No matter what you do, you will experience burnout several times in your lifetime. I remember being in my graduate program and this was the first time I had heard of the term “burnout”. The professors stressed the fact that, as students, we will experience burnout during our Master’s Program, and as professionals, will experience burnout throughout our careers. The professors went on to explain burnout and I had this clarity about times that I experienced it throughout my life.
Burnout usually occurs from an imbalance between amount of stress we experience and amount of positive outlets/supports we experience. A good metaphor is a checking account. Stress that we experience would be the “withdrawals” and the coping skills/supports would be the “deposits”. When your account is overdrawn 1) regularly or 2) substantially (or both), burnout is likely to occur. Withdrawals can occur from your behaviors, needs, or wants, but they can also occur from the environment that you are in.
What are the symptoms?
Burnout can appear differently for everyone depending on age, gender, culture, and personality traits. Common signs of burnout can be found at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/high-octane-women/201311/the-tell-tale-signs-burnout-do-you-have-them and http://www.forbes.com/sites/learnvest/2013/04/01/10-signs-youre-burning-out-and-what-to-do-about-it/#1675fe385e01 and include:
- Increased exhaustion – Feeling mentally, physically or emotionally drained
- Difficulty sleeping – Having a hard time falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting restful sleep. Being unable to turn off your thoughts or feelings may impact sleep.
- Decreased cognitive functioning – This may include increased distractability, forgetfulness, feeling a mental “fog” and lack of concentration.
- Health concerns – Continued stress can lead to stress on the body. Adults and kids may experience headaches, tummy aches, digestive problems, and increased frequency and duration of illnesses.
- Appetite change – Feeling the need to eat more or a loss of appetite. Can also be a change in cravings or the desire to engage in substance consumption or abuse.
- Mood changes – Any change in mood such as feeling more anxious, depressed, numb, or angry. In kids, this usually looks more like tantrums and agitation/attitude.
- Decreased motivation and performance – It is common to dread tasks and procrastinate. It is also common to put in minimal effort on tasks. You may think about quitting the task all together or fantasize about running away. Kids may often ask to stop participating in sports or activities, or ask to stay home sick from school.
- Interpersonal relationship problems – increased conflict with your partner, kids, family, friends, co-workers and feeling like no one understands.
- Decreased self-care – Not engaging in activities that are your self-care. This may also include hygiene.
This list is not an all-inclusive list so I’d encourage you to pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and body responses and start to track changes you notice when you begin to feel burnout. When I used to work a community mental health agency several years ago, I would notice my burnout after I noticed increased agitation, decreased motivation to do documentation, and I would have dreams that I was calling in sick to work. It was usually after the dream of calling out sick, that I would realize I needed a break. Initially, it was difficult for me to allow myself a break because I did not want to disappoint the agency and I felt like I “should” be able to handle it. I dismissed my own needs to the sake of others and burnout became worse. I was not being an authentic or effective me.
When you experience burnout, here are some ways to cope with burnout.
- Take breaks and simplify – If you can take a mental health day, or a day off, do it! Even if you take a day off to do nothing, that gives you a break from the normal routine. Plan a vacation, or days off in a row to have a chunk of time to emotionally detox. For kids, allow them to skip a practice or take breaks during homework. If you feel overwhelmed by activities, do some reflection to see if you are doing too much. It’s ok to simplify your life to your needs, responsibilities, and a few wants. Kids may be over scheduled too so it’s important to make sure they have down time. Often, this gets overlooked for kiddos.
http://www.today.com/parents/want-kids-listen-more-fidget-less-try-more-recess-school-t65536 gives great information on how increasing recess time for children in school increases their school performance and improves overall behaviors. In an article from NPR at http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/01/03/460254858/turns-out-monkey-bars-and-kickball-are-good-for-the-brain, discusses the positive impact of breaks on children. “If you want a child to be attentive and stay on task, and also if you want them to encode the information you’re giving them in their memory, you’ve got to give them regular breaks,” says Ohio State University pediatrician Bob Murray.
- Set boundaries – I love this quote “Whatever you are willing to put up with is exactly what you will have” – anonymous.
Say “NO” or delegate when appropriate. It’s ok to not take on additional tasks or responsibilities as long as there will not be other consequences. Asking for help from family, friends, co-workers, peers, is a good way to delegate those activities. I’ve noticed that people that care, will be very supportive of your boundaries and will usually offer help and suggestions.
This may look like keep work at work, school at school, and activities in their place. Don’t bring work home and set a limit to when homework from school should be finished. It’s not helpful to bust your butt all day, all night, all week. Don’t check emails for work when you are home if you can avoid it. Saying “no” may be easier when you assess all that you are doing to maintain all expectations and assess what you are doing that goes above and beyond.
There are good articles on the importance of boundaries and setting boundaries on the following sites:
- Unplug – Turn off your phone, computer or tablet! Have some time without the business of this technology. If you are attached to your phone, computer or tablet, that means that you are accessible to others by phone, email, text, etc. It’s ok to let people leave messages for you and check them at a more convenient time, or respond to emails the next day.
This was a hard one for me initially. I was worried that the world would end if I didn’t respond immediately. What I learned was that I was over extending myself and taking time away from my family. Unless something is an emergency, I can give myself time and space to respond to others’ requests and needs.
- Socialize – Get out and spend time with people outside of the job or school. This will help shift the focus from negativity to something fun and positive. This is also good self-care. It’s easy to get stuck in complaining and negative gossiping when you surround yourself with people that are also burnt out. Make an effort to interact with people that are positive and motivated. We had an old saying at my very first job in this field that “Character is Catchy”. During times of burnout, if not all the time, spend time with people that focus on the good things and being positive.
- Give yourself affirmations and recognition for effort – During times of burnout, focus on the good that you are doing. Pay attention to all your effort and accomplishments. It’s easy to focus on the negative thoughts and feelings but these can become overpowering. Focusing on what you are completing and/or attempting, is a good way to give yourself credit for your work.
Don’t beat yourself up and do self-reflection. You may be experiencing burnout because of an internal issue or it may be unhealthy dynamics at work, school, home, sports, etc. Identifying if burnout is you or “them”, you can identify the best coping strategy to heal from burnout and ways to prevent burnout in the future. If you are in a toxic work environment, you may consider changing jobs. Seeking therapy may also be a good outlet and source of validation for your thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
- Engage in relaxation – Relaxation is good self-care. Try out different activities that make you feel relaxed and calm. This may be getting a massage, taking a bath, reading a book, coloring, watching TV, deep breathing, mindfulness, etc. It’s helpful to do some kind of relaxing activity daily. If you are working with a therapist, he or she can also help you identify relaxation techniques that may work best for you.
Below is a list of good websites to visit to learn more about relaxation techniques:
- Increase your focus on sleep and nutrition – It’s easy to give up on sleep and good nutrition when you are burnt out. There is so much energy going into surving the burnout that sleep and nutrition become less of a priority. It’s helpful to keep to a sleeping routine that allows you enough sleep. It’s also helpful to maintain your own diet. Sometimes a change in the diet can increase mood changes which make burnout feel more intense.
Please remember that burnout happens to everyone throughout their lifetime. Paying attention to how you respond to ongoing stressors, or major stressors, will help you prevent burnout from occurring as intensely, frequently and lasting as long. Please know that burnout is normal and it is nothing to be ashamed of. There is nothing wrong with you for experiencing burnout. Feel free to contact us with questions or concerns, or to schedule an appointment.
This post was written by Minon Maier – LMFT