#85: Healing From Burnout with Stephanie Graves

Healing From Burnout with Stephanie Graves

Are you feeling worn down, experiencing symptoms you can’t explain despite receiving “normal” lab results, or just overwhelmed by going through life? You might be experiencing burnout, something that’s as common as it is debilitating. 

Today’s guest Stephanie Graves experienced a level of burnout so extreme that it took her years to get to the root cause and turn her life around. She made a breakthrough when she found functional medicine and nutrition. And if you’re looking for a way to beat burnout too, functional medicine can help you prioritize your physical, emotional, and mental health.

You’ll hear about:

  • [03:12] How Stephanie’s burnout hit rock bottom when she had to regularly take naps in the middle of driving due to severe exhaustion, and how she discovered that her adrenals were overworked, causing her stress hormones to go into overdrive
  • [08:48] How her tenacity and motivation stem from being held to really high standards as a child, and how her symptoms manifested throughout her young adult life
  • [14:34] How body dysmorphia and inadequate nutrition contributed to her symptoms, and how she has transformed her relationship to food
  • [18:18] The ways that she prioritized her physical, emotional, and mental health as she pulled herself out of burnout
  • [23:46] How she learned by reading her labs from a functional perspective (instead of pathological) that she had a lot of areas that were low

Mentioned in this episode:


Stephanie (00:00):
Everything that I've done and everything that I currently do, I generally do 120%. Uh, now I'm working to be more mindful to not do it also at a thousand miles an hour, to know that it will get done in time and that it doesn't have to be perfect. It's easier said than done for sure, especially when you have these qualities to kind of slip back into that. But again, it becomes very obvious when your body is not in a healing state and when it's in that fight or flight mode, you can feel the difference.
Michelle (00:37):
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Michelle (01:47):
One thing I've noticed over the years of doing this podcast and the many years of working with high achieving go-getter women, it's, the stories are always so similar. You put a lot of pressure on yourself, right? And it's likely started at a young age, and it probably came from something going on in your family dynamic. You might have an array of odd health symptoms by the time you're 2030, definitely by 40, you're almost absolutely feeling exhausted. I mean, that's a given beyond the beyond kind of tired. Well, today I'm sharing a story from a colleague of mine in the field of nutrition and wellness. Stephanie Graves is a second grade homeschool teacher in Karaba Valley, Maine and a functional medicine nutritionist. And she's a really great example of exactly what I'm talking about here. Someone who burned out, always doing things to the nth degree and pushing too hard. And she's great at explaining some of the science of what's going on in the body when burnout happens. Let's have a listen. Stephanie, welcome to the show.
Stephanie (02:54):
Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Michelle (02:58):
I feel like we should start your story at the point where you are asleep at the rest stop because you couldn't even drive all the way to work without needing a nap in the middle of the drive. Tell us about that.
Stephanie (03:12):
Yeah, so my burnout came to a point where it was so severe. There was a lot of other constellation of other physical and emotional and mental symptoms happening, but the fatigue became so unbearable that I really couldn't ignore it anymore. At that time in my life, I had three kids, four and under. I was the primary breadwinner. My husband was staying at home, I was working as a pa working 12 hour shifts, commuting one hour each way to work. And I was also still running competitively running marathons, training for that. I, meanwhile, my marriage was having some serious problems as my husband was struggling with substance abuse. So needless to say, there was a lot going on and I'd always been someone who just kind of pushed through and never really thought that there was ever be any consequences for that. I just always kept adding things to my plate and going, going, going.
Stephanie (04:12):
And eventually it got to a point where my body was like, you need to take the foot off the gas. And so, yeah, I mean it was so severe that while I was commuting to work, there'd be days when I was just so exhausted from being awake for two hours that I had to take a nap on the way to work in a rest area, and then I'd get to work and work, you know, six, eight hours and then it'd be sometime mid-afternoon after I've had probably three cups of Starbucks already, that I would have to go out to my car and be like, everyone, I'm just gonna go check out for a little bit, take a quick nap in my car so I could finish the rest of my workday and drive a hour back home. Yeah, and I mean, for me, much like many other people, I went to my primary, they did a whole bunch of labs, everything was normal.
Stephanie (05:03):
I saw specialists, I saw a nutritionist, and no one could really tell me what was wrong. And it wasn't until functional nutrition came into my life because due to my tenacious spirit, I guess I was not just going to take that for, you know, an answer that, oh, you're just tired, you're a mom, it's normal. Yeah, yeah. So I took my health into my own hands and that's when I started studying functional medicine and functional nutrition and realized that not only this debilitating fatigue, but so many other things that were happening in my life and around me were also a result of this. So not having a menstrual cycle for 20 years, having chronically low blood blood pressure, I used to brag about how low my blood pressure was, thinking that was a good thing. being dizzy every time I stood up. Um, anxiety being cold all the time. Like these are just things I thought were just part of me, but really my body was so desperately trying to send me signals, but I was just so focused on all these things that I was doing that I wasn't able to listen until again, it became so loud and overwhelming that I had to do something about it.
Michelle (06:17):
Well, now I'm sure somebody is wondering what makes for very low, impressively low blood pressure? I have to say I've been similar. I've been in doctor's offices and they call someone in because they're like, you're not okay. And I'm like, no, no, it's always like that. But what, what was your winning low blood pressure number, do you recall?
Stephanie (06:34):
Oh gosh, I don't know. But I mean usually like, definitely, you know, like nineties over sixties, probably even like high eighties before. But yeah, I mean I just thought because I was in such phenomenal physical condition running marathons that that was, you know, a result of that
Michelle (06:50):
Right now, coupled with the dizziness when you stand up, I'm not surprised at all. Now looking back at just that one symptom, was it that you were so healthy or what was causing that low blood pressure?
Stephanie (07:01):
Yeah, I mean I, I'm sure because I'm healthy helps, but, so if we're talking about burnout here, really it all stems from the adrenal glands which produce our stress hormones, give us our energy, the cortisol to power us through all of these things. And uh, the adrenals also produce other things such as aldosterone, which is really important to help regulate our salt and water balance in our body. So if my adrenal gland were totally taxed from years of chronic overstimulation, not only was I exhausted, but other hormones also took a hit. So like aldosterone. So that's why, um, it also helps regulate blood pressure too. So likely why my blood pressure was so low and why I was so dizzy too because my electrolyte balance was completely outta whack.
Michelle (07:51):
Right. And not because you weren't drinking enough Gatorade, but because like you said, your adrenals were just so completely tax, but over time you, it turns into a chronic depletion state.
Stephanie (08:02):
Michelle (08:02):
Sounds like that's where you are. Okay. So when you go to the doctor for everybody listening and your blood pressure is exceedingly low, if that's you and that's normal for you, that's actually a sign. And I have to say my doctors never said anything about it aside from the initial concern that I might die right there on the table, otherwise I just shrugged and kept going.
Stephanie (08:23):
Yeah. Yeah.
Michelle (08:25):
Okay. So that's just one of all these, uh, interesting symptoms that you mm-hmm. you mentioned. But I wanna um, back up to when you said you were a marathoner and you're someone who always just kind of pushed through and you had this tenacious spirit. If you think back in your life, what's at the youngest age that you can remember where you were really encompassing those qualities?
Stephanie (08:48):
I mean, I feel like I always was, to be honest, I'm an only child and my dad. Uh, not to say that my mom didn't have an influence, but my dad had more so of an influence to mold me to be someone who's very highly motivated and motivated to do well. So I feel like I was held to really high standards so that I didn't want to let him down. So everything that I've done and everything that I currently do, I generally do 120%. Uh, now I'm working to be more mindful to not do it also at a thousand miles an hour to know that it will get done in time and that it doesn't have to be perfect. It's easier said than done for sure, especially when you have these qualities to kind of slip back into that. But again, it becomes very obvious when your body is not in a healing state and when it's in that fight or flight mode, you can feel the difference to be like, okay, maybe I need to step back and reassess where I'm at right now.
