It’s safe to say that most of us have days when we feel overwhelmed, exhausted and unmotivated from time to time. We all go through busier periods in life and stress can get the better of us. But if you’re finding that you’re feeling this way most of the time, rather than the odd day here and there, you may be experiencing burnout.
Burnout by nature has a way of creeping up on people. Signs of burnout can be subtle in the beginning, and people often put it down to having a hard week and don’t address the early warning signs. If you do not address stress and reduce it early on, it can lead to burn out. Stress can come in many forms for different people, and danger lies in being complacent about stress, thinking that it is something ‘to be expected’. Yes, to a certain extent, but we should always be striving to find ways to reduce the pressures that are causing stress so that we do not get to the point of burnout.
There is so much information out there in the context of burning out professionally. Whilst work is a very common context for burning out, not a lot of resources discuss burning out in the context of our other roles in life. Just like when we give and give at work to the point of burning out, we can also give and give in our personal lives, as parents, within certain relationships, whilst studying (sometimes all of the above simultaneously!) and this can also lead to legitimate burnout. And with the added complexities and stresses of 2020 on top of all this, it’s likely that many people have reached their limit and are burning out as the year comes to a close.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion caused by extended or persistent stress. Classic signs of burnout are;
- Feeling sheer exhaustion
- Feeling a sense of hopelessness
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Feeling sensitive or extra reactive to people or situations, often resulting in conflict
- Feeling a sense of defeat, avoidance or procrastination to do things you are usually passionate about
- Feeling stretched too thin- physically, mentally and emotionally
- Feeling emotionally withdrawn or empty
- Feeling like stress is never-ending
If any of the above signs keep coming up for you, it may be time to start evaluating what’s going on for you in your life, relationships, schedule and/or headspace that may be causing you to have reached your limits and be burnt out.
It’s important to bring this to light and acknowledge that burnout can happen to anyone, whether it is work-related or not. There is so much pressure around us these days to succeed, to be on top of everything, all at the same time– in our work life, our relationships, as parents, even personally when it comes to health and fitness. Add to the mix the digital age and social media, where people have a 24/7 whisper in their ear of what they should be doing, thinking, feeling, trying, working on, striving for…sometimes it can get overwhelming and exhausting if we don’t recognise it and place limits on the comparison that can take a hold of us.
What Can I Do About Burnout?
When we become burnt out, we need to recognise it and address it head on. The longer we leave it, the deeper the burnout will run, and then the more difficult it is to reverse the effects of burnout for us. At the first signs of any of the above, or if you just aren’t quite feeling like yourself, your body and your mind are sending signals to you to SLOW. DOWN. The biggest mistake we can make when we are feeling overwhelmed and like something isn’t right is to try and push through it without implementing strategies to try and take better care of ourselves.
Sometimes, it is really clear to us what aspects of our life are causing the burnout. Sometimes though, the reasons for being burnt out are not as clear. If you’re feeling stuck and are not quite sure exactly what is leading to the burnout you’re experiencing, it may be worth looking at the different components of holistic wellbeing, writing down each component on a piece of paper and rating your level of satisfaction for each out of 5 (1 being needs a lot of improvement, 5 being you’re extremely satisfied and no action here is necessary right now).
This is a great process to go through in uncovering where you are both thriving and compromising. Doing things repeatedly that do not give you satisfaction, are not aligned to a goal you are passionate about, or that do not fill your cup can lead to burnout. Even repeatedly doing things that do bring you satisfaction and are aligned to your passions, but are ongoing and challenging at times, can also lead to burnout by the nature of the constant mental, emotional, physical doing that is involved. Figuring out where the areas for improvement or reduction in your life are right now is the first step to addressing them in a productive way.
Figuring out what aspects of your life are contributing to your burnout is crucial. Once you have done this, you can tailor the approach to addressing it. Sometimes when you are in the thick of burnout, it is hard to identify exactly what is going on and how to address it on your own.
If you are feeling overwhelmed to the point that you cannot identify what to do to help start improving things, please talk to someone as a first step, to let them know how you are feeling and that you need some support. It may be a trusted loved one, or a health professional (GP, counsellor, or helpline), who can talk through how you’re feeling with you and provide ideas for some things that may help you to start to feel better.
