All About Burnout: Preventing It, Managing It, Working Through It

Natalie Favorite Chen, LMFT 128940 on Aug 29, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

Burnout is unfortunately almost becoming an expected part of life, almost like a cycle: Start new activity, go super hard, start feeling stressed about it, keep going, reach burnout, then either keep going or quit. Unfortunately, we live in a society where we have to work a lot under stressful conditions WHILE we exist in a world where things are overwhelming, and this creates the perfect conditions for burnout.

Signs of burnout can include:

- irritability

- never feeling rested

- not being able to rest or relax

- difficulty concentrating

- increased feelings of hopelessness or cynicism, feeling trapped

- exhaustion/fatigue

- headaches/stomachaches

- low motivation

- loss of creativity and playfulness

- frustration

- feeling numb or not present in our bodies

- feelings of failure and increased criticism of ourselves

Burnout is our body giving us data that something isn’t working. Very technically speaking, it is our beloved vagal nerve providing a dorsal vagal response that we are overstimulated and heading toward a place of shutdown. We also get an influx of neurotransmitters (epinephrine, norepinephrine, adrenaline, cortisol) that might help us feel good at first and make us feel super productive/efficient, but over time, it harms our bodies and can make us sick, tired, and ready to shut down. It’s our body trying to protect us, but it’s making our days way harder.

What the heck do we do about it when we have to work to have insurance/income/etc. and we can’t just… stop working or change the way we work?

I wish I could say just leave the stressors behind: Get a new job, move to a more affordable city, have better friends, have access to nature, etc. But obviously that is terrible advice because it’s not that easy. If you can get any “quick wins” to reduce stress and burnout, please do those things, but I know most of us have already tried those things and aren’t here for “Have you tried taking a walk?” you know?

So what can you actually do?

- If you are in a job that is stealing your soul, are there any avenues for boundary-setting? Can you say no to a project or task? Can you set shorter working hours? Can you reach out for support from a colleague? For some of us, the answer is yes, and for some of us, that just isn’t possible.

- If you cannot change boundaries at work, can you change the perspective even a little bit? I wonder if there are opportunities for meaning making, like “I am going to find one thing that I find fun/interesting/exciting today" or “I am going to do this task in accordance with my values even if it goes unrecognized because that is meaningful to me.” This one has a million options and can be powerful for finding meaning and centering when things are really hard.

- Take breaks. Yes, the five-minute ones during the day — but also take bigger ones. Our brains are not designed to work all the time, and many of us never get a break in our minds (this might be why we notice that when we go to sleep, a ton of thoughts rush in!). Take a break to eat a snack, look at your plants, clean something (personal fave of mine: the baseboards), or take a short walk. When you do these things, can you do it without doing something else? Not emailing, not listening to something, not watching YouTube but letting your mind get some unwind time.

- If you have access to nature, please go there. It’s so good for us. This can be for a little bit or this can be an unplug weekend/week getaway and can really help recenter and refocus us while bringing down some of those stress hormones and providing a lot of perspective.

- Are you doing meaningful things outside of the stressful things? If we spend all of our time/brain space within our stressors, we will burnout, no doubt about it. We are building a life, and there are many domains to that: work/school (sometimes both at the same time; I know I’ve been there!), social, family, community. If we can invest in more of these categories even in small ways, it can help us feel protected against the stressors through providing more balance and perspective and can be protective against our stressors because we have something else going well and providing meaning and impact. If you do not have time/space/access to these things, let’s talk and we can brainstorm what that could look like for you. :)

- I'M GONNA SAY IT; I AM GONNA BE THAT PERSON: Meditate. I know. You’ve heard it 9,000 times. I KNOW. But the transformation that can occur in letting our mind have time to “be,” in really attuning to ourselves and our bodies in a neutral, nonjudgmental way, can be radical. It breeds radical self-love, it breeds acceptance, it breeds distance from our feelings when they are intense without shutting them down or ignoring them. It can be so empowering, and most of us can make time for a guided meditation for even five minutes.

- Go to therapy. I am biased. But dealing with burnout is no small task. You might think “I’m already exhausted — I cannot add something else to my routine!” and I hear you. However, therapy can lighten the load you are carrying and remind you that you’re not alone, that you are more than your stressors, and that there are options for you. It also provides space to explore some deeper things that might be contributing to burnout (ex: I can’t take a break — I’m not a failure!). Allowing someone to sit with you amidst stress is so powerful.

Overall, managing burnout is unfortunately a reality and ongoing practice for many of us. Our society has not created sustainability for many of us. There are ways we can take some of that power back and find meaning, peace, calm, and ourselves again so we can live in a way that feels empowered.

Natalie Favorite Chen is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Palo Alto, CA.

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