“Burnout is the feeling that you’ve hit the wall exhaustion-wise, but then have to scale the wall and just keep going. There’s no catharsis, no lasting rest, just this background hum of exhaustion.” Anne Helen Peterson
What is burnout? The original 1975 definition by Herbert Freudenberger had 3 components: 1) Emotional exhaustion (the fatigue of holding on too much too long, feeling bone tired) 2) Depersonalization (depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion, pouring from an empty cup) 3) Decreased sense of accomplishment (feeling of futility, “nothing really matters”). Later research found that the first component of emotional exhaustion is what really has a negative impact on our relationships and functioning, particularly in women. Research shows that burnout rates are high, especially among those in helping professions, such as healthcare workers and teachers. Most research is on burnout as an occupational phenomenon but there has also been growing research into parental burnout.
It’s not your fault you’re burnt out. We are often in circumstances that can’t be changed. We’re flooded with horrific images of news events. We may deal with the stress of raising children, or caring for parents, or ourselves. We might encounter racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, or ableism. We’ve created a system where half of the population; mainly women, is made up of givers who believe they have a moral obligation to give. The problem isn’t giving-it’s giving in a system that feels entitled to take from you everything you have and makes you feel you can’t say no. Given all of this, of course we are burnt out. How could we not be?
Signs of Burnout: Burnout doesn’t just happen one day. It’s a gradual process and the symptoms may be subtle at first. Knowing the signs can help prevent long-term consequences. Physical signs of burnout include: feeling tired and drained most of the time, frequent illnesses, frequent headaches or muscle pain, and changes in appetite or sleep habits. Emotional signs of burnout: loss of motivation, cynical and negative outlook (everyday is a bad day), a sense of failure and self-doubt, feeling alone in the world, and feeling helpless, trapped, and/or defeated (nothing I do makes a difference.) Behavioral signs of burnout: Skipping work or coming in late/leaving early, taking frustrations out on others, procrastination, isolating self from others, withdrawing from responsibilities, or using unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol.
Stress/Depression Vs. Burnout: You probably noticed that many of the above symptoms overlap with stress and depression, and yet there is a difference. Burnout may be the result of unrelenting stress, but it isn’t the same as too much stress. Stress involves over-engagement, while burnout is disengagement. Stress involves too much: too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and mentally. However, stressed people can believe that if they can just get everything under control, they’ll feel better. Stress is characterized by strong emotions and a sense of urgency and hyperactivity.
Burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough. Being burned out means feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring. People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations. If excessive stress feels like you’re drowning in responsibilities, burnout is a sense of being dried up. And while you’re usually aware of being under a lot of stress, you don’t always notice burnout when it happens, as it can be insidious.
Burnout that is untreated can lead to depression, while unmanaged stress often leads to anxiety disorders. Burnout and depression have overlapping symptoms. However, a key difference is that burnout symptoms usually go away when the stressful situation is removed and you’ve completed the cycle of stress. Burnout has a specific cause while depression may not. Sometimes a specific event can trigger depression, but your depression may continue long after the stress is gone. Depressive disorders are well-studied and have many treatments. On the other hand, burnout is a phenomenon and not a diagnosis, with still evolving interventions. In addition to depression and anxiety, untreated burnout is linked to health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and sleep disturbances.
Causes of burnout: Let’s look more at how burnout happens. In their book Burnout authors Emily and Amelia Nagoski educate on the stress cycle and what they call “completing the cycle.” Basically, everyone experiences stress to some degree. Stressors are what activate the stress response. In other words, you encounter a threat and experience stress. These threats can be external, i.e. how will I pay this bill, traffic jams, work projects, discrimination. They can be internal, i.e. identity, self-criticism, body image. Anything can be a stressor if it’s an obligation that feels taxing. Stressors create stress, which happens in your body. Even once the stressor is gone (i.e. the bill is paid, the project is done) your body holds on to the stress. That is, until you complete the stress cycle. Our body doesn’t understand the threat is gone and lives in a heightened state until we complete the cycle and restore some sense of safety. Think of it as being on a ship with water slowly coming in. You must bail the water out daily or the ship will sink.
Completing the Cycle: Here are the solutions the Nagaskis propose
1. Physical activity. This is by far the most efficient way to complete the cycle. Walk, run, dance, swim-just find some enjoyable form of movement. It’s ideal to exercise 20-60 minutes most days but anything counts.
2. Deep breathing. The key is to breathe from your belly and not your chest. Practice slowing down your breath, inhaling and exhaling for 5 seconds each. Pretend that your stomach is a balloon inflating and then deflating.
3. Positive social interaction. We are all hardwired for connection and isolation only increases burnout symptoms. Initiating any sort of interaction, even small talk, helps to reassure your brain that you are safe
4. Affection. Hug someone you love. Snuggle a pet. Cuddle up with a stuffed animal. This releases oxytocin and reminds your brain you’re safe.
5. Laughter. Genuine (not forced) laughter releases endorphins which relieves stress
6. Crying. A good cry is cathartic
7. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). Practice tensing and releasing each muscle for 10 seconds while visualizing yourself feeling lighter. This is a great way to release tension we might not even realize we’re carrying around.
Other ways to cope with burnout:
If your burnout is job related the most obvious solution is to quit. Of course this is not possible for many of us. Quitting is a privilege not afforded to everyone. But if you are fortunate to be able to quit, think about what makes you come alive. What kind of problems do you enjoy solving? What kind of people do you enjoy working with? Answer these questions and then go do that. Your aliveness is the antidote to the overwhelm.
If you cannot quit your job think about stressors you can control and do some problem solving. Maybe if would help to befriend co-workers, set boundaries, or ask for assistance. Can you work from home? Can you switch roles or departments? Is your workspace as lovely as it could be? Are you using your sick and vacation days? Can you adjust your schedule to work the hours you are most creative and productive?
If a stressor cannot be controlled consider positive reappraisal. This is when you reframe challenges as opportunities for growth and learning. It’s not about forced positivity or pretending everything is fine, but rather acknowledging that discomfort, frustrations, and even failure are worth it if they help you grow and get better. It is a spiritual practice in that you can look beyond the drudgery and difficulties to see the larger meaning. In addition, try to find value in your work. Does your role help others or provide a needed service? Are there any aspects of your job that you do enjoy? Finally, remember that while your job is a part of your life, it’s not your whole life. Look for meaning and satisfaction in other parts of your world-hobbies, friends, creative expression, volunteering, etc. Focus on the parts of your life that do bring you joy and purpose.
Burnout is an undeniable sign that something important in your life is not working. It tells you that something needs to give. The great news is that wellness isn’t a state of being, it’s a state of action. Burnout is a cue that it’s time to act. You can start by naming what you’re feeling and acknowledge that you want things to be different. What are your hopes, goals, and dreams? What have you been neglecting or ignoring? What matters to you-not what you think should matter but what actually matters to you? How can you make your life feel meaningful? Burnout can be an opportunity to find some answers. It’s a chance to finally slow down and give yourself time to rest, reflect, and heal.