Ever had the feeling like you just want to pack your bags, go somewhere else and start afresh? Or that you don’t just need a weekend break from work, but a break from your whole life? When was the last time you sat and waited – for anything – without picking up your phone? When was the last time you felt free of stress?

If your answers to these questions concern you, you could be one of the countless people – women, men, teens, and especially mothers – who are struggling to deal with the ever-increasing stresses and strains, the pressures and the pace of everyday life as a UAE expat. It’s not uncommon. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s not a #firstworldproblem. It’s real. And it has a name. Welcome to life burnout. And chances are it snuck up on you without you even noticing.

Where does it come from?

The problem with life burnout is that it doesn’t necessarily come from anywhere. It is a culmination of stresses that, on their own, may not even seem negative. A friend’s birthday, quality time with the kids, Skyping your mum, cooking dinner... They all sound like lovely things to do. But when you try to squeeze them all into one week, or one day, the logistical stress can suck the fun out of the experiences.

While it is a global issue, it's particularly acute in expat destinations such as the UAE, where people's work and social lives are equally fast-paced, and obligations as a friend or relative span across countries. In the UAE's transient environment, there can be an increased pressure to socialise with new people and cultivate friendship networks (even if we'd actually rather get an early night) , while the fact that our ability to reside in the country is dependent on our employer can make work stress all the more extreme. 

Psychologist Dr Saliha Afridi, managing director at the LightHouse Arabia, is familiar with life burnout – both from a professional view working with clients, and from the personal view of her own busy schedule. She says: “People talk about burnout as if it is something transient – for example, ‘I am so burnt out today from work.’ But proper burnout is not something that happens on a day-by-day basis. It’s a long-lasting experience. And when it happens, it takes a bit of time to reset. It can’t be fixed with an evening watching TV and a good night’s sleep.”

The thing is that it can happen to anyone. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mum who hasn’t managed to get to the bottom of a cup of tea while it is still hot for more than a year, or a working mum who is constantly plagued by guilt of not mothering enough when she is at work (and guilt of not working enough when she is at home), or a busy career woman who is living a very satisfying but overly full life, it can happen to you.

“Issues start to arise when our lives get faster and faster and we don’t have enough downtime,” warns Dr Afridi. “It’s OK for life to be stressful. Stress can be good ... To push yourself outside of your comfort zone and try new things, achieve new goals. But if you choose to do that and to live like that, you need to build into your daily schedule some self-care. It could just be 30 minutes a day, but it needs to be time for yourself where you are not pleasing, or catering to, or caring for anyone else.”

Read more: 'How to cut back-to-work stress'

You are a finite source

One of the factors leading to burnout, says Dr Afridi, is a disconnect with our physical selves. In a bid to squeeze as much as we can into a 24-hour period, we often override the inner messages that are trying to tell us to slow down, or trying to tell us that we are tired, or that we are stressed, or just plain hungry. We pat ourselves on the back when we manage to drag ourselves to an exercise class even though we are dog-tired and just want our sofa. And we give ourselves a high-five when we crawl through our front door and fall into bed, feeling absolutely shattered, after attending a party, or social event, that, if we are honest, we had zero inclination to go to. “I may be exhausted now, but at least I didn’t flake,” we say to ourselves as our eyes shut of their own volition.

The problem with pushing ourselves in this way is that there can (or will) be physical, emotional and spiritual repercussions – not to mention financial issues, career problems, relationship dramas and more.

Dr Afridi explains that our energy levels are finite and we need to treat them as such. It is not just a mind-over-matter thing – when we are tired, or overwhelmed, or stressed, we need to take heed and realise that our energy wallet is empty. And, in the same way that we need to be smart with how we spend our money, we need to be smart about how we spend our energy too.

She says, “Your body is a biological machine. If you run a car for 20 hours a day, it won’t last very long. Similarly, if you do that to your body, the extra energy needed has to come from somewhere and it comes from the future. Put simply, when you use extra energy that you don’t have, you are borrowing it from your future and setting yourself up for emotional, mental and physical bankruptcy later down the line.”

Secret energy suckers

Our busy lives mean we are rarely still. And even when we have little pockets of downtime during the day to be still and quiet – whether it be 15 minutes waiting at a doctor’s office, or 45 seconds waiting at a traffic light – we utilise those times to ‘achieve’ on our phones.

Hands up if, when you are getting your car filled with petrol, you reach for your phone to flick through Facebook? We all do it... The kids are playing in the park, we are on Instagram. Meeting a friend for lunch and she is running late, we are replying to emails. Busy cooking dinner, we still have time to Whatsapp four different friends. We are multitasking in a way that we never could before – getting more out of each 24-hour period. Or so we think.

