Does your life sometimes feel like a bad stock photo cliché? You know the one. An exhausted person sitting at a desk with his fingers pinched on the bridge of his nose because that’s where the stress pain has gathered. This one.
Or maybe you feel like the woman sitting in front of several disembodied arms each demanding something of her.
Maybe you’ve really hit the wall and your current mental state is that of the woman dead asleep on the copier. A classic.
We can poke a little fun at stock photos, but sometimes life feels like those scenes and burnout is a serious and troubling feeling. The problem, aside from the anxiety and exhaustion, is that it’s not clearly defined the way other mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are. We have no clear medical definition for burnout, so you can’t be diagnosed with burnout. Subsequently, we don’t have a crystal clear set of treatments for it either.
However, the symptoms burnout are similar to those of depression, anxiety and stress. So we’re not in completely uncharted water here.
Before we get to those symptoms we want to note that while burnout is commonly associated with work, that is certainly not the only cause. Burnout can be caused by anything in life that is making you feel stressed and exhausted.
How to Spot Burnout
While experts have not outlined an iron-clad definition for burnout a decent consensus has identified it as a feeling of chronic stress that results in three main categories of symptoms:
Exhaustion: This can be physical, mental or both. If you just don’t feel like you have energy for much of anything, even things you used to enjoy, that might be your first red flag. The flag is particularly red if the exhaustion can’t be attributed to anything found in a physical exam, says Valerie Novak, a Nurse Practitioner in the Denver area.
- Alienation or Detachment: Burnout can frequently cause people to retreat from work or activities they enjoy, both physically and emotionally. This feeling can coincide with increased cynicism about work and lack of enjoyment.
- Reduced Performance: Whether in or outside of work, burnout can cause you to lose focus on your tasks and/or feel like they’re not worth doing in the first place. “If they can’t complete the task, not because they’re not physically able, but they’re not mentally able, that’s when I say, ‘You’re in burnout mode,’” says Novak.
If you’re becoming burnt out you might also notice cognitive problems such as issues with memory and focus, interpersonal problems and an inability to escape thinking about work when you’re not at work. More than likely, burnout is the result of chronic stress and long-term health effects of stress include an increased risk for digestive issues, depression, weight gain, heart disease, sleep problems and more.
How to Defeat Burnout
So, how do you go from burnt out to a controlled burn? First, remember that this is a process. Trying to turn everything around in a week could just add to your feelings of anxiety. You didn’t burn out overnight and you won’t become un-burnt overnight. Take the advice below that applies to you and make changes at a reasonable pace:
- Track your stress: Make a list or calendar of the things in your life that cause you stress, fear, cynicism or other negative feelings on a consistent basis. For each instance, make a plan to reduce the stress it causes or eliminate it entirely. Don’t feel like you need to do this alone. Chances are a friend or family member has gone through something similar and could have advice for changing the situation.
- Talk to your doctor or care provider: When her patients are burnt out Novak creates a plan and sets weekly meetings to track their progress. Treatment can range from medication to exercise to counseling to time off work. The plan will evolve, but the first step is clear: Get support.
- Get used to “no”: If you’re the kind of person who tends to take on everything asked of you and then figures out later how to make it all work, this will be hard. But you need to practice and get used to saying no to things that cause you stress. A simple response like, ‘I’m trying to focus more on my mental health and well-being right now and I just can’t take that on,” should be accepted by most people. If they don’t understand, maybe they need to go on your stress list.
- Relax hard: When you are in “go” mode you are going. And that’s actually fine. Burnout comes from never switching out of “go” mode. So work hard when you need to, but apply that same focus to relaxing. Schedule relaxation time and ensure there are no interruptions. And don’t just make it “not working” time. Give yourself something to do that relaxes you. Meditation, reading, talking with friends, walking, yoga, coloring. Whatever relaxes you, commit to doing it.
- Cultivate enjoyment: Just as you need to seek out time and activities to relax, you need to create a rich and enjoyable life outside of work or whatever keeps you busy and stressed. Whether it’s a hobby or activity, social group or something else, find something you do simply because you like it. Burnout often comes because we don’t have or don’t make time for anything outside of work. Make sure you have activities you want to stop working for.
- Sleep: A lack of sleep can cause a host of health issues and is a risk factor for burnout. It’s also something we sacrifice in the name of working and doing more. Simply put, change your schedule so you can get at least seven hours of sleep a night.
- Ditch your devices: The modern paradox: We’re all attached at the hand to our devices while seemingly every week we hear why we shouldn’t do that. And not much changes for many of us. But if you’re feeling burnout you really should make some structured changes. If you don’t have to, don’t put your work email on your phone. Schedule time to turn your devices off. Avoid devices before bed and put them in a separate room while you sleep. Find a system that works for you, but the constant pings and updates are probably cutting into your relaxation and enjoyment time.
You can find other strategies, as well. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional to find an approach that works for you. Just make sure you have a real plan. Simply saying, “I’m going to eliminate stress” is not enough. If you’ve gotten to the point of burnout it will take an act of will to turn around. You can do it, just make sure you know how you will.