Burnout can sometimes sneak up on us. The signs are subtle at first, like the faint buzzing of a fly. Your neck might be stiff. Your shoulders gradually climb to your ears. Your eyes and head feel heavy. You start to resent the task you’re working on. Then the signs grow. It feels like the fly is inside your head, the buzzing getting louder and louder. Exhaustion spreads through your entire body.
“There can be a visceral sense of your nerves being ‘fried’ or ‘burnt,’ which can include headache, fatigue, irritability, sensory sensitivity,” said clinical psychologist Jessica Michaelson, PsyD. We also might feel bored, numb and disconnected; and have little to no energy or enthusiasm to bring to any situation, she said.
We might take longer to complete tasks, lash out at anyone who requests anything and view fun tasks as just another thing to cross off our lists, said Laura Simms, a career coach who helps people find meaningful work. We also might be out of ideas and even fantasize about getting hurt so we’re forced to take time off.
Simms defines burnout as: “when your physical, mental or emotional tank hits zero due to overwork.” But the overwork isn’t necessarily because we have too much to do. Simms believes the culprit is not enough rest. “These may sound the same, but they are different.”
She shared this example: Two people have the same exact amount of work to do and the same amount of time to do it. “The person who sleeps for 8 hours at night will probably be more effective and efficient than the person who sleeps for 5 hours a night, even though she gives up 3 hours to get enough rest.” That’s because the person getting 5 hours will lose steam and become exhausted. And her work will suffer.
As Michaelson said, “If you’re sleep deprived, your threshold for burnout will be very low. Sleep is the primary way we let our nervous systems re-set and get out of crisis mode.”
We also can experience burnout when we try to be everything to everyone — even though when we’re depleted, we don’t have much to give. “When you stake claim to your right for breaks and rest, you are being generous to others. You are giving them the gift of your most inspired, alive, present self,” Michaelson said.
Here are five ways to get started in coping with burnout.
Take your signals seriously
“Often we beat ourselves up for feeling ‘done’ with something, as if it’s a moral failure, so we don’t honor the wisdom of our bodies’ cues,” said Michaelson, a coach for women and couples who want to find more joy and meaning in their busy lives. But it’s vital to take your body seriously and take a break.
Because when we don’t take a break, we release adrenaline and cortisol, which raise heart rate and blood pressure, slow digestion and metabolism, make it harder to concentrate and damage memory, she said. “Being in a chronic state of crisis makes us sick.”
When you feel burnout washing over you — you’re getting tired, you’re saying things like “I hate this!” to yourself — close your eyes, and take ten belly breaths, Michaelson said. (Of course, if you can take longer breaks, that’s even better.) She also stressed the importance of prioritizing sleep.
Say no to new things
“That means taking on zero new commitments for the next month or so,” Simms said. “If you can’t put out the fire, at least don’t add more kindling to it.”
Sometimes, it can be tough to say no (especially if you’re used to saying yes, and that’s how you ended up feeling burnt out in the first place). When saying no, be honest. If you’re comfortable with it, let people know that you’ve been feeling depleted and can’t take on any new projects or tasks.
Do mini-retreats at home
Before bed Simms suggested doing something special and restorative — even if you only have 15 minutes. She shared these examples: You take a bath and savor a glass of wine. You cuddle up on the couch and read a chapter of a book. You light a candle and call your best friend.
“Do whatever will make you feel calm and cared for.”
Take control of your priorities
“Many people burn out because they waste a lot of time and energy on tasks that exhaust them but don’t really matter very much, like social media or keeping the house perfectly neat,” Michaelson said.
That’s why it’s key to return to your priorities, which are just extensions of your core values. Priorities require making choices about how we spend our time, so we’re serving our values, she said.
To connect to your core values, Michaelson suggested exploring these questions:
- What would make today feel like a day worth living?
- What would I want my children to remember about today?
- Assuming only two to three things are actually important in life, what are they for me? How could my actions serve these important things?
Focus on your strengths — and delegate your weaknesses
“When we are doing tasks that don’t come naturally to us, we burn out more quickly because we have to work a lot harder,” Michaelson said. But when you use your natural strengths, tasks tend to feel easier and can even boost your energy, she added.
Figure out your strengths, and use them often. Get help for naturally weaker areas. “For example, if cooking feels very difficult for you and ends up stressing you out, you may use a meal planner service or ask your partner to take on more of the dinner prep work.”
Many of us try to push through burnout. After all, our to-do lists aren’t going anywhere any time soon. But, as Simms said, we can’t will ourselves out of burnout. “You can try to push through it in the short term, but eventually you will have to slow down, rest and refill your tank.” This is a good thing. This is how we respect our bodies and ourselves. This is how we can give to others and give generously.
Shoulder ache photo available from Shutterstock