When you’re already burned-out, self-care can feel like another task on your too-long to-do list. But restorative activities can be short and simple.
You’re deeply exhausted. Mentally. Emotionally. Physically. Maybe even spiritually. So, naturally, you reach for whatever requires very little energy and effort to perk up your depleted self.
Facebook. Instagram. Netflix. Some other random website or app on your device.
While there’s nothing wrong with vegging out, scrolling and screen-staring for too long isn’t exactly rejuvenating. In fact, a
Yet, when you’re drained, you naturally and understandably crave a lighter lift. After all, the whole point is that you’re spent.
Thankfully, caring for yourself when you’ve got nothing to give is absolutely possible. And yes, it can be quick and easy — and most importantly, genuinely restorative.
Focus on yourself, first thing
“Self-care isn’t about specific activities but rather a shift in mindset,” says Tess Brigham, a marriage and family psychotherapist, certified life coach, and public speaker. “It’s about choosing yourself and prioritizing your needs,” she notes.
As such, every morning, consider: What do I need for myself today?
Your response might be a single need — like movement, so you take a walk or do a yoga video later that evening.
Or, you tune into your needs throughout the day. Responding to your needs in real-time may include everything from drinking more water to feeling your sadness to stretching your body.
Focus on your feet
If you’re in a high stress environment, starting with a simple mindfulness practice can be especially helpful, says Rachel Kanarowski, a mindfulness educator at the Chicago Department of Public Health and founder of Year of Living Better, a mindfulness skills training for toxic stress.
To try it:
- Close your eyes or soften your gaze.
- Shift your attention to the soles of your feet.
- Notice what you feel in that part of your body, without trying to change it or react to it.
Don’t feel anything at all? As Kanarowski says, “that’s still a great start. The key resides in refocusing and getting curious.”
Reconnect to your sense of touch
“You can do this practice in a dentist’s office, at your desk, or anywhere that you can sit without an agenda,” says Reverend Connie L. Habash, a marriage and family therapist, yoga and meditation teacher, spiritual mentor, and author of “Awakening from Anxiety.”
Like the above exercise, the intention is to deeply immerse yourself in the moment for a few minutes.
- Place one hand on top of the other.
- Let your fingers slowly glide over your bottom hand.
- Notice your skin, knuckles, nails, creases, and fine hairs.
- Close your eyes and feel into these sensations.
- Refocus on the other hand and the sensations of being touched.
Breathe in self-compassion
Burnout can also set in when we’re hard on ourselves, says Habash. This is precisely the time to focus on the opposite: Self-kindness.
Habash suggests this 3- to 5-minute practice:
- Close your eyes.
- Notice your breath for a few rounds.
- Name whatever emotions come up.
- Deepen your inhalation, imagining that you’re breathing in compassion, accepting the emotion and not judging or trying to fix it.
- Deepen your exhalation, allowing yourself to relax and release any resistance or tension.
- Thank yourself for taking the time to feel your feelings.
Sink into a playful practice
“Anything that brings out your joyful, playful, or child-like qualities can be very therapeutic,” says Brett Larkin, founder and CEO of Uplifted Yoga, an online yoga school. Play is simply anything you do for the experience, not the outcome, she says.
Playful activities are different for everyone. Here are some you might try:
- blowing bubbles
Set a limit
“The root of burnout is often an underlying difficulty assessing our own limits,” says psychotherapist Bronwyn Shiffer. To soothe burnout at its core, it’s helpful to think through what energizes you and depletes you on a daily basis.
According to Shiffer, we can do this simple reflection by considering two questions, which you can rephrase in different ways to make them most helpful to you:
- What were my highs and lows today?
- What did I really love about today and what irritated me?
- When was I smiling and when did I get upset?
Practice presence outdoors
We tend to narrate our lives, so our minds are in constant motion, making comments about what we’re doing and not doing. This never-ending self-talk is one reason we’re constantly exhausted, says Habash.
One antidote is to “have your awareness and attention on the present moment with an open heart and quiet mind,” she says.
To practice this, Habash suggests:
- setting aside 5 minutes
- going to a natural setting, such as a garden, park, or trail
- noticing what’s around you with your five senses, such as feeling the sun and breeze on your face and hearing the birds, cars, or planes whirring overhead
“When you return to your day, try to bring some of that fresh energy of being in the present moment with you to whatever you do,” adds Habash.
Take a short walk
- Marvel at the natural beauty all around you.
- Marvel at your own body for helping you walk, see, listen, and well, breathe.
- Listen to an inspiring audiobook, podcast, or playlist.
Dancing is another exhilarating way to move. Interestingly, a small 2019 research review found that dance movement therapy and dance interventions may be helpful in reducing anxiety and depression, among other benefits.
You can put on your favorite upbeat songs and dance around the house. You could try a dance class or video. You might even kick-start a family dance party. It can feel liberating to close your eyes, and move in any way that feels good.
Build in restorative transitions
You can have a few small rituals that help you to start and end your workday, says Dr. Steven Pratt, senior medical director for the employer segment at Magellan Healthcare.
Here are some examples:
- Morning. Sip and savor a hot cup of coffee and your favorite breakfast, while looking out the window.
- Afternoon. Eat lunch away from your desk and jot down one thing you’re grateful for.
- Evening. Stretch your body and practice a simple breathing technique.
So often we’re running on fumes because we refuse to refuel, worrying a break will ruin our productivity. However, this is similar to not gassing up your car because it takes too much time and will make the trip longer, says psychotherapist Alison Gomez.
Either way, in both scenarios, you can end up breaking down.
To refuel, Gomez suggests focusing on the basics, such as:
- getting restful sleep
- eating a nutritious, delicious meal
- taking breaks
Create your own list
“In those moments when you’re not feeling ‘peak burnout,’ make a list of low-effort or no-effort things that make you feel good,” suggests Kanarowski. This way, when you’re in the thick of it, you don’t have to think about what to do.
Your restorative, simple list might include:
Sometimes, we’re not even sure why we’re experiencing a deep sense of depletion. Here are some additional reasons why.
Your glass is empty
According to Brigham, we can think of ourselves like a glass of water: Stress and overwhelm drain water from our glass, while sleep, quality time with loved ones, and hobbies fill it back up.
Right now, “your glass might be empty because there are no hobbies, friends, or family that make you feel good about yourself and your life,” Brigham says.
You crave perfection
“Because of societal and self-imposed expectations, you might be overpacking your schedule and pushing yourself to be the perfect parent or partner, a high performing worker, and all-around amazing human being,” says Habash.
The result? You can’t keep up and still feel like you’re not doing enough.
You’re dealing with stressors galore
2020 has bombarded us with some powerful stressors — social isolation, new illnesses, economic disruption, school closures, child care disruptions, says Pratt. And “over time, chronic stress can lead to burnout,” he says.
Caring for yourself when you’re depleted doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. Simple, quick practices can help us to feel refreshed and restored.
However, as Kanarowski notes, “self-care can only go so far.”
So, if you’re feeling a soul-deep kind of burnout or you simply need more support, consider talking with a therapist, who can help you get to the root of your burnout and create a more comprehensive and restorative plan.