Disabling Survival Mode: My Burnout Recovery Story

By: Nicole Hoffman

From the moment I got into infosec, imposter syndrome was an everyday struggle. I thought if I could put in extra hours, take courses in my off time, and constantly volunteer for extra work that it would eventually lead to a feeling of worthiness. The pandemic exacerbated these feelings of unworthiness. 

The year 2020 was a rollercoaster of emotions, mainly fear. I was afraid of being unemployed at a time when there was barely any food on grocery store shelves. I was even worried a lack of food would cause violence, perhaps because I watch too many apocalyptic movies.  

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I still remember I made my husband buy an ungodly amount of camping gear because I wanted to be prepared for an apocalyptic situation. When it was becoming too much for my anxiety to handle, I decided to just focus on work. Maybe, if I focused all of my attention on work, I might be able to not only stay employed, but potentially exceed where I was at the time. 

This is when I enabled survival mode. It was kind of an infosec fight or flight mode. What made things worse is that I loved the work I was doing. This made it easier to lean in further. 

As the years went by, I felt myself digging myself further and further into a hole. At first, I would feel guilty for working so much. So, instead of spending quality time with my kids, I would sign them up for a bunch of extra curricular activities. After activities and bed time, I would find myself back in my office sometimes working until the wee hours of the morning. 

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By 2022, my kids and I were both burnt out. We cut back on the extra curricular activities. For mental health awareness month, my employer at the time purchased subscriptions to the Calm app for everyone. I was instantly in love.

I started listening to daily meditations, but the problem was I would have it on like a podcast running in the background while I continued to work. I was not doing my part to “connect with the present” as Jay Shetty says.

It is mentally taxing working as a CTI analyst within normal business hours. Mix this with unnecessary overtime I volunteered for, a sad amount of sleep each night, and piss poor nutrition you have a perfect storm for a weakened immune system. Even though I was constantly sick with colds throughout 2021 – 2022, I actually felt guilty about it and would work more. 

Don’t get me wrong. I actually had very attentive managers throughout this time that would regularly check in, but I would mask my pain in any way that I could. This may be a millennial thing to do in general or perhaps this is just something I picked up growing up in a military household. 

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We did not discuss mental health, it was considered a weakness. My family motto was actually failure is not an option. Pretty toxic, am I right? Now as an adult I have an unreasonable fear of failing. However, I have learned and continuously remind myself that we cannot grow without failure. 

I was stuck in survival mode. Moving forward to winter break in 2022, I decided to take a month off before starting a new role. I had not done this before. This would be the first Christmas break I spent with my family without checking my phone for various alerts or BleepingComputer stories. There was no concern for a potential Solar Winds or log4j panic. 

During this time, I realized just how far down the rabbit hole I truly was. The first day of winter break, I realized I had completely forgotten that I was supposed to be reading with my kids each week and tracking their progress. I sat there staring at the empty sheet. Down the shame spiral I went until I was in tears. 

I felt like Adam Sanders in the movie Click when he accidentally fast forwards through life events with his magic remote control too many times. He lived years of his life on autopilot mode. In my mind, I had failed and was the worst mother ever. Thankfully, my kids were doing amazing in reading despite my lack of attention to the area. 

Don’t get me wrong, the last few years were not all bad. I did have some shining moments. I was inspired by my kids to write a children’s book. We had so many brainstorming sessions together that I will always treasure. They were so proud when those first copies arrived and they could tell their friends they were in a book. 

Moments like this bring me the most heartwarming joy. What is the saying, you can’t pour from a glass that is empty. Well, I think proactively trying to add little moments like this into my life each week will drastically improve my overall mental health. Whether it is brainstorming with my kids about what the Tricky Dragons are up to next or hearing stories from infosec professionals about how their kids loved my book, these are the moments that fill my glass. 

Marie Kondo says if things do not bring you joy, it is okay to get rid of them. Over the last few months, I have removed a lot of unnecessary stressors in my life to make time for things that truly bring me joy. Of course, there are always sacrifices. Some of my hobbies do require me to pay an additional mental tax each week, but I think if I check in with myself regularly, it will not get out of hand like it has in the past.

The virus may never go away, but the pandemic is, for the most part, coming to a close. It is okay to disable survival mode. Do not ignore the signs of burnout. As my husband always says, your employer is not going to build you a statue. If they didn’t think you were worthy of the role, they would not have hired you. 

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It is okay to ask your manager how they feel you are doing if you are worried. At the end of the day, your manager is just a person too. Five years ago I was very hush hush about mental health topics in the workplace, but in 2023 it is widely accepted to discuss how you are doing both mentally and with your workload. Don’t be afraid to actually be honest instead of masking your pain as I did for so long. 

I’m sure this won’t be the last time I suffer burnout given the industry I choose to work in. However, I can take steps towards prevention by setting boundaries, validating my fears, and eating more tacos. Okay, maybe just ensuring I am drinking water and eating three meals a day. 

I hope you enjoyed my burnout recovery story. Sometimes, I have to read someone else’s story to realize I am in the same boat. Here are a few other blogs about burnout that I have connected with in the past that I keep bookmarked:

Here are some additional resources and tips that have/continue to help me in recovery

  • Go outside. Go for a walk. It helps.
  • Make a list of your work goals each week, even the small ones like attending a meeting or asking someone a question. Share the results of this with your manager at your 1-1s. I started doing this and I realize I am doing more than I think I am. It helps me feel useful and successful in my role. 
  • Every month, do something outside of your comfort zone such as:
    • Try a new recipe or bake a cake (I recently had my first crawfish boil) 
    • Visit a local bookstore and purchase a book you are drawn to
    • Take a class like cooking, building a DIY project, painting, etc.
    • Learn how to make a new fancy cocktail and invite your friends over to try it
    • If you are not artistic, paint a picture on a canvas
    • Build a fort (yes as an adult) with twinkle lights and eat dinner inside
  • Spend some quality time with the ones you love doing things that they love, because chances are you may have been neglecting those relationships before you discovered your burnout 
  • Make a list of the stressors in your life and see if you are able to automate, or outsource, any of them. For example, I started paying for lawn service and housekeeping once a week. This way, my husband and I can spend more meaningful time with our kids on the weekends because we are not worried about cleaning the house or mowing the yard. The same goes for work, see if there are any tasks that can be automated. Talk to the python wizards, if you work with any. 
  • Check in with your physical and emotional health. If you have been putting off a medical appointment, now is the time to take care of yourself. If you really want to unload your feelings, but don’t want to feel like a burden to others like coworkers or friends, think about getting a therapist. 
  • Most of all, know that you are not alone. 

One response to “Disabling Survival Mode: My Burnout Recovery Story”

  1. Valuable advice for anyone in security. I ended up on an eight-month medical leave due to my mental state. It’s possible to blow right past burnout and into a full-blown breakdown where your mind and body can no longer handle anything. I’m glad you could take a step back; this should be more common in our industry.


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