Ask yourself this question – when was the last time your phone was off because you turned it off? How anxious do you feel when you get to work and realise you left your phone on the kitchen table? How stressed out do you get when that whirring circle of doom at the top of your phone tells you that you can’t send or receive messages or updates, even though you know the temporary disconnection to your online life will last only a matter of minutes?

Phones have become far more than a handy, life-easing gadget. They have become an addiction. Wherever we go, we take our phones out and put them on the table, lest we miss something important. We have chargers next to our beds, in our cars, at our desks, even backup charger banks in our handbags. Someone stealing your charger, or losing it, is a huge inconvenience (like, huge!). The way we carry on and fret about chargers, you would think they were a source of life energy – one that we plug ourselves into to stay alive, rather than to plug our phones into so we don’t miss out on a Facebook update from a friend (whom we never see, never speak to and probably don’t really even care about that much).

Don’t get us wrong – we are not trying to demonise phones, or technology, or social media. And we aren’t judging people who use it. We are just as attached to our phones as anyone else.

The point is that it is just another time-zapper, and energy-sucker. The habit of reaching for the phone has hit us right in the centre of the chest – our downtime. We ‘kill time’ on our phones when we are not busy. And we urgently need that time to do nothing – absolutely nothing – as it is an antidote to our chaotic lives.

Dr Afridi says, “In the bid for efficiency, we are starting to lose our sanity. We are trying to be productive every second of the day. But our brain needs calmness, it needs reflection. It needs time to wander... We think we are being more efficient, but we are actually creating more obstacles between ourselves and the authentic, fulfilling lives we want to lead. We are giving ourselves no time to shut down our minds so they can reboot.”

According to Dr Afridi, in her experience with her clients, many (or most) people are in total denial about their addiction to electronics and the negative stress that it brings to their lives. She says, “Regardless of age, very few people have insight into how much time they are on electronics. As we pull back the layers of stress, depression, burnout and anxiety, we can really see the impact that phones and technology have made. And yet people don’t make the link – I would say they are even resistant to the suggestion.”

Ironically, Dr Afridi points out, another downside of all these fab new apps that keep us in touch with every ex-colleague, ex-friend, sister-of-ex-friend, ex-husband-of-ex-colleague, is that we actually communicate less with the important people in our lives. “I think the more we use technology, the more disconnected we are. To the point when we are not even making phone calls anymore, because a phone call seems like too much engagement. But when we opt to communicate on Whatsapp, we give up the natural pauses and ‘uh hmms’, the nods of the head to show the other person you are hearing them... There is no looking into the other person’s eyes to read between the lines, and no comfort that comes from hearing another’s voice. Basically we give up our humanity."

Read more: 'Is this UAE parenting trend the secret to raising kids stress-free?'

Will everyone just slow down!

The more you think about it, the more you will notice the warning signs in yourself... The waking up more tired than you went to sleep. The apathy about things you used to care about. The thoughts about how nice it would be just to turn your back on the chaos and move somewhere new to start afresh. The squeezing pressure of feeling that you never have enough time. The fact that you can’t simply sit and do nothing (at the traffic lights, in the waiting room) without wanting to reach for your phone – it’s like you have in fact forgotten how to do it.

The answer? Turn off your phone. Prioritise how you spend your time and energy. Write a list of the important people and make sure more time is spent on them than on your Facebook ‘friends’ and the people you follow on Insta. And as for sleep – get more of it. Dr Afridi says, “Life burnout is not something that can be solved quickly. You need to put yourself on lockdown for a while so you can recalibrate. Only then will your mind have a chance to calm and eventually you will start to heal. ”

To book an appointment with Dr Afridi, or to book a spot on one of her upcoming mindfulness workshops, visit www.lighthousearabia.com.

You know you are on the road to burnout when...

1 You wake up exhausted and every day seems like a drag

2 You regularly experience heavy and difficult feelings such as sadness, loneliness, confusion, anger.

3 You are overly agitated and reactive to even the smallest of things.

4 You spend most of your life in the virtual world – seeking to escape the current one, or at least to distract you from it for a while.

5 You start to feel invisible, as if you are part of your life but cannot be seen by others, and you find it hard to connect
with people.

6 Your work and/or your family start to suffer.

You are at burnout when...

You are going through your days robotically – “getting through the day”.

• You are numb. Whereas before you had heavy feelings, now your emotions are blunted.

You are in a state of apathy – no longer agitated but completely disengaged from your family and work.

• You feel you are in a hole helpless and powerless.

Your family has disengaged from you as much as you have disengaged from them because they feel they cannot ‘reach’ you.

• You have been called out by your supervisor too many times for underperformance. You are on the brink of being fired.

Read more: 'How childbirth is giving new mums post-traumatic stress disorder'