How to avoid or recover from burnout
We are living at a time of global change. We are learning to live differently to mitigate risks and reduce exposure to a potentially deadly virus, and we are making changes to antiquated systems with hopes of a brighter future. Overwhelmingly, the world around us is changing and no matter how the changes make you feel, change itself is stressful.
Whether you are sheltering in place or marching in the streets, a stress management and self-care system that works for you is so important to protect your health and energy level as you keep your eye on the prize. Without a plan, burnout is nearly inevitable. Stress can zap your energy, kill your mood, take away from mental clarity, and weaken your immune system. Positive energy, a good attitude, focus, and a strong immune system are all of the utmost importance as we work together to establish a “new normal” in 2020.
What is “burnout”?
Burnout is a state of complete exhaustion brought on by too much mental, emotional, and physical stress over a prolonged period. If you feel helpless, drained of energy, and unable to motivate yourself for daily routines that used to work for you, you may be experiencing burnout. It is easy to reach this point quickly at times of crisis, but because of the wide-reaching consequences of burnout, it is important to address right away or prevent it if possible. Not only are the consequences physical, but your emotions also become blunted and you may lose hope for positive change and lose the motivation to work towards it. Positive change is what the world needs most right now.
Burnout can be a result of a myriad of factors but likely comes from feeling out of control and unsupported for a prolonged period of time. Work burnout is probably most common, due to unrealistic expectations, a high-pressure environment, lack of recognition, or on the opposite end, feeling bored by monotony and being under-challenged or underestimated. It is also possible to burn out from events outside of work. Abusive or toxic relationships, unstable living situations, and living in a state of unrest and discomfort can lead to burnout. All of the above are likely causes of burnout at present because many are living in fear of catching ill, many are living without enough social interaction to feel supported and secure, and many are working overtime either as essential workers or as protestors, with little reward or acknowledgment for the stress they are under. Because of this, it is an especially important time for us to focus on self-care whenever possible, to prevent burnout and keep pushing forwards.
How does stress affect my body?
Occasional, short-term stress is totally normal and can even be good for you. As animals, our bodies are set up for flight-or-flight in response to a perceived threat. In the short term, a perceived stressor can cause your breathing and heart rate to increase bringing more oxygen and nutrients to your brain and muscles and strengthening the connections between your neurons, improving your memory, attention span, and cognitive function . This is likely the reason many people claim to “work well under pressure”, as they feel better able to stay focused once their nervous system is triggered. Your immune system also gets a boost (in case of injury from the threatening trauma).
Unfortunately, these benefits do not last in the long-term and your nervous system cannot distinguish between emotional and physical stress, so even a series of different types of triggers can keep your body in a constant state of stress response. If stress becomes chronic, there are no bright sides. Physically, chronic stress weakens your immune system, dysregulates your digestive and reproductive systems, increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speeds up the aging process . Mentally, chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems .
Chronic fatigue and insomnia can also be caused by chronic stress [3,4]. This combination leaves you feeling exhausted all day and restless at night. These effects are likely felt due to nutrient depletion and dysregulation of the stress hormone cortisol. Prolonged stress can deplete the most important nutrients for synthesizing cellular energy from food, such as B vitamins and magnesium. If you are already eating less food or less nutritious foods due to stress, this nutritional depletion can be more pronounced. Long term stress and anxiety can result in dysregulation of cortisol, which negatively impacts sleep, further affecting daytime energy levels due to sleep deprivation.
How can I avoid or recover from burnout?
If feeling overwhelmed and out-of-control is the cause of stress or burnout, finding things you can control may help you avoid or recover from it. If the stressors causing your burnout are work-related, what can you change? Can you delegate tasks or ask for help if you are overwhelmed? Can you limit your interaction with toxic coworkers? Try asking your supervisor for regular progress reports if you are stressed about whether you are meeting expectations. Learn some self-care techniques that you can do at your desk or on a break like a quick meditation, stretches, or breathing exercises to bring down your stress level. If none of that sounds possible, it may be best to start looking for a new job because burnout is likely to result in quitting or losing the job that is bringing you down.
If the potential threat causing your burnout is the ongoing fight for a cause you believe in, it might be harder to change the stressor. When you can’t change the stressor, you have to change the way you handle your stress.
- Prioritize rest. Schedule your day around opportunities to relax and commit to those times or activities. Establish a wind-down bedtime routine to prepare for restful sleep at night. Meditation and restorative yoga are a great way to wind down from a stressful day to prepare your body and mind for deep relaxation. There are also certain nutrients that can aid in your relaxation naturally, like melatonin or magnesium. Try adding a supplement before bed as part of your routine. If you know nighttime sleep is becoming troublesome, try finding a time to catnap during the day when you feel tired. Do not feel guilty for resting.
- Disconnect. No matter what is stressing us, being constantly barraged with information from the news media and social media is a lot for the brain to handle. Try committing to some time away from screens, if you can, to let your mind focus on the present moment. This is especially important before bed, as even the blue light that emanates from screens, alone, can stimulate your brain and keep you awake.
- But also, connect. Talking with a good listener can quickly bring your heart rate and stress level down. You don’t need to talk about what’s burning you out for the conversation to help with your stress; just feeling connected and supported is enough. On the flip side, try to avoid communication with people who are negative or may bring you further down.
- Find a release. Find a hobby, project, or other activity that has nothing to do with your stressors so you can try to put the stress out of your mind for a little while. If your stress is physical, find something you can do sitting down. Choose a challenging puzzle to balance a monotonous job, or paint, draw, or doodle freely to balance feeling overstimulated or overworked. If your stress is mostly mental, move your body for release. Take a dance class or just move to your favorite music in your living room. Running, swimming, or cycling can be a great release of frustration.
- Nourish your body mindfully. Science has shown time and again that chronic stress alters eating behavior by causing under- or over-eating in most individuals . It also increases the selection of good tasting, calorie-dense foods over healthy foods . Because chronic stress also uses up certain nutrients faster than others, this can leave our bodies depleted of important nutrients, even if we’re consuming more total calories than we need, leading to unhealthful weight gain, lethargy, and health problems. Try to be mindful of what you eat, when you eat, and how much you really need. As you make other changes to reduce your stress, making healthy choices in your diet and supplementing needed nutrients can support your body in fighting off stress-related health consequences.
- Sanders, Robert. “Researchers find out why some stress is good for you.” Berkeley News. April 16, 2013. https://news.berkeley.edu/2013/04/16/researchers-find-out-why-some-stress-is-good-for-you/
- Segal, Jeanne, et al. “Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes” Help Guide. May 2020. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/stress-symptoms-signs-and-causes.htm#:~:text=Chronic%20stress%20disrupts%20nearly%20every,speed%20up%20the%20aging%20process.
- Azizoddin, Desiree R., et al. “Longitudinal Study of Fatigue, Stress, and Depression: Role of Reduction in Stress Towards Improvement in Fatigue.” Arthritis Care & Research (2019).
- Drake, Christopher L., Vivek Pillai, and Thomas Roth. “Stress and sleep reactivity: a prospective investigation of the stress-diathesis model of insomnia.” Sleep 37.8 (2014): 1295-1304.
- Torres, Susan J., and Caryl A. Nowson. “Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity.” Nutrition 23.11-12 (2007): 887-894.