Michelle (09:54):
I'm actually remembering a podcast episode I did with another guest and she shared a similar story. We've heard the story over and over, which is why I'm so grateful for you to share because this is the pattern. It generally is something that's baked into us early on, comes from different sources. But this other guest I'm thinking of, she said her father used to quiz her on the Wall Street Journal, make her read it. Wow. Quiz her on it. Yeah, like as a kid. Yeah, yeah. Right. Like that's intense. So you're being held to this very high standard and that can kind of stick with you. So that was, uh, quite young. And then I imagine like let's say through college, right? Did, did you have any manifestation of these symptoms even as early as your twenties?
Stephanie (10:35):
Yeah, I mean in college too, I don't know if this was real or just self-perceived pressure, but I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me to perform and do really well in college because my parents were paying all this money and we came from like average means for me to get an education. So I felt like I had to, you know, get straight A's and do the best that I could or else I would let them down. So for sure, I mean I worked really hard , but I mean, I think there's a point where it goes too far. I mean these, these patterns can be helpful at times, you know, I'm glad that I worked so hard cuz then I was able to advance my education and get, go on further. But you have to also weigh at what cost,
Michelle (11:20):
Right? We wouldn't have these, I wanna say coping mechanisms, but we wouldn't have these tendencies if they didn't work. Like they work to a degree, they help us succeed. They help us either get the attention that we're we're craving or get the approval that we need or get, you know, ahead like at work. But then there's also a point where it starts to work against us. And you said, you told me that you did not have a menstrual cycle for a very long time.
Stephanie (11:45):
Yeah. I'm
Michelle (11:46):
Curious, when did that start? You must have been quite young.
Stephanie (11:50):
Yeah, so I remember getting my first period when I was probably like 15 or 16, so pretty late. And again, I was always very active. And then from that I really only remember having a handful of periods and then I went on birth control I think when I was 18. So everything was regular then. But then when I stopped after getting married and anticipation have children, a period never came. So I actually had to go under fertility treatments for all three of my pregnancies. I had twins and then a singleton. And you know, when your body's in survival mode for that long, conceiving is not a priority. Surviving is so again, the adrenals also produce some of our sex hormones. Certainly not as much as say the ovaries do, but if the adrenals were being taxed, then those hormones will also be depleted. So again, at that time I was severely over exercising, undereating, all this emotional stress.
Stephanie (12:51):
So it's no wonder that I never had one. And then so I had my, did the fertility treatments never get a period in between my two pregnancies, which was three years. And then after my son who's now almost five, I didn't have a period until like two months ago it came back. So, and then it came back, it was a really long cycle but it came back 40 days later. So I just feel like it's come so full circle in my own healing journey there were like three really big concerns that I was working with whenever I jumped into this about three years ago and one of which was the debilitating fatigue and another was my absence of a menstrual cycle. So it has been a journey for sure and I think it's important to share that it took me that long, three years really of really hard intentional, consistent work to be able to, you know, give my body that space to heal and do so. And what a miracle it is that it can, because honestly I was kind of just thinking that maybe it just won't ever happen. Like maybe it won't ever come back cuz I've done so much I didn't know what was left to do. Yeah, I feel super fortunate for the journey and being able to be in a place where my body is doing the things that it should.
Michelle (14:08):
Amen. Yes. , wow, that's really something that's a very, very long time. So talk to us a little bit about nutrition food along the way. You said you had been undereating, I find this is really common among women. They have very, very small portions but don't realize how few calories are actually taking in. Was that something you were doing on purpose or was just you were so busy that you weren't eating?
Stephanie (14:34):
Um, I think this kind of goes back to, to my childhood. So just I had this disempowering belief that I wasn't enough. So maybe if I was skinnier or smarter or faster then I would be able to have to be loved. So this was kind of in my subconscious, well well below the radar of my awareness for such a long time until um, a few years ago. But um, yeah, for me I definitely struggled with body dysmorphia so that was probably why I was under eating for sure. Um, marathon running too. I was burning a ton of calories and yes I was eating a lot but I definitely wasn't replacing what I was burning. And I mean I would say that eating is probably one of my favorite things. Like I look forward to meals and I love cooking and I love eating. So for me it was more of the um, psychological aspect I guess.
