How to burn out at conferences

This week I’m giving a talk about self-care and time management for people attending the AIDS 2024 conference in Munich in a few weeks’ time. I don’t just have imposter syndrome, I am a literal impostor talking about these topics. As a person with ADHD, I face a mighty struggle to manage my time and self-regulate during conferences. But that struggle has taught me important things I can share with you.

‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’

Nobody needs another lecture on time management skills. But I do want to talk about managing your energy levels in relation to the competing demands a conference places on your time.

Large international conferences offer a smorgasbord of tantalising opportunites from 7AM until 8pm with cultural events, drinks and dinner parties in the evening.

There’s a temptation to think ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ and to attend as much as you possibly can within the 5-7 day timeframe of the conference. But if you do that, you’re setting yourself up for burnout when you come back to everyday life, and your body will associate attending a conference with feeling terrible for weeks afterwards.

I recommend planning to work an 8-hour day at conferences. If your day starts at 7am and finishes at 6pm, you might take some time off in the middle to have a nap or go for a wander around the host city.

Conference sessions are information rich and your cognitive performance declines to nothing after 8 hours of solid concentration.

It helps to look at the program well in advance and make a personal spreadsheet or day planner that outlines what sessions you’re going to attend.

Don’t let FOMO get to you. You are always going to miss out on stuff you’d like to attend because sessions clash with each other. You can often catch a missed session later on the virtual conference platform. You can even watch a session from the comfort of your hotel room.

You are not being chased by a bear

Let’s begin with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

Source: BiteSize Learning

Attending a conference, networking with your peers, filling your brain with cutting-edge knowledge about your field of practice — you are reaching for the pinnacle of self-actualisation.

But you need to build on solid foundations. Self-care often involves taking steps back down the ladder to rebuild your energy stores.

Some key questions to keep asking yourself during the conference:

– Have I had enough food and water?

– Have I had enough sleep?

– Do I need some time alone?

– Do I need to spend some time talking with friends?

– Do I need a temporary retreat to my home base (the hotel room)?

I want to make a momentary detour through neuropsychology to explain why these temporary breaks are so important. I’m talking to an audience of smart people so I’m going to race through some crunchy concepts.

The prefrontal cortex, where conscious thought happens, is not especially well connected with the parts of your brain where emotions are processed. It is connected via the hippocampus, which handles access to memory and threat appraisals, and there is another feedback loop that runs via your experience of what’s happening in the body, i.e. your conscious mind often interprets your emotions based on bodily sensations.

In turn, this also means your emotional network and your bodily experience have no understanding of your conscious thoughts other than via memory and threat appraisal. Your body and emotions do not understand that the intense demands on your energy and attention are not caused by threats in your environment.

When you take a break from the conference environment you are sending a signal to your body that you are not actively being chased across the landscape by a bear. You are allowing the normal cycle of anxiety to play out — anxiety goes up, your body mobilises energy to sustain peak performance for a while, then anxiety comes back down, and your body goes back into rest-and-digest mode.

If you allow your brain and body to follow this pattern you will have a much more manageable experience of the conference.

Too much anxiety degrades your performance and leads to burnout. For me, at least, one espresso is good, two espressos are better, three espressos spells disaster.

The Yerkes-Dodson anxiety-performance curve.

But there are threats to navigate!

The previous section talks about how you navigate your inner emotional landscape and the small steps you can take to signal to your body and emotions that you are not being chased across the landscape by a bear.

But the external landscape does contain threats.

I mentioned the hippocampus — the neural centre responsible for handling the brain’s access to stored memories AND for processing threat appraisals. That is an interesting combination, hey. It makes a lot of sense, since we use memories of past experience as a resource to interpret our present-day environment and detect potential threats. But it may also explain why we are prone to post-traumatic stress disorder, where tiny innocuous cues in our present moment experience can trigger very sudden and massively disproportionate physical and emotional responses based on past experience of traumatic events.

It is less well understood that collectives can suffer trauma as well. The sociologist Kai Erikson described the community trauma that occurs in the wake of natural disasters and human-made ecological crises. When a traumatised community is reminded of past crises and conflicts, it can re-enact those conflicts in the present moment. Working in HIV we are constantly dealing with the collective trauma of the early decades of the epidemic, whether we realise it or not, and that poses a major challenge from a self-care perspective.

If you are new to the HIV response, either the local Australian response or the international level, you are unfamiliar with the social and emotional landscape. You may not know the history of crisis and conflict, and you don’t know which issues are landmines ready to explode.

Think back over the major debates of the last 20 years. In the mid 2000s there was a huge conflict over the emergence of a distinct practice known as barebacking, with people calling for Tony Valenzuela’s head on a platter after he acknowleged barebacking with other poz guys in a Rolling Stone article. Just six years later, we went through that process again with intense backlash and moral panic about PrEP use enabling HIV-negative men to have condomless sex.

So I really want to emphasise:

– We need to ensure that newbies are mentored in the history of past crises and conflict so they can anticipate which topics can provoke unexpectedly strong responses.

– Be aware that your appraisal of threats can be altered when you are heavily caffeinated and tired and emotional after a week of conferencing. You may feel more punchy and ready for a fight. Resist the urge!

What happens if I get Covid?

This is going to happen to some proportion of you. It is probably inevitable given we’re bringing together people from all over the world to mingle and swap the latest and greatest strains of the virus.

I got Covid, first time, at the Montréal conference. I wore a mask as required on the plane over, I avoided the French triple airkiss and gave everyone I met a friendly wave instead, and then I went to the No Pants No Problem party. 

I did not enter the kissing competition that happened onstage, which is one of the queerest things I’ve ever seen in my LIFE, but I knew I was going to get Covid that night and I did. 

I ended up stuck in a hotel room for five days feeling pretty fucking sick but — we all make decisions about the risks and payoffs we will tolerate.

Here are some quick suggestions to consider:

1. Make sure you are up-to-date on your Boosters.

2. Wear a mask on the plane, through the airports, and wherever else it would make you feel safer — haters can eat Covid.

3. Remember to change your mask often, find and wear a comfortable one, and avoid handling the contaminated surfaces.

4. Pack some essentials in your first aid travel kit:

  • RATs.
  • ANTIHISTAMINES. The tablets you would take for allergies work fine, as will sleeping pills like Restavit or Seroquel. They will let you get some sleep without drowning in mucus.
  • PANADOL. To bring those fevers down!
  • HYDRALITE to help you stay hydrated!

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