The Force of their Lives                       
What if burnout wasn’t celebrated?

What if burnout wasn’t celebrated?

This question was posed by Emma Geraghty in the fire-starting artist conversations recorded by Field in June 2020. The artists’ provocations emphasized how deafening the machine of productivity can be, how little time there is for many of us, artists included, to breathe.

I have lived with various chronic health issues including Ehler’s Danlos Syndrome, spondylolisthesis, migraine, psoriasis and thyroid problems all my working life. But, after seventeen years as a freelance artist and having just begun a part-time teaching fellow post in a year of industrial action and family troubles, I was on the verge of physical and mental burnout. Then the pandemic flew in with anxiety in its slipstream and in the magnetic currents that determined its direction. Many of us were anxious about contracting the illness, anxious if we had it, anxious about added responsibilities, the impact on our jobs, our relationships and the economy.   

It was March when I crashed. The doctors suspected Covid-19 but tests weren’t available. After rallying for a few days, I had my first relapse and developed a host of bizarre and unpleasant symptoms now associated with ‘long-haul Covid’ (Gallagher, 2020). These included fatigue, a worsening of existing breathing problems and a developing anxiety. Respiratory symptoms are often explained by anxiety but I wondered if the causal pathway could be reversed. We know that chronic physical health conditions can impact negatively on people’s long term mental health (Debnar, Carrard, Morselli et al. 2020). Doğu and Aydemir looked specifically at anxiety and depression in patients with chronic heart, kidney and respiratory disorders. Of the respiratory patients, 66% were found to have anxiety and 86.6% depression  –  ­anxiety levels were highest of all for patients with respiratory disorders (2018, p.543). These findings are pertinent as coronavirus leads to more short, medium and long term problems with breathing (Wilson, 2020). PTSD is expected to be prevalent in Covid-19 patients who have been ventilated and those who have been treating them (Mahaffey, Gonzalez, Farris et al; Campbell, 2020) and is correlated with anxiety and respiratory disorders (Sareen, 2007). Add to these factors the ongoing social and economic consequences of the virus and their impact on people’s mental health and we are likely to see an increase in rates of anxiety and respiratory disorders in the population.
SAGE probably anticipated this when they advised us to look after our mental and physical health by recommending a daily exercise allowance ­­­­ –  one of the few privileges most (although not those shielding) were permitted. We used it to turn, in our droves, to nature. Like many people from my neighbourhood, my exercise of choice was walking in the local woods. I go there regularly but, in lockdown, as my freelance work all but stopped and recovery could be my only focus, there was more time to do so. It felt imperative.
Vienneaua, Hoogh et al concluded that living near green spaces can reduce the likelihood of death from heart and respiratory disease (2017). Even if mediators such as additional exercise or socialising are discounted, green spaces can be good for us physically, emotionally and mentally (Triguero-Mas, Dadvand, Cirach et al).  Evidence is found in self-reported mental health tests, reduced need for medication and physiological changes such as impacts on the parasympathetic system. For example, in Japan, a study found that after people had been sitting or walking in forests, cortisol concentrations, blood pressure and pulse rates were all lower (Park, Tsunetsugu, Kasetani et al, 2009). Even the act of looking through a window at natural spaces has been shown to reduce anxiety in people recovering from surgery (Ulrich 1984). 
There are established theories for why green spaces confer such advantages (McEwan, Richardson, Sheffield, et al, 2019). The paper A smartphone app for improving mental health through connecting with urban nature’ outlines Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory and Ulrich’s Stress Reduction Theory. Due to ancestral memory, we are evolutionarily primed to be in wild spaces – they are wired into our DNA (Kaplan 1995). So, after spending time in nature, we are able to unwind, recover from our mental fatigue and return to the tasks we need to complete with increased focus. Stress Reduction Theory suggests that the increase in parasympathetic nervous activity brought about by being in natural environments reduces stress (Ulrich 1991). However, the smartphone experiment found more evidence to support the role of green spaces in creating positive affect (Frederickson, 2011) and nature connectedness (Mayer and Frantz, 2004). Nature connectedness might sound like a cliché from the hippy era but has been shown to have as significant a benefit to wellbeing as income and education(Capaldi, Dopko, Zelenski et al, 2014).  
Header photo credit: Layla Legard
With thanks to Matt Flint for audio editing support
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