18 months ago, I broke down. I sat on a train on my way to work as a university lecturer, and suddenly my heart started racing. It went faster and faster, then it skipped a few beats, and raced again. My breath became shallow and urgent. I felt dizzy. I looked around but no one else seemed to notice that something was wrong. Then the terrifying thoughts started:
I’m all alone! Am I having a heart attack? I need to get out of here!
I know now that I had a panic attack.
It was the first one of many, and anxiety took over my life like a crashing wave — to the point that I could not use public transport, drive my car, or go to the supermarket without crippling fear.
That same evening, I called in sick at work. I said I had a cold. I honestly didn’t know what else to say, and I did feel sick to my bones. I went to bed and stayed there.
A week later, I went to the doctor’s office. When she asked me how I was doing, I started crying and felt ashamed. I told her that I didn’t know what was wrong. I had no energy whatsoever and I was afraid of leaving the house. In fact, I had almost canceled the doctor’s appointment because I was not sure I could get there. Everything and everywhere felt unsafe. The doctor wrote ‘anxiety, low mood, burnout’ on my sick note and sent me on my way to rest.
How do you rest after years in the academic hamster wheel? I had no idea.
I got on a waiting list for cognitive behaviour therapy. I sat at home and watched Netflix. I tried meditation, yoga, and walks in a local park. Sometimes, I did nothing.
But the fear stayed with me like a shadow that I couldn’t shake. It felt like there was no clear way out of this, and I felt alone.
Every time my sick note ran out, I started crying and felt incapable of returning to work. So I went to the doctor again. And again.
Four weeks of sick leave turned into four months.
When I look back today, I wish I could tell my past self that I will get better. That I will become resilient. That I will change my life in unthinkable ways.
But it took over a year to heal.
Looking back, what felt like ‘forever’ was actually series of stages towards recovery. I just didn’t see it at the time. And creativity was key.
Here’s my story.
Phase 1: Sinking deeper into despair
After the first shock of the diagnosis, I wanted to learn more about my situation. I’m an academic, so I ordered a stack of books to analyse my mental illness.
Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagosk helped me understand that I had been overworked for years as a university lecturer, feeling the pressure to publish while teaching, and writing grant proposals on weekends.
My old mantra was: If I just work harder, I can rest later.
My body was in constant stress mode. I felt completely disillusioned that my work on human rights was of interest to anyone. As the Nagoski sisters write in Burnout, I never completed the stress cycle. I never took time off and restored my energy. I just worked more and more.
Hack your Anxiety by Alicia C. Clark taught me why panic attacks, a major part of my burnout, were actually a good thing. Before my anxiety, I had ignored that I was exhausted. I kept ignoring it. And then, my body stopped me. The panic attacks made it impossible to go to work. The panic attacks made me rest. As Gabor Maté writes in When the Body Says No, sometimes the body does what the mind cannot.
During this first phase, I was mostly annoyed with myself and my body. I understood the mechanisms intellectually, but I had zero self-compassion.
How dare my body not bow to the will of my hard-working mind? I felt like a failure. Everyone else at work seemed to cope. Especially during the first weeks of my burnout, I drowned in negative self-talk.
Phase 2: Finding myself a project
After weeks on sick leave, my mood changed from being upset at myself to being bored. I was so bored. I didn’t know how to do ‘nothing.’ I also didn’t want to return to work, because I was still anxious all the time.
So I called my mum, a no-nonsense German (who has been through her own share of trauma in life). I complained to her: “I don’t know what else I can do. I sleep, I exercise, I meditate. It’s not getting better.” My mum took a deep breath. Then she said, in her typical practical way:
“Find yourself a project.”
I almost laughed. It seemed too simple. And I was a little upset, too. Working was bad for me. How dare she say I should start a project? Wasn’t I supposed to rest?
But I followed her advice.
I turned towards creativity. It was as far away from academic work as I could think of.