Stephanie (15:29):
I mean there was points in my life where I was, you know, like measuring all of my food and I was taking pictures of myself every day working with a trainer and weighing myself and super, super unhealthy. And now like I don't own a scale, I don't take those pictures, I'm not weighing everything compulsively. More listening to my body and not eating enough also put stress on your adrenals too. So there were so many stressors that were happening and again now eating what feels right to me. Not like, oh my gosh I can't eat because it's 2 57 and I said I wasn't gonna eat until three o'clock sort of thing. You know, eating when I'm hungry and eating to feel good, not out of a place of shame, which is kind of where I was at before.
Michelle (16:14):
I'm glad you mentioned that cause there is this intersection between dieting and the stress response as you just mentioned. And I mean we've all been there accidentally or on purpose where we're just starving and hangry and you're gonna bite someone's head off if they say anything to you and you're in your fight or flight mode right then cuz your body's like, hi, you know, we're actually starving, our glucose level is dropping precipitously. Yeah, there's a problem.
Stephanie (16:39):
Yeah, absolutely. And I see it too every day when I'm reading client food journals too. It's so common because we're taught that less is more, but really, like you said, so many women are under eating and I see it in food journals every day. Women are afraid to eat because they think that they eat and they're going to gain weight. When really when you're starving your body, your body is in that survival mode. So it's actually holding onto fat because it doesn't know when it's gonna need that energy. When the bear jumps outta the woods and starts chasing you. Even looking back when I was probably at my thinnest, I remember always looking at pictures and my face was always really puffy and I could never figure out, I'm like, I'm so thin and I'm doing these things like why is my face puffy? And really because my body was so inflamed, like there was so much inflammation everywhere from all of the stress and poor diet and you know, everything else that was happening,
Michelle (17:35):
Stress will just get you coming and going. I mean every symptom in the book. Talk to me about healing. So, and I'd love to hear specifically what steps you took, but I'm, I've heard you talk about obviously like we need need to eat more and we need to perhaps not run so many marathons when we're in a burnt out state like that. So there's this physical aspect of healing, but also we've heard you talk about your own beliefs and the beliefs that were instilled in you and seeking love and seeking approval. So right, there's this healing that has to be done on the physical level but also on the mental and emotional level. Which one of those took precedent for you as you pulled yourself out of burnout?
Stephanie (18:18):
Um, I feel like they kind of happened simultaneously. Like while I was doing like the deeper psychological spiritual work I was making changes in my day to day life, I think that they're both super important and there's so many aspects that pertain to healing. You can't just clean up your diet and then expect to be healed or you can't just change your mindset and expect to be healed. It's multilayered and again takes time. So, um, probably what I started with was the diet once I started my training, cuz this is really a non-negotiable in my training what I learned that, you know, if you're consuming inflammatory foods, it's basically like muddying the water and we can't really see what's happening. So it's not until the diet is cleaned up and those inflammatory foods are removed, then we can actually get a much clearer picture of what's going on.
Stephanie (19:15):
So, um, dietary cleanup was probably first and foremost reducing my exercise intensity was actually really challenging for me, again, as being someone who was always used to doing those things and felt like, I don't know, like I had to or that it was just something, I don't know, I'm sure other people that maybe overtrain can relate to this, but it's, it just feels like something that you have to do. And so that was really hard for me. But ultimately I came to, I continued to get injured, like I couldn't run as far, I couldn't run as fast and I'd get this injury and then I switched to weightlifting though, so I was like, okay, fine, stop running. And that worked for like a year or two. And then same thing, I just stopped getting injured and couldn't really increase my weight and was depleted. So I was actually at the gym one day and a man there saw me with kinesiology tape all over myself like holding my joints and ligaments together and he is like, wow, you're gonna be 40 I a hip replacement.
Stephanie (20:23):
I was like, oh, you're absolutely right. So at then and there I was like, I need to change this. So now I just walk and do yoga. Um, and even that I can push too far and I've noticed, um, I haven't had any injuries but you can definitely hike too much and you can do yoga too hard. So again, it's really just listening to your body and once you start cleaning it up and removing all these inflammatory aspects, it is much easier to feel what's going on with your body. The other biggest piece I feel like is removing the stressors from your life. So identifying what are the things that are stressing you when you cover this a little bit. I mean diet can be a stressor over exercise, undereating can be stressors. And then on top of all the other emotional stressors or financial or spiritual and how can those things either be eliminated?
Stephanie (21:16):
So for me, I left that super stressful job because I was dying like it felt like it was killing me or how can they be modified? Like being, having a mom of young kids is stressful and exhausting. Yes, you're not gonna give your kids away, but how can you get more support? How can you know a mother-in-law or friends or getting a babysitter or getting food delivery, you know, how can you get support in other areas so that you're not feeling responsible and being strapped for all the things. So yeah, so diet, exercise was a big one for me. Identifying and removing the stressors and then yeah, working with someone. I've done different mindset work in various ways, but different things work for different people. But I think if you can find someone that you really click with, it can be life changing really to get to these deeper parts of yourself and identify, um, these coping mechanisms and how they may have served you in the past but that you don't need them anymore and that you can let them go.
Michelle (22:24):
Right? I mean there's so many things like you just mentioned. I love the idea of starting with food because, and this is you know, a huge aspect I work with my clients on as well because not that food is the whole reason for your stress, but it's a lot easier to change a couple things in your diet than it is to change your whole career. Yeah, leave a job, face your finances, get that divorce right. Some of those things are, might be necessary along the path, but like you can change why you're eating for breakfast a whole lot easier than that. So why don't we start there? And I feel like you can make some really significant headway when your food, something that you're doing three or more times a day isn't adding stress to your body. Isn't that, I mean it's like fascinating to me what a difference it makes.
Stephanie (23:12):
Yeah, absolutely. I love that. And how it can also be so nourishing too. Um, and oftentimes just cleaning up a diet alone, clients can have significant improvement. At least start feeling some changes to know that like they're on the right track.
Michelle (23:28):
So you mentioned earlier that you had some lab work done along the way. It always came back normal. You're fine. I was curious what labs they ran on you and did you ever get to a point where they ran something and were able to say, yes, these labs are not normal, we can help you?
Stephanie (23:46):
Yeah, so they ran a lot of labs on me. So on cbc, a cmp, you know, vitamin D, iron studies, thyroid studies, b12, they did some autoimmune studies and everything, like I said, came back normal. I never had my cortisol tested. Most clinicians have no idea how to test cortisol. I think they actually did a serum cortisol, but that's not super helpful. So I never had a salivary or a urine panel done. Um, did different hormones, you know, my sex hormones and it's interesting because again they said it was normal. And then at that time I was in my training for my functional nutrition degree. I looked at my labs because we look at them very different when we're talking about functional ranges versus pathological ranges. And come to find out many of my markers were off, my thyroid was low, my iron was low, my vitamin D was low. So all things that contribute to fatigue for sure, not the cause of it, but they things that could very easily just be tweaked and have improvements. So okay, I started vitamin D supplement. All right. I started an iron supplement because I'm vegan, the thyroid, I started um, incorporating more zinc and selenium in my diet precursors for thyroid hormone. And then when I went back and had it checked a few months later, those things that were now within normal limits and I was absolutely feeling better.
Michelle (25:24):
Okay, so that's really important for everybody to hear. When your doctor says your labs are normal, it's like, well what is normal? That is typically like against the average population, it falls like within the average of all the sick people in the world. So who wants to be normal? We don't wanna be normal, we wanna be optimal . So we wanna look at optimal ranges and that's what happens with functional uh, medicine and functional nutrition. We're looking at optimal ranges. So how wonderful that you were able to look at your own numbers. A lot of times women are walking around with these labs and just, it means nothing to the average person. And if your doctor says you're fine, then where do you go from there? Right?