Some general considerations in dealing with burnout (and stress in general), to ensure that you are caring for your wellbeing are;
Give Yourself a ‘Mental Health Day’
Just like you should call in sick to work if you have a cold, you should be taking a break if you’re struggling with burnout. Taking a break from your normal routine with no guilt attached will help you gain clarity, a fresh perspective, and allow you the time to think about what changes are required to move forward in a healthy way.
If you’re taking a mental health day from employment or studying, try and schedule this on a Friday or Monday, that way you have a long weekend and it really is a decent break for you. If you’re taking a break from another role in your life (like being a mother, partner, carer etc.), spend a day away from your usual role and routine. Organise for someone to look after your children, or schedule some alone time on a weekend from your partner or family to concentrate on you, have space to think, and do some of the things that fill your cup that you normally wouldn’t have a chance to do as much as you would like.
Try not to feel guilty about taking this time away. You cannot thrive and provide the best version of yourself when you are so depleted. This needs to be rectified for your sake and for those you love.
It’s important to note here that taking time out for just one day in isolation will not rectify true burnout. Mental health days need to become a regular and consistent part of your strategy to enhance your wellbeing long-term.
Ensure You Are Tapping In and Listening to Your Body
Try to get into the habit of checking-in internally with how you are feeling and noticing what you need. It’s amazing how long we can go through the day on autopilot without even noticing sometimes what our bodies are trying to tell us we need.
Do you find yourself getting hungry at 2pm and only then realising that you have not eaten since breakfast? Do you often get headaches and then realise you’ve gone most of the day without a sip of water? Do you often have back-to-back meetings at work and then feel completely overwhelmed and have trouble focusing because you’ve spent most of the day talking and concentrating with no break? Do you get so distracted by your little ones that you’re completely busting to go to the toilet because you subconsciously ‘hold on’ to get that next snack, change that next nappy or play one more round of hide and seek?
No one can be on the go 24/7 all the time. Try to notice what your body is asking you to do for it. A strategy that works well if you are not in the habit of doing this is to set a reminder on your phone to go off every hour with the label ‘what do you need?’. Until you get into the habit of asking yourself this question regularly, try to learn it via that reminder.
Only Do What Is Essential
When you first notice feeling overwhelmed, take steps immediately to ease up on yourself. Don’t try to push through the overwhelm, it’s a breeding ground for burnout. Only do the things that are completely necessary until you feel more energised and centred again.
Look at what’s happening for you that day or week, and see what is a priority, and what can potentially be moved to another day when you’re feeling better, or let go of completely.
Remember that for some tasks or commitments, you’re not doing yourself or anyone else any favours by trying to push through something that you just can’t bring your best self for. Also, your energy levels are likely to remain low for longer if you don’t stop and take a breath where you can.
Create the space to rest and take care of yourself. That doesn’t necessarily mean taking everything off your list and camping out on the lounge (although this sounds nice!), but taking those things off your to-do list that can wait and are not urgent gives you a little more breathing room to focus on the things that actually need to get done (and creates space for you to do them well), whilst also creating opportunity for a little chill out time in the mix too.
Put that chill out time to good use- get some extra sleep, meet a good friend for coffee who lifts you up, take a long hot shower, play video games or watch a movie if that’s what you enjoy. Just break the cycle of doing all. the. time.
Have Visual Reminders on Hand of Your ‘Why’ in Life
Place reminders in your living and working spaces that serve to remind you of why you do what you do, what are your main motivations in life, what you are striving for? This is a motivational technique that allows you to stay grounded and motivated to do what will support the life you want to create.
A vision board is a great way to do this and have visual cues of what is important to you. Think photos, quotes, art, words… anything that will remind you of what you want and where you are going can help to keep your motivation up daily and remind you of what matters (and what doesn’t).
Unplug from Your Phone
We hear it so much, but it’s so essential to be present and connect with ourselves and our loved ones- put your phone away for certain time periods in your day and notice how it feels.
Unfortunately, a common side effect of having our phones on us so much is that we are unable to ‘switch off’ from the digital world, and it can be so draining, exhausting, time-consuming and can leave us feeling empty when we look up at the clock and realise we’ve been mindlessly scrolling for the last 45 minutes. It can be so damaging on so many levels.
When you are using your phone, it’s also really important to be selective about how many influences we are being exposed to, and whether they are positive or negative for us. To help with burnout, it can be useful to go through your contