as normal behaviors, the symptoms of burnout quietly creep up unnoticed. Far from one day finding yourself walking out of the door wearing your pajamas and fluffy slippers, realizing you have burnout is often more of a slowly dawning realization.
For Siv, whilst she knew things weren’t right and she was holding on by a thread until her vacation, she had no idea how bad things were. It wasn’t until she tried to return to work after the weekend, that after five repeated trips between the bus stop and home, she finally realized she couldn’t return to work. She needed help.
Sitting in the doctor’s office the next day, Siv discovered that her blood pressure and pulse were so high, even the doctor was shocked. Far from being a state of mind, or inability to cope, Siv’s nervous system was so stressed, she was forbidden from doing any physical training.
Over the following days and weeks, Siv realized how many hidden illnesses and symptoms she had. Alongside high blood pressure, she also experienced insomnia, short-term memory problems, weight gain, headaches, mood swings, muscle pain and lack of concentration.
A cognitive brain test showed that even though her brain was normal, there were visible signs of the long-term effects that stress was having on her. It would take more than a few days rest to heal from this – what Siv needed was a complete life review.
How Siv healed herself – a holistic journey of self-discovery
The journey from burnout to recovery is unique to everyone, depending upon individual circumstances and what contributed to the point of breakdown. Despite this, approaching the healing journey holistically is more likely to lead to long-term recovery, because it rewires the brain to create healthy and supportive habits and behaviors.
Siv’s healing journey included:
✨Learning to slow down
At the start of her healing journey, Siv struggled to slow down and expected herself to heal a lot faster than she did. Her body and mind were used to operating constantly, therefore she chose to work with a coach to reprogram her mindset, so she could rest during the day. Slowing down and learning to listen to her body took time, but it was crucial to her long-term wellbeing.
✨ Learning to sleep better (and sometimes sleep a LOT!)
A brain in chronic stress has learned to be on constant surveillance a bit like a security guard is on continuous high alert. This means that even if a stressed person sleeps, their sleep is shallow, interrupted and irregular. Sleep is fundamental to every other aspect of life, so as someone with chronic insomnia, Siv started using a sleep mask and meditating to reprogramme her mind.
✨ Acknowledging her toxic work environment
The environment we spend most time in plays a huge role in how we feel in daily life. Even though we have huge control over our internal responses, there is only so much you can influence in a toxic environment. Siv realized what factors from work contributed to her burnout and in the book you can discover the steps she took once she realised this.
✨ Having a clear reason and focus for why her recovery mattered
Having a clear why is not just vital for achieving big goals that really matter to you. When you’re healing from burnout, you need to find a strong, compelling reason to keep going and keep making small changes each day, because this helps you believe that life will get better on the other side. Initially Siv was focussed on getting back to work. As time passed and she got a little stronger, her focus switched to climbing Mount Everest.
✨ Cleaning up her diet
Stress is well known to add weight even if your diet stays the same as usual. The body holds onto calories for dear life, because when the brain thinks it’s in danger, it preserves resources to stay safe. Siv’s lifestyle had become so erratic and busy that the shortcuts to eating had also contributed. When she did a juice fast to clean up her system, she felt amazing and her nutrients measurably improved.
These are just some of the approaches Siv took to change her life around and fulfill her dream to climb Mount Everest. You can read more about each step she took in the book.
📘Get your copy of the book: https://amzn.to/3nKMtvF
So many of us worry we’ll be judged harshly if we reveal that despite the happy facade, we’re struggling on the inside. The truth is however, that when we stop hiding ourselves and start showing up more honestly, it enriches and improves our experience of life.
Today Siv feels incredibly grateful that she not only recovered and survived the earthquake on Everest, she became a happier, stronger, more balanced and fulfilled person. Siv has big plans for more expeditions when the world opens up again. In the meantime, she holds motivational talks and helps others achieve their personal ‘Everest’ too.
📘Get your copy of the book: https://amzn.to/3nKMtvF
Curious to know the difference between stress and burnout? Check out this post
This post was originally published on In8Vitality.com on January 21, 2021.