Since I didn’t know how to be creative, I started working through the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Cameron takes you through 12 weeks of self-reflection. She helps you to let go of high expectations of yourself and simply be creative. The book’s exercises address self-sabotage, self-blame and perfectionism.
Because I was lonely while my husband was at work (and it was in the middle of the first covid lockdown in the UK), I founded a Facebook group so that I could work through the chapters with others. The people who joined the group were writers, artists, creatives with a day job, and a few academics. I now see this as my very first burnout support group. We shared our thoughts about the chapters and completed the exercises together. She shared moments of angst and grief. It was powerful.
Following Julia Cameron’s advice, I practiced three new habits which I now call my ‘healing habits’.
- Journaling: I started writing daily ‘morning pages’: free-flow, handwritten text about anything that comes to mind. It was painful. I wrote down all my grief and fears, filling pages and pages about my ‘downfall.’ I wrote it all out, and it felt good.
- Affirmations: I created ten personal positive affirmations that I wrote down every morning, such as “I heal myself with creativity,” or “I, Nicole, am a brilliant and prolific writer.” It felt awkward at first, but after a while, it made me smile. It gave me hope and a feeling of safety.
- Artist’s date: I went on a weekly date with myself. Since it was in the middle of covid lockdown, I took pictures of trees, listened to live gigs on youtube, and played the guitar. This was the hardest bit — I’m used to discipline and hard work, not ‘play’.
After 12 weeks of following the program, I gradually felt a shift.
My journal entries became more positive, I started believing in some of the positive affirmations — or at least, the possibility that they might be true. I was finally able to think about something else than my mental health and my failure.
I had started this program as a ‘project’, but really, it was about letting go. Letting go of the idea I have to intellectually ‘fix’ myself.
I opened myself up to the possibility that work is not all. And that creativity and play are vital.
Phase 3: Becoming a creative writer
After doing Cameron’s The Artist’s Way program, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Gilbert writes that ‘hidden treasures’ of creativity are waiting inside of everyone, and that you can learn to unlock yours if you dare.
So I made a big leap.
I signed up for a six-week online writing course, “Introduction to Short Story Writing,” taught at the Cambridge Institue for Continuing Education. The simple act of booking my place already gave me a boost. I had always wanted to write creatively, but after a few tries at school, I became a journalist (and later academic) instead. I had never dared to see myself as a creative person.
This is how I introduced myself to the group of writers on the online forum:
“I booked this course because I want to grab what’s mine, and what life as an academic has taken from me: my joy in writing.”
During the class, I immersed myself in the world of short stories. I started writing my own pieces each week. It felt liberating. I put all my emotions into my writing. I will never forget the feedback from the instructor, author Sarah Burton, on my final assignment.
“Your slice of life story elicited a really extraordinary level of response from the group — undoubtedly because this is familiar emotional terrain for many of us. This is a strength of your writing, to be able to tap into commonly felt experiences.”
When class ended, I was hooked. I immediately signed up for more online writing courses at Cambridge. I learned about writing fantasy with Natasha Pulley, and science writing with the marine biologist Helen Scales.
I kept writing almost every day.
Little snippets of freedom.
And slowly, alongside my cognitive behaviour therapy, which had finally started, the sense of doom moved into the background.
Phase 4: Changing who I hang out with
I knew my old work environment was toxic for me. So I joined writers’ groups and communities. For example, the London Writer Salon, run by Parul Bhavishi and Matt Trinetti, is a warm and welcoming online space where I wrote three times a day for 50 minutes with other writers. Here, I found a new tribe: novelists, journalists, non-fiction writers, scriptwriters, bloggers. Being in this community gave me a huge confidence and motivation boost. No one cared if I was a successful lecturer or not.