Stephanie (26:05):
Yeah, yeah. You're just lost. You're like, okay, I guess I'm just, I guess I am fine. I guess I'm just tired because I'm just tired,
Michelle (26:12):
Right? This is just who I am and I'm destined for this life. Meanwhile some, yeah, simple as taking a vitamin D supplement and some zinc right. Can really make a huge difference. Well, okay, so it sounds like there was some supplementation, there is some changes in your exercise and your food, you're, you know, doing mindset work along the way. Tell us some of the successes that you're seeing with your clients. Like I'm sure you've worked with women who have been in similar positions as you, you know, stressed out the job, the kids, the this or that. Maybe just tell us briefly about one or two of them so that we can see what's possible on
Stephanie (26:46):
The other side. Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, I see it so commonly women are coming to me with fatigue and it may not even be their primary complaint that they're coming to me with. It just kind of mentioned almost like down the line because again, they just think it's, oh, I'm tired, you know? But yeah, no, I had a young mom who was a mom of four and had just started her own business. Um, she had a partner, they were not married, she was going back to school. She was, she had a lot of past emotional trauma as a child that was unresolved. Her diet was not great. She was absolutely not sleeping. That's a huge stressor for the body. And she was having severe blood sugar fluctuations and dysregulation. So first and foremost, again, was looking at her diet and removing the inflammatory foods and then again, seeing how she can ask for support, having the, the mother or the mother-in-law come and grab the kids or helping the child, the children's father, you know, maybe have more of a role with the kids.
Stephanie (27:59):
Another really important thing as far as blood sugar regulation is making sure that you're eating proper balanced meals, which she was not. Again, so common with moms. They just have, you know, an apple or they have a granola bar or the scraps plate. Yeah. So making sure that her meals and snacks were balanced so her blood sugar was staying regulated. Um, and then really just focusing her on healthy sleep habits and making that a non-negotiable in her life. And, um, I followed up, I generally like to follow up in like four to six weeks and six weeks later after um, implementing these things, she had implemented most of them. I know that she was still eating, um, some dairy, but aside from that, she had started implementing all the other changes in addition to also starting like just walking. Cause she wasn't exercising, just getting outside and doing some gentle walking.
Stephanie (28:51):
Um, her sleep had absolutely improved. Now, instead of going to bed at 2:00 AM she was going to bed closer to 10 or 10:30 PM and sleeping through the night, she was feeling more rested and more energetic and less agitated with her children because before she was just so stressed and felt like she had nothing to give them and had a lot of mom guilt. So now she was feeling more supported and more relaxed, um, and happier overall. And I mean, it's not to say that she's healed, you know, there still is work to be done, but just even in that six week period of time, she saw significant enough improvement in her life just by making these changes to continue to want to do so. And I think it's also interesting and important too. People start feeling good and then maybe say they go away or something happens and then they kind of fall back to their old diet. And then most times again, our body will send us a signal, they get upset stomach, they're bloated, they're constipated, they have anxiety, they have a brain fog to, to remind you like, actually these things are not serving me. Like, please leave those at the door and continue on. So sometimes that does happen with people. They get comfortable and they start feeling good and then they slip off the wagon and it's like, oh no, I need to get back on.
Michelle (30:11):
Yeah. This is what I have to do to take care of myself. Cuz when I stop doing it, boy I sure felt it. But that's good. That's instructive and that's how, you know, that's when it's less about willpower or forcing yourself to do something and more about, I like how I feel when I'm eating and living and showing up in the world in this way. I, I want to do it.
Stephanie (30:34):
Michelle (30:35):
And I think that's where a lot of us end up. Or it's like, well I, I could drink a bottle of wine, eat a bar chocolate every night, I could, but like, I actually don't want to anymore because I like how good I feel now.
Stephanie (30:48):
Yeah. You start loving the way that you feel so much that you wanna continue doing those things that support that,
Michelle (30:55):
Right? This is the normal, like now you feel normal. This is normal, you guys, nah. When you felt like crap and you went to the doctor and they said normal, that's, that's not normal. This is how your body is supposed to feel. Well let everybody know where they can go to learn more about you and the work that you do.
Stephanie (31:12):
Yeah, absolutely. So on social media at the functional healer or on my website, www.thefunctionalhealer.com
Michelle (31:21):
Terrific. Thank you so much for joining us today and for sharing your story.
Stephanie (31:24):
Thank you so much for having me.
Michelle (31:37):
Stephanie's story may be more extreme than yours or maybe not. Either way. It's remarkable how the body reacts under constant pressure to perform and no coincidence that so many of my clients through the years have been marathoners competitive swimmers. I used to dance competitively, right? Like I know this world gymnast, the crawl seemed to be cut from the same cloth. If you'd like to see how your symptoms add up, like is what you're experiencing normal or are you really on the brink of burning out? Are you already beyond the brink of burning out? Take my free stress assessment at she's got power.com/free.


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