In #thatmillenniallife, vinegar & wine-blogger Nat reflects on the challenges and advantages of living in today’s world as a millennial woman.
Each month, she’ll talk about topics that millennial women – and this millennial woman especially – think, agonize and feel insecure about.
Today’s topic: How not to treat Burn Out
“Have you tried working out?”
I stare back at the doctor. He looks young, no older than 35. He seems nice, smiling back at me as if he’d just given me an epiphany that would hit me any minute. I take a deep breath. “I do work out.”, I say. “Three times a week.”
“Have you tried meditation?”
“Do you eat well?”
“Do you sleep enough?”
He starts getting agitated. As if I’d wronged him by following his previous suggestions. He shuffles his papers. “Then you’re already doing everything right.”
I leave the practice with the suggestion to “give yoga a try”. An answer I’ve gotten before, a measure that has – unsurprisingly – proven ineffective. This is not the first time I’ve consulted a physician about my issues with stress. I’ve tried talking about it, time and time again. And yet, every time I see a doctor about my problems with stress and feeling burnt out, I get patronizing suggestions such as these. How is that possible?
1 in 5 people in Germany are already experiencing the fallout of burn out in symptoms such as insomnia and heart disease. The majority of early retirements are due to stress. 1 in 3 workers feel like they are at their limit and experience prolonged exhaustion. The World Health Organization (WHO) cites stress as this centuries’ biggest health epidemic.
And still, people like me who are at high risk for the disease, are not taken seriously and usually sent away without help. But why?
One factor I will point to is that this is no doubt in part a gendered issue.
A study published by the University of Maryland in 2001 already proved that ill women are more likely to be ignored and condescended to by their doctors. As to reasons for that, they point to an article published in The Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics (issue 29, 2001) that states that doctors think female patients are not “accurate reporters of pain”. Men are more likely to receive pain medication, while women are usually only provided with sedatives because of that – while men experience legitimate pain, women supposedly only experience anxiety. Apparently, because men are more “stoic” when it comes to reporting pain, their complaints are “real”, while women “complain too much” and are naturally “able to tolerate pain”, which is why they are treated less seriously. That myth was however already debunked at this point: studies on pain response and pain sensitivity conducted on both genders concluded in an overwhelming amount of cases that women have lower pain thresholds and are able to discern different types of pain more clearly than their male counterparts. A study by Fillingim and Maixner concluded that “the experience of clinical pain [between men and women] could be explained, at least in part, by enhanced pain sensitivity among females.”. Thus, denying women pain medication and refusing to take them seriously them when they report pain is actually hugely harmful.
For somebody like me, who suffers from chronic pain, this is an incredible stressful reality. I know that I’m neither overdramatic nor incapable of evaluating whether I truly am in pain or not – most of all, I know my body, and I know when something is off. Still, many times I’ve been to doctors, general practitioners in particular, asking for advice on how to deal with my chronic pain, insomnia, depression, anxiety and chronic exhaustion, I was not asked about my history with these illnesses but whether I was “having problems with my boyfriend”.
For years, doctors have refused to give me alternative treatment for my chronic migraine, usually putting off my health problems by just giving me more potent medication. One of my neurologists, with whom I’d had an 1,5 hour appointment discussing my chronic pain, didn’t take a single note during our talk and so, when I asked him to provide a report that I could pass on to the pain clinic I was meeting with, he wrote me a factually completely inaccurate report that actually hurt my chance of ever being treated for my illness. He got most facts wrong: when my chronic pain started, what measures I had already taken and the medication I was using (as well as suggesting I’d try a medication I was already taking). He couldn’t even get my field of study correctly, citing that I was a math major, when I am (or was) a comparative literature major. Only after I called and complained did he send a correction. Only recently, after suffering from my illness for 6 years, did I find a neurologist who admitted that I was probably not being taken seriously by my previous doctors and finally put me on an alternative treatment plan, explaining that this was usually “the first step” doctors took with this sort of chronic pain.
Another factor could be my age. Chronic pain is usually associated with older patients, and, being sick since I was 18, I’ve heard people delegitimize my illness more often than not with a surprised “But you’re so young!” Surprise, even babies can have cancer. Pain doesn’t discriminate. It reminds me of the case of a 19-year old cancer patient that doctors refused to treat, claiming that she was only a hypochondriac who should “stop googling her symptoms”. 6 weeks after being refused treatment at a hospital, the girl died. These are not stand out cases. According to an article published on Gesundheitsstadt Berlin in 2013, 40% of chronic pain patients feel like they are not being taken seriously.
A huge problem, however, is also our culture. We’ve made a lot of progress, but our performance-focused society still feels deeply uncomfortable dealing with mental illness and stress disorders. My experience is that I usually end up being passed around by different doctors to no avail. You can’t fix me with an operation or a splint. It takes time and patience – and most doctors I’ve come across don’t seem to be ready to give either to me.
So where do I go from here? I’ve tried meditating, eating vegan, doing yoga, going to the gym three times a week, practicing gratitude, journaling, carrying around a lavender scent stick with me, using an aroma diffuser, working less, indulging in my hobbies, taking antidepressants, using herbal remedies, cutting out coffee, cutting out sugar, keeping a sleep log…Most of these were suggested by physicians, some I’ve tried out myself after I’ve been told to “sleep better” for the hundredth time.
If you are one of the people who feel they are sliding into burnout (as 1 in 2 Germans do!), one big thing I want to tell you is this: your pain is valid. You’ll meet a lot of jerks who will try to minimize, ignore and delegitimize your suffering. Some of them will be strangers, some your friends and family, and unfortunately, some even your doctors. But they are not the only doctor in the world.
If you feel that you are not being taken seriously – switch doctors! Tell your new doctors exactly why you’ve switched and that you will not be ignored. You may need to switch again. But I beg you – don’t be afraid to look for proper treatment just because somebody who knows nothing about you or your body tries to downplay your issues. They don’t know, you do.
If you feel that something is wrong, if you’ve felt uncharacteristically fatigued for a while, if you have trouble sleeping, getting excited for things, feel like you’re procrastinating at home and at work more than usual and especially if you experience crying fits or random nausea on your way to and from work – please, reach out.
Ask for help. Stand up for yourself. You deserve proper health care. We all do.