I also signed up for a one-year Undergraduate Certificate in Creative Writing at Cambridge, where I met amazing writers from across the world. We learned how to craft a compelling narrative, and come up with interesting characters. Once a week, we’d meet with our tutors on Zoom and discuss our work and the writing life. I learned from published authors like Elizabeth Speller, Claire McGlasson, Emily Winslow, and Menna van Praag — people I had admired from afar. It was pure bliss.
Step by step, I felt I was healing. I gained confidence in myself as a writer and creative. I felt like a human being.
But I also felt under pressure to earn money.
And made a mistake: I went back to my job.
Phase 5: Relapse into burnout
To get back on the payroll, I returned back to work at my university. I spent my days teaching over 100 students online, serving on administrative committees, and trying to write grants and journal articles. When my line manager asked if I wanted to go part-time, I declined. Why get less salary to end up working full time, as academics often do? I wanted to prove to myself and others that “I was back!”
I fell right back into my old patterns.
After a few weeks, I felt anxious and worried. I started feeling hopeless again, measuring myself against my colleagues. I slipped right back into my ‘hard worker’ identity. I even tested the waters to see if a promotion was in the cards to advance my career (the answer was: probably not). Again, I felt I had little autonomy over my time and activities.
I started worrying about the future. What if I have to return to a post-covid semester in person, and commute again? I worried about long train rides, more panic attacks, and no salary if I call in sick again.
I felt like a victim.
I was relapsing.
Phase 6: Quitting my job and starting fresh
It became clear to me that my health would never fully recover if I stayed in my old job. It was not just my university’s environment — it was also myself. I could not be an academic in any other way than I had learned. Publish or perish. Get grants or lose your promotion. Teach well or get bad student ratings. Accept these terms or get into trouble.
I knew I had to make a decision.
I hired a coach, Danielle De La Mare, who helps academics figure out their career. I started our first meeting with the words: “I’ve already decided that I want to quit my job, I just need the courage.”
After one more coaching meeting, I was ready.
I sat at my computer, fingers shaking, and typed the words I thought I’d never say: “I hereby resign…”
At that moment, I was scared. I cried. I was going to give up not only a job, but an identity as a professor.
I was also relieved and excited. I knew it was the right decision. I took a deep breath and pressed ‘send’.
Phase 7: Being the new me
I am now working as a coach who helps writers get unblocked and finish their books. I have complete freedom over my schedule. I only work with clients that have a mission I want to support. I still do emails and admin, but most of the time, I get to decide what I do on a daily basis.
I’m also a writer. I’m completing my first book this year. I’m also part of a memoir writing group. We read each other’s work and out our inner selves on the page. I’m still healing.
Sometimes, my old persona comes knocking at my door. An email: “We’re delighted to accept your paper for publication in our journal.” One of my submitted academic articles would be published. My co-authors celebrated. I just smiled and nodded. My husband is an academic and tells me his stories about being rejected from a top journal; or competition with a colleague. I smile and nod. This is not my world anymore. This is not me anymore.
Recently, I cleared out my old office. I walked down the same path on campus when I went for my job interview. I felt the feelings of the old me five years ago, excited to start a university career. I felt that longing in my body, that excitement, and I let it linger. But I also remembered the mornings when I arrived on campus, tired after a long train ride that started at 4am, rushing to the classroom.
When I entered my office, my favourite travel coffee mug sat on the table. I had left it there, thinking I’d return after a few days. Notes on my table about my next teaching. To-do lists for my research project on the whiteboard next to my desk. I took most of the paperwork, folders, and admin materials and threw them away. Two large bags for the recycling bin. With every piece that I dropped in my bag, I felt better. I ended up throwing away at least 30 kg of printed paper and notes.
After thirty minutes, I grabbed my framed Ph.D. certificate, my black graduation gown, and my coffee mug, and locked the office with a smile on my face.
Today, as I’m writing this article, I have no shame, only gratitude. I’m grateful that my body stopped me.
I did not fail when I left academia. I simply chose a different path.
Burnout didn’t happen to me.
It happened for me.