The Drivers of Burnout
Burnout is a state of mental and physical exhaustion that can zap the joy out of your career, friendships, and family interactions. Continual exposure to stressful situations, like caring for an ill family member, working long hours, or witnessing upsetting news related to politics and school safety can lead to this stress condition.
Burnout, however, isn’t always easy to spot. With that in mind, we’ve put together a guide to help you identify the signs of burnout, as well as ways to prevent it.
What is “Burnout”?
Burnout is a state of complete exhaustion brought on by too much mental, emotional, and physical stress over a prolonged period. If you feel helpless, drained of energy, and unable to motivate yourself for daily routines that used to work for you, you may be experiencing burnout.
It is easy to reach this point quickly at times of crisis, but because of the wide-reaching consequences of burnout, it is important to address right away or prevent it if possible. Not only are the consequences physical, but your emotions also become blunted, and you may lose hope for positive change and the motivation to work toward it.
Burnout can result from a myriad of factors but likely comes from feeling out of control and unsupported for a prolonged period of time. Work burnout is probably most common, due to unrealistic expectations, a high-pressure environment, or lack of recognition. Parenting can lead to burnout for all the same reasons. Abusive or toxic relationships, unstable living situations, and living in a state of unrest and discomfort can also lead to burnout. The list of things that cause chronic stress is unending and unique to each person.
How Does Stress Affect My Body?
Occasional, short-term stress is totally normal and can even be good for you.
In the short term, that sympathetic nervous system response (described in the sabertooth tiger example) can wake your body up. The heavy breathing and heart rate increase brings more oxygen and nutrients to your brain and muscles. It can even strengthen the connections between your neurons, improving your memory, attention span, and cognitive function .
This is likely the reason many people claim to “work well under pressure”, as they feel better able to stay focused once their nervous system is triggered.
Unfortunately, these benefits do not last in the long term. The nervous system cannot distinguish between emotional and physical stress, so even a series of different types of triggers can keep your body in a constant state of stress response.
Physically, chronic stress weakens your immune system, dysregulates your digestive and reproductive systems, increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speeds up the aging process . Mentally, chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems .
Chronic fatigue and insomnia can also be caused by chronic stress [3,4]. Long-term stress and anxiety can result in dysregulation of cortisol, which negatively impacts sleep, further affecting daytime energy levels due to sleep deprivation. Prolonged stress can also deplete the most important nutrients for synthesizing cellular energy from food, such as B vitamins and magnesium.
If you are already eating less food (or less nutritious foods) due to stress, this nutritional depletion can be more pronounced.
Preventing and Recovering from Burnout
Whether you are already burnt out or feel like burnout is inevitable, you need to make some changes.
Maybe you’re a person who likes big change. Maybe you like to start small and work from there. Below is a bulleted list of potential changes you can make to prevent or recover from burnout. Consider grabbing a pen and paper right now, and jotting down a list of possibilities applicable to your unique situation as you read.
1. Define the Stressors
Write a physical list of the things that cause you stress. You may realize the list is not as long as you thought, or maybe you notice some things on the list you could easily cross off. You probably can’t eliminate all of them, but defining them will help you organize your strategies for dealing with them in a healthy way.
When “work” is the stress, is it the job itself, or the reason you need the job? If you are stressed because you need money to live, but you are also chronically stressed by the job you are doing to earn a living, that’s double stress.
However, it means you may be able to get creative and find a different, less stressful job. Burnout at work could potentially end in getting fired or quitting dramatically, so creative thinking ahead of time could save some future stress.
2. Reduce/Manage the Stressors
If you can see a way to cross something off the list by deciding not to deal with it anymore (a bad relationship/friendship, a job you hate, a too-competitive pickleball league), by all means, quit! Burnout is a really clear message from your body to reduce your obligations.
Maybe there is not a single stressor you feel like you can just cross off your list. However, if you feel out of control of your stressors, finding things you can control can help in recovering from burnout.
That may sound much easier said than done. But, even a task like re-organizing your desk or sock drawer gives you a little control and the satisfaction of a task completed. This satisfaction is a counter to stress.
Regulate Your Body
Learn some simple self-care techniques that you can do at your desk or on a break. A five-minute meditation, stretches, or breathing exercises can all bring down your stress level. Because heavy breathing is a characteristic of stress, slow breathing is one way to trick your sympathetic nervous system and trigger the parasympathetic nervous system.
If you notice your heart rate is up and you are breathing heavily, try this: inhale for a count of 2. Hold that breath for a count of 5. Exhale for a count of 7. Repeat several times.
Can you delegate tasks or ask for help if you are overwhelmed? Can you limit your interaction with toxic coworkers? At work, you might try asking your supervisor for regular progress reports so you are clear on whether you are meeting expectations and where to focus your energy.
You can do this in your social relationships too if a lack of communication is a source of stress.
3. Prioritize Rest
Schedule your day around opportunities to relax and commit to those times or activities. Establish a wind-down bedtime routine to prepare for restful sleep at night.
Meditation and restorative yoga are great ways to wind down from a stressful day and prepare your body and mind for deep relaxation. There are also certain nutrients that can aid in your relaxation naturally, like melatonin or magnesium. Try adding a supplement before bed as part of your routine.
If you know nighttime sleep is becoming troublesome, try finding a time to catnap during the day when you feel tired. Do not feel guilty for resting. It’s not laziness, it’s recovery.
No matter what is stressing us, being constantly barraged with information from the news, work, and social media is a lot for the brain to handle. Turn off all unnecessary notifications and commit to some time away from screens every day to be present in the moment.
This is especially important before bed, as the blue light that emanates from screens can stimulate your brain and keep you awake.
Connect with People
Talking with a good listener can quickly bring your heart rate and stress level down. You don’t need to talk about what’s burning you out for the conversation to help with your stress. Just feeling connected and supported is enough.
On the flip side, try to avoid communication with people who are negative or may bring you further down. Establishing these boundaries can be a challenge, but when you are recovering from burnout, it’s important.
5. Find a Release
Find a hobby, project, or other activity that has nothing to do with your stressors so you can try to put the stress out of your mind for a little while. If your stress is physical, find something you can do sitting down. Choose a challenging puzzle to balance a monotonous job, or paint, draw, or doodle freely to balance feeling overstimulated or overworked.
If your stress is mostly mental, move your body for release. Take a dance class or just move to your favorite music in your living room. Running, swimming, or cycling can be a great release of frustration.
6. Nourish Your Body Mindfully
Science has shown time and again that chronic stress alters eating behavior by causing under- or over-eating in most individuals . It also increases the selection of good-tasting, calorie-dense foods over healthy foods .
Because chronic stress also uses up certain nutrients faster than others, this can leave our bodies depleted of important nutrients. This can happen even if we’re consuming more total calories than we need. Overeating can also lead to unhealthful weight gain, lethargy, and health problems. In other words, more stress.
Try to be mindful of what you eat, when you eat, and how much you really need. As you make other changes to reduce your stress, making healthy choices in your diet and supplementing needed nutrients can support your body in fighting off stress-related health consequences.
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