What Is Burnout?
Burnout is complete and utter emotional, physical and mental exhaustion. It is when you have endured stress over such a long period of time that the smallest things now feel too much. You are depleted. It is the end result of long term stress, over-doing-it and not nearly enough self-care or support.
Who Gets Burnout?
High Achievers (Hi Achievers!)
High achievers can be at risk if they do not incorporate self-care into their routine. When you love what you do and have a drive to do well, it can be easy to fall into the trap of pushing yourself too far, too often.
Being your most productive, often means taking breaks and reigning-in that tendency to continually push-on. There is a vast difference between being in a constant state of stress and busyness in order to achieve, and achieving in a way that incorporates breaks, exercise, nice food, time out and connection. It is possible to achieve great things and take care of yourself at the same time. Many people would argue it is the only way.
Taking care of yourself makes achieving your goals much more sustainable.
Similar to high achievers, perfectionists work hard and have high expectations of themselves.
Being a perfectionist does not necessarily mean you are perfect, or think you are perfect. It means you have expectations that you should be perfect – or very close to. As this is impossible, perfectionists set themselves up to ‘fail’ and cause themselves incredible amounts of stress.
The common belief driving most perfectionists is ‘I’m not good enough’. That old, internalised message from childhood has a lot to answer for. It creates a situation where you feel what ever you do is never quite enough; so you do more, work harder, and say yes when you want to say no.
Perfectionists also find it hard to ask or accept help from others. There is a tendency to want to do everything themselves, to make sure it is done ‘right’.
Perfectionists believe they must always give their best and are scared that if they don’t, they will be seen as a failure. However, when we always push ourselves to give our best, we end up with nothing left. We run out of energy, passion, time and the ability to function well in all areas of our lives.
People in caring roles are prone to burnout. Nurses, doctors, counsellors, teachers, parents, grandparents and carers spend most of their time taking care of the needs of others.
People are often drawn to these types of roles because they have high levels of empathy and compassion for others. This is a double-edged sword – it is your super power, but if you don’t also take care of yourself, it can be your downfall.
Consistently putting the needs of others first means neglecting your own needs.
Anyone who Feels Constantly Stressed
• Parents of small children – most often mums.
• People in high-stress jobs.
• People in long term abusive relationships.
• People who feel over-responsible for other people.
• People who say yes to everything and are always there for others.
Compassion Fatigue & Vicarious Trauma
Both compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma are linked with burnout.
Vicarious trauma can occur in people who are constantly exposed to the trauma of others – most often in a caring capacity. This includes, but is not limited to, emergency services workers, hospital emergency department staff, people who work in the justice system, counsellors, psychologists and other mental health workers and domestic violence workers.
Over a long period of time, people constantly exposed to the trauma of others can develop trauma symptoms themselves. This can be considered a form of burnout.
Compassion fatigue occurs when people are exposed, on a regular basis, to the troubles of others. It is related to both burnout and vicarious trauma. Over time, people in caring roles can begin to feel apathetic about the pain of their fellow humans. Some signs include: impatience, blaming the victim, cynicism, intolerance and a lack of caring. This, from people who are normally extremely caring and empathic.
Signs of Burnout
Burnout begins with chronic stress, and builds slowly over time. There are always early signs of burn out, if you know what to look for.
Some examples of chronic stress:
• Constantly feeling you don’t have enough time.
• Getting annoyed at others for requesting things of you.
• Difficulty sleeping.
• Tight muscles – particularly in the upper back, shoulders and neck.
• Headaches and other unexplainable pains.
• Withdrawing from others.
• Feeling constantly anxious.
• Worrying about everything that could go wrong.
Following are some typical examples of burnout:
• Feeling completely exhausted all the time.
• Difficulty concentrating or staying on task.
• Neglecting whole areas of your life (health, friends, interests etc).
• Working harder, but feeling like you’re achieving less.
• Withdrawing from people and activities you used to enjoy.
• A noticeable change in appetite.
• Feeling apathetic about things you used to be passionate about.
• Feeling numb, flat, heavy, or empty.
• Feeling useless.
• Low self-esteem.
• Feeling depressed.
• Feeling irritable.
• Feeling that no matter how much you do, it’s not ever enough.
• Sleeping all the time, or having insomnia.
• Feeling lost, empty or confused.
• Feeling cynical and detached.
• Crying easily, over small things.
• Not being able to function with daily activities that used to be easy.
What to Do If You Are Burnt Out
Some of these suggestions may feel unfamiliar to you. However, it’s time to try something different. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got (said someone).
This is actually really important. If you are burnt out, you cannot continue doing things the way you’ve been doing them. I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say that your life depends on you making some changes. Changes involving putting yourself first.
Get in Touch with Your Body
Seriously. Our bodies are a wealth of knowledge. If you have got to the point of burnout, it’s almost guaranteed you’ve not been paying attention to your body up until now. It’s time to start.
Take some time out each day to check in with how you/your body are feeling.
Notice if you’re tired, hungry, in pain, anxious etc and take care of it.
Do some activities that get you into your body. Such as: yoga, tai chi, exercise (walking, swimming, running – anything that involves moving your body).
For more ideas on how to do this, check out Embodiment: Our Home As Body.
Take some time out. Let yourself have as much time off as is possible. Rest, sleep, read, walk, swim, do whatever feels most relaxing and nourishing for you.
Asking for help does not make you weak. I understand how difficult this can be. I’ve been there.
Get some support. What would this look like for you?
A cleaner? A babysitter? Coffee with a friend? An appointment with a counsellor or other health professional? Talking with your partner about how things could be done differently? Out-sourcing for certain work tasks? Applying for compassionate leave?
Make time to spend with the people you love. Talk about how you’re feeling.
Do a Good Enough Job
Experiment with doing less. Often, ‘good enough’ is more than enough. It is not necessary to always be doing 150%. Seriously. Take it from someone who learnt the hard way 🙂
Check Your ‘Shoulds’
Notice whenever you tell yourself you should do something. Check it out. Do you really need to do that thing? Or are you doing it because it’s expected of you, or because you’re worried what others will think?
Rushing creates anxiety. Slow down!
Give yourself time to eat breakfast, go for a walk, read a book, have coffee with a friend, go to yoga, or lie on the floor staring at the ceiling.
Take Technology Mini Breaks
Don’t let that screen suck all your time and energy. Give yourself screen breaks – for an hour, or a day. A week off social media. Experiment and see how it feels.
Engage in Other Interests
Having other things to focus on, that you really enjoy, can make a huge difference. It could be surfing, crochet, tai chi, painting, lawn bowls, marathon running – anything. Find that thing for you. Have it be your sanctuary.
Get lots of sleep.
Burnout is exhausting beyond belief. If you need to sleep, sleep.
Consider trying meditation, or doing a mindfulness course. This will help to regulate your nervous system, calming you down and helping you feel more centred.
Self-compassion is the antithesis of burnout.
Be as kind to yourself as you would to the person you love most in this world. If your inner critic (that nasty inner voice that tells you you’re not good enough, can’t ask for help, need to try harder etc) is having a go at you, tell them, “Thanks for sharing” and then tell yourself you are doing your best. If it helps, imagine your best friend in your situation and tell yourself the very things you’d tell them. Instead of berating yourself, show yourself some kindness. You might be surprised to discover that kindness is a greater motivator than hate.
For more information, check out 10 Ways to Practice Self Compassion.
Spend some time reflecting on how you got to where you are now.
You might want to write it all down, to help get clearer on the path that lead you here.
Look at your role models and the people you’ve learnt from. What qualities and habits have you picked up from them? Are there any that in hindsight don’t really work for you?
What kinds of messages did you receive growing up that no longer serve you?
If you are not functioning well, are feeling depressed, or generally not coping, please get some help. Make an appointment with your doctor or a counsellor or other mental health professional.
Burn Out Prevention
Really, prevention involves incorporating your version of the suggestions above, as part of your daily practice. Take time every day to be quiet and still and listen to your body and to how you really feel. Then, take the appropriate action. Move your body, get fresh air, take time out, remember to breathe deeply, get enough sleep, eat foods that nourish your body and soul, talk about your problems, do things you love and connect with others.
When you notice you are feeling more stressed, run-down, cranky, tired, detached, or tight, take those signs seriously. Don’t push through.
There is no quick fix for burnout. It involves spending time slowly recovering mind, body and soul. It involves taking a good look at how you’ve been living and how things need to be different from now on. There’s a good chance you may need some professional help, and that’s okay. I wish you all the best.
To Work with Toni on Your Burnout
I am a Psychotherapist and Counsellor in Fremantle, Western Australia. I also work in Mundaring, Perth, Western Australia, and I provide Online Counselling sessions.
I specialise in working with women around the issues of self-worth, anxiety, trauma, burnout, body image and personal power. I am a certified Gestalt Therapist, with a BA Psychology and a Grad. Dip. Women’s Studies. I am a verified HAES practitioner.
I have a strong interest in trauma therapy, and use body awareness and sometimes art therapy in my work.
If you would like to book an appointment, please contact Toni Jackson.
Phone: 0439 995 302 (Australia only for phone calls)