It has been a brutal few years hasn't it? I think 2023 is going to be the year when we really start to see the deep impacts of burnout that have been steadily growing and building. Between COVID, inflation, geopolitical instability, and social and political unrest, it is just too much to metabolize. We cannot go on forever as we have been and we are all damn tired.
Or could we be actually be facing burnout rather than just fatigue?
What is the Difference Between Burnout and Fatigue?
Burnout and Fatigue are NOT the same and there is a very important difference between the two. Fatigue is a temporary state of mental or physical exhaustion that can be remedied through rest and self care. Burnout is a state of emotional AND physical AND mental exhaustion caused by prolonged or unremitting chronic stress. It is characterized by feelings of cynicism, detachment, and a lack of accomplishment.
Both burnout and fatigue can lead to a decline in job performance, decreased productivity, and an increased risk of mistakes. This can lead some people experiencing these issues to mistakenly believe that they are incompetent. However, it is important to understand that burnout and fatigue are not a sign of incompetence, but rather a sign that the person has reached the limit of their ability to cope.
You might immediately think that the answer is more self care. Self care is very important and critical in preventing burnout, however it is insufficient for recovery.
Let me say that again…
When recovering from burnout, self care is not enough.
Signs That You Are Nearing Burnout
The first step in recovering from burnout is to recognize the signs and symptoms. These may include feeling exhausted, unmotivated, and unproductive, as well as experiencing physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, and a weakened immune system. You may feel like you never are truly rested. You wake up tired and even that 4th cup of coffee isn't helping. You may withdraw or isolate. You may be irritable all the time for no apparent reason. Your friends may start to express concern.
There are four stages on the road toward burnout:
1. Enthusiasm: You love what you are doing and you throw yourself into it. Yay!
2. Pushing Through: You love it less but don't want to give up and think you can reclaim that earlier sense of purpose and joy if you just push a tiny bit more. You know that relief is just around the next corner, but it never is.
(warning light comes on)
3. De-prioritizing Self: You begin to neglect your own needs as well as your friends and family and things that used to bring you joy. Joy builds resilience so now you have no way to replenish the stores.
(warning light is now blinking orange)
4. Exhaustion: Pushing through becomes harder and harder and you never seem to be able to recover. Joy is an almost forgotten emotion. Self care doesn’t make a dent and each day is a struggle.
(you are now in the red zone because you ignored the warnings, immediate change is required)
Recovering from burnout can be a challenging and overwhelming process. The emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress can lead to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and disconnection from your work and personal life. It is far better to try to proactively prevent burnout through self care than to have to recover from it. However, even if we know the signs we often choose to willfully ignore them because they are inconvenient and get in the way of our plans.
If you missed or ignored the warning signs you now may be in a state of burnout. Recovery is possible!
So How Can We Recover From Burnout?
Once you have recognized that you are experiencing burnout, it is important to take steps right away to address the underlying causes. This may involve making changes to your work environment, such as reducing your workload or finding ways to manage stress more effectively. It may also involve addressing any personal or emotional issues that may be contributing to your burnout. Inevitably, there will be some life changes and some tough decisions.
But it’s worth it.
There are a few keys steps you can take toward recovery:
1. Stressor versus Stress: You have to deal with BOTH.
A stressor is an event or situation that causes you stress. Stress is the bodily held result of the stressors and shows up as elevated stress hormones and body tension. Two steps are required. You have to first identify and then eliminate or reduce the stressor, AND then you also have to discharge the leftover stress that is being held in the body. We won’t be addressing stressors in this article.
Stress itself isn't a bad thing at all. In fact it can be very helpful for us to take action. Stress becomes problematic when it is unending and relentless, when we feel trapped by it. It is the feeling of there being no escape that leads down a dangerous mental, emotional and eventually physical path toward disaster.
One effective way to discharge stress is through regular exercise and physical activity. This will release endorphins, which are the body's natural mood-boosters. Exercise also is one of the best natural remedies for anxiety and depression, which are often correlated with burnout. It's also important to take care of your mental health and practice self-care to prevent stress from building up. This can include things like meditation, journaling, or therapy.
If you remove the stressor but don't deal with the stress then you are minimally better off but time alone won't relieve the stress. If you discharge the stress but don't eliminate the stressor then the stress will just build up again in a never ending cycle.
2. Don't buy into the Bullsh*t
You don't have to work harder, push through and just “suck it up”. After all, that is how you got here in the first place. I used to work in Corporate America and exhaustion was a badge of honor. If you weren’t sending emails at 2 am you weren’t viewed as being uncommitted. Pushing through is a harmful and unsustainable approach to stress and difficult situations. This mentality often stems from toxic ideas of stoicism and invincibility, where people believe they must endure all challenges without expressing their emotions or seeking help. It is further fostered by corporate principles of doing more with less. When people push themselves too hard for too long, they are at risk of developing mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, and chronic illness, such as chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia. Additionally, the constant pressure to be productive and stoic creates an unsustainable work environment and perpetuates a feedback cycle of unhealthy coping mechanisms. Instead of pushing through and "sucking it up," it is important to recognize your own limitations and prioritize self-care. It’s also okay to ask for help.
If you can’t help yourself, you can’t help anyone else. As they say during flight safety instructions, put your own mask on first.
3. It's Okay to Step Back
Taking a step back when you are nearing burnout is not only okay, it is also necessary for maintaining your overall health and well-being. You may find that you are unable to perform at your best, are easily overwhelmed, are frequently irritable and are struggling to find enjoyment in your daily life. By taking a step back, you are giving yourself the space and time you need to recharge and regain your energy. This could mean taking time off work, practicing self-care, or seeking professional help. By taking care of yourself, you are ultimately setting yourself up for success in the long run. When you are feeling refreshed and recharged, you will be able to tackle challenges with a clear mind and renewed energy, allowing you to perform at your best and lead a fulfilling life.
4. Track Your Warning Signs
Everyone has their own telltale warning signs and you need to become aware of yours so you will be alert when they present themselves. Tracking warning signs for burnout can help you know when it is time to take a step back and prioritize self-care.
Some common warning signs of burnout include:
• Exhaustion: Physical and emotional exhaustion is one of the key indicators of burnout.
• Decreased motivation and enjoyment: Burnout can lead to a loss of interest in activities that you used to enjoy.
• Cynicism and negativity: If you find yourself feeling more critical, irritable, negative and cynical, it may be a sign of burnout.
• Decreased productivity: The quality of your work may decrease or you may start making uncharacteristic mistakes.
• Physical symptoms: Common physical symptoms related to stress include headaches, stomach problems, and sleep disturbances.
Keeping a journal or using a tracking app (there are loads of them!) can help you track these warning signs and take action before burnout sets in. Additionally, it's important to listen to your body and be aware of any changes in your mood or energy levels, as these can be early indicators of burnout.
5. Find or Make Meaning!
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” ~ Viktor Frankl
Meaning making is the process of finding significance and purpose in our experiences and events. It helps us understand and make sense of the world around us, and can give us a sense of control and direction in our lives. There are several ways to engage in meaning making:
• Reflection: Take time to reflect on your experiences, thoughts, and emotions. Ask yourself what these experiences mean to you and how they fit into the larger picture of your life and why those memories are important to you.
• Connect with others: Talking to friends, family, or a therapist can help you make sense of your experiences and gain different perspectives. We are biologically hard wired for connection and without it we wither away.
• Develop a personal philosophy: Creating a personal philosophy or belief system can help you find meaning in your experiences and give you a sense of direction in life. What are your guiding principles and how do you bring them into your life?
In the darkest times, it is often meaning that brings us back to light.
6. Rest, Rest, Rest (nope, binging Netflix does NOT count)
Do not underestimate the importance of sleep and rest in your recovery! Sleep plays a vital role in physical and mental health, and a lack of sleep can make it more difficult to cope with stress and manage burnout. Try to establish a regular sleep routine and avoid staying up too late or using electronic devices before bed. Blue light from screens will prevent restful sleep. Sleep is only part of the equation though; it is necessary but not sufficient.
True rest also includes time for mental and emotional restoration through quiet, stillness, reflection and contemplation. Meditation, journaling or mindful movement such as yoga or Tai Chi are all excellent ways to recharge your mental and emotional batteries. Yoga Nidra or No Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR) protocol are great ways to achieve deep restful states while awake and in some ways this is more restorative than sleep itself. It calms a different part of the brain. Spending time in nature or “forest bathing” is also an excellent way to reset your nervous system.
7. Practice Gratitude Daily
Practicing gratitude is a powerful tool for enhancing well-being and finding meaning in life. Gratitude involves acknowledging and appreciating the good things in your life, regardless of the challenges and difficulties you may be facing. Practicing gratitude can have many benefits, including increased happiness, reduced stress and anxiety, and improved relationships.
I often recommend keeping a gratitude journal to my clients. Every day simply write down three things you are grateful for. This can help you focus on the positive aspects of your life and cultivate a sense of gratitude by shifting your perspective. Random Acts Of Kindness are another excellent way to practice gratitude by giving back. Do something little for someone for no reason whatsoever. I promise it will change your mood right away, as well as help another person who may also be going through something.
Gratitude is a habit that can be cultivated and strengthened through regular practice.
8. Cultivate Joy
Engaging in activities that you enjoy and that make you feel good can also help to reduce stress and improve your overall well-being.
Cultivating joy is essential for overall happiness and well-being. To cultivate joy, it is important to focus on the people, places and activities that bring a smile to your face and warmth to your heart. Engaging in hobbies, interests, and activities that bring you joy, building and maintaining positive relationships, taking care of your physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and engaging in activities that align with your values and give you a sense of purpose can all bring joy and fulfillment to your life. Fostering a sense of curiousity, wonder and openness can also increase feelings of joy and well-being. It is important to note that cultivate joy is NOT the same thing as toxic positivity. It is not avoiding discomfort through pretending to be happy (toxic positivity), it is finding and savoring the true genuine moments of happiness and joy and allowing them to fill you up.
9. Savor Self Compassion
"Self-compassion is a way of emotionally recharging our batteries. Rather than becoming drained by helping others, self-compassion allows us to fill up our internal reserves, so that we have more to give to those who need us.” ~ Kristen Neff
Practicing self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness, care, and understanding that you would offer to a close friend or a child. This can involve speaking to yourself in a supportive and understanding way, instead of being overly critical or harsh. How often do you use derogatory language for yourself, whether silently or aloud? Practicing compassion includes letting go of perfectionism and embracing your humanity. It can be helpful to remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes and experiences difficult emotions, and that it's normal and okay to have flaws and imperfections. Try to be mindful of your thoughts and emotions, and respond to them with kindness and understanding. For example, instead of getting upset with yourself for making a mistake, try to acknowledge the mistake, offer yourself comfort and support, and focus on learning from the experience. By practicing self-compassion, you can build a positive relationship with yourself, increase well-being, and lead a more fulfilling life.
“The opposite of harsh self-criticism and toxic perfectionism is self-compassion.” ~ Emily & Amelia Nagoski
10. Lean in to Community
Finally, it's important to have a support system in place. Humans are wired to be in connection, in community and without it we suffer. Surrounding yourself with people who understand what you're going through and who can offer emotional support can be incredibly helpful. This might include friends, family, or a therapist.
“The cure for burnout is not just self-care; it is all of us caring for one another.” ~ Emily & Amelia Nagoski
Interpersonal connection and community can play a crucial role in reducing stress and burnout by providing a supportive network of friends, family, and peers who can offer emotional and practical support. When we are connected to others, we are less likely to feel isolated, which is a major risk factor for stress and burnout. Having strong social relationships also provides us with a sense of belonging and security, which can boost our resilience and help us manage stress more effectively.
In addition, being part of a community can provide opportunities for social engagement, which can promote well-being and increase feelings of happiness. Sharing experiences with others, whether through hobbies, volunteer work, or other activities, can also provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment, which can further reduce stress and burnout.
Furthermore, having a supportive network can also provide practical help, such as assistance with chores, errands, or child care, which can help ease the demands and responsibilities that can lead to stress and burnout.
Recovering from burnout is a process and it may take some time. Please don’t try to rush it as that will only add more pressure to an overtaxed system. It’s important to be patient with yourself and to remember that it's okay to take a step back and focus on your well-being. With the right mindset and approach, you can overcome burnout and regain a sense of balance and fulfillment in your life.
Burnout by Emily & Amelia Nagoski
When the Body Says No by Gabor Mate
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristen Neff
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankyl