how to recognize and cope with burnout

I sat at my desk.

The room was clean and organized, the candles were lit, the background music was playing. I had a full day ahead of me – plenty of time to get a lot done.

And I had plenty to do.

I looked at my to-do list.

I looked at the computer screen.

But nothing happened.

That evening I confided in Tracy that I was experiencing something strange. 

“I have work to do,” I said. (Quite a bit, actually.) “But I can’t make myself do it. I just sit there. It’s not like being overwhelmed, though. I don’t feel overwhelmed, I feel like a don’t care.”

“You feel unmotivated,” he said.

“Exactly. I look at things on my screen, but I just don’t care. About anything.”

“Sounds like burnout,” he said.

It turns out he’d gone through something similar not long before and a friend had turned him on to this idea that he might be experiencing burnout.

I looked up the symptoms and saw myself.

What is burnout?

Obviously, I am not a doctor or therapist, so what I have to say here is based on my expert Googling abilities and my own experience, but as I understand it, burnout happens after periods of prolonged stress. 

It brings on exhaustion, detachment, and feelings of being completely ineffective:

This is all hopeless, I’ve been beating my head against this same wall for years, I work so freaking hard and nothing ever comes of it.

Of course, it’s not something that happens overnight.

I’d been ignoring the signs for a while before the morning I sat at my desk and could go no further.

The signs of burnout

When I looked up the signs of burnout, I could see that I’d been dancing with a few of them for some time, I hadn’t really seen them as “red flags” though because they weren’t all that unusual. 

See: prolonged stress.

Chronic fatigue is something I’ve dealt with my entire life (since childhood.) It swells and wanes, but I’m so used to it, I hardly even think about it anymore. I’m just always freaking tired. Damn it.

Insomnia comes and goes with me. I rarely have trouble falling asleep, but it’s not uncommon for me to wake up several times during the night and experience some form of nightmare or nighttime anxiety.

Anxiety is a family thing. I’ve done a great deal of therapy and inner work around anxiety and have transformed it in my life to a large degree, but it still shows up now and then.

Depression. Ditto.

Anger. This one I had noticed in the weeks leading up to my burnout realization. Little bursts of anger had been popping up all over my day. I was experiencing extreme frustration at tiny little things. I noticed myself cursing household inconveniences, dropping things then getting mad at them for being dropped – that sort of thing.

Loss of Enjoyment. I had noticed this one, too, because it was so odd. My business is pretty much based on doing what I love, so a lack of enjoyment in my work was troubling.

Isolation. For a couple of years prior, I’d found myself wanting less and less to do with going out or being with people. It was as if I couldn’t be at home enough. The idea of going out and mingling in the world or doing something social was unbearable.

So, I was in full-on burnout and I had to figure out what to do about it, which is difficult because when you are in burn-out, you don’t really care about things and don’t really want to figure things out.

How to recover from burnout

The same way burnout doesn’t come on overnight, it doesn’t go away overnight.

I started by gently re-directing myself into activities that didn’t feel like walking on razor blades.

If you feel like you might be in burnout, you might want to try these, too:

Engage relaxation. My go-to relaxation remedies include salt bathing, exercise (yoga), centering prayer/meditation, walking in nature, and watching seventies movies. These things may sound frivolous, but they are not. If you’re going to recover from burnout, you must make your relaxation a non-negotiable.

Pay attention to nutrition and sleep. When my body tells me it wants to take to the bed at 7 p.m. and watch Real Housewives marathons, that’s what I do. 

When my body tells me it needs an afternoon coffee and a double chocolate brownie in order to survive, I know that it’s confused, and try to feed it something nourishing instead. I’ve found that a salad made from avocado and tomato dressed with lemon juice is life-giving and balancing to me. (If you’re a nutritionist, maybe you could tell me why this combo is so magical. Intuitively, I feel like it feeds and soothes my brain.) 

Communicate boundaries. I found I had no choice but to say no to things, to turn down offers, mark things off my calendar, and ask for help.

Unplug. I also found I needed big chunks of time during which I didn’t look at the Internet, and kept my phone on Do Not Disturb. I love Facebook, except for when I absolutely hate it. You know what I mean? 

Foster creativity. On the worst of my burnout days, the only thing I wanted to do was paint. Even though the pressure of deadlines and expectations loomed, I pushed those things to the side and painted instead. All day long.

Listen to yourself and re-evaluate. Maybe burnout is a symptom of an unhealthy culture and a society gone haywire, maybe it signals the need for a slight change of course, but maybe it’s your soul yelling at you about the elephant in the room. 

When I realized that my lethargy and apathy were actually burnout, I asked myself:

What do I need to get rid of? What old outdated ideas about myself and my work am I clinging to? What did I once believe that I don’t believe anymore? Do I still love my work? Am on the right path? Am I living someone else’s life?

And then, I listened for the answers.

I’m feeling better now, even though I still have days when I feel the potential for burnout creeping back in around the edges. 

Sometimes I want to tell people not to expect me to behave like a normal…human…because I really don’t feel like one. 

Other days, I am sort of normal.

I’m back to a place where I can be productive, a place where I actually care about things – and that is good. 

I’d like to stop the full-on burnout before it happens, and that means paying close attention to my stress levels and self-care gaps.

How to prevent burnout

Form supportive connections. One of the things that helped me the most was simply talking to Tracy about what I was experiencing and listening to him talk about his experiences. Acknowledging that the stress and subsequent burnout was indeed a real and present thing helped to diffuse it.

My tendency (perhaps because of that need for isolation) is to pull away and deal with things on my own, but I’ve learned that when I express what’s going on (this can be as simple as saying to a friend, “I’m having a lot of anxiety today,”) it gets better and easier to handle.

Hint: A supportive connection is a person or entity that allows you to be in honest expression without trying to “fix” you.

Engage with the divine. The energy of God gives life and God is present in everything. God is loving you in every moment. Engage with the rituals that remind you of this. Allow yourself to feel how completely and abundantly loved you are. When I am feeling truly depleted, I know I need to open to the unceasing flow of the love of God. I don’t have to do anything other than be open to God, because God is always there.

Slow down. You know what? You might not get it all done. It’s okay. It’s okay to say, “I’ve taken on too much and need to let some of it go. You know that deadline? I need an extension.” 

When I feel myself slipping toward burnout, I look at my to-do list for the day and choose the one thing that’s a priority. That one thing becomes my new list.

Take things off your plate. I recently got involved with an organization that I really truly love and respect. I wanted to be more involved, to attend weekly meetings and do more with this group. I put the meetings on my calendar and was looking forward to learning more but as the date of the first meeting grew closer, I realized I didn’t actually want to go. I realized that I didn’t have the energy reserves. I didn’t really have anything to give to this organization because I’d taken on a bit more than I could handle. 

The things you choose to remove from your plate may be things you love and or are interested in. Removing them doesn’t mean they don’t have value. It just means, you’re doing all you can do.

Keep the area clear of obstructions. Stuff gets stale. Too much stuff clogs up the environment. When I start to feel sluggish, I clear clutter, dust, and rearrange. It’s amazing how completely you can shift energy just be tidying up a room.

Allow yourself to fail. There’s an online magazine I’d really like to write for. At the beginning of the year, I set my intention to be published there. I watched the submission deadlines and it was crystal clear to me which theme was the one I needed to write to. I had months to craft my piece and submit it, but when the deadline rolled around, I wasn’t ready. I set a goal for myself and I failed to meet it. At first, this felt crushing to me – like I’d let myself down – like I was destined to be nothing but a failure – like all was lost. But you know what? It was just a goal I didn’t meet. That’s it. Nothing more. You know who died because of this failure? No one.

Feed what’s starving in you. Burnout feels like running out of gas. You turn the key in the ignition but nothing happens. It’s not the hyped up sensation of busy-ness. It’s more like a big blank field of nothing. Burnout feels like someone comes up to you and says, “The house is on fire,” and you say, “Ok,” but just continue to sit on the couch because it would take so much energy to get up and walk out the door, and you just don’t have any. 

Part of preventing burnout is asking, 

What is the feul? What do I need? What am I craving that I’m just not getting? Where are my needs not being met?

The next step is figuring out how to meet those needs.

I know things are getting treacherous for me when the notification noises from my phone make me jump out of my skin (or piss me off), when I get frustrated with the dogs for begging, then realize they don’t have any water in their bowl, when a last minute change of plans feels like the end of the world.

When I notice these little shifts in my mood, I run the water for my path, take out the trash, and crank the air-conditioning.

I refocus my attention to my heart.

I prop a clean canvas up on the easel and start moving paint.

I notice God.

Hint: God sometimes feels like chill bumps or radiating warmth or cleansing tears.

As you know, I’m not a believer that “everything happens for a reason” and I’d prefer to learn my lessons in pleasure and joy, but I do think the lessons are everywhere, and I learned a lot from burnout.

I would even go so far as to say that experiencing burnout helped me become a healthier person. 

I know myself better as a result and no better how to take care of myself, which means I can be a better friend, a better support for others, and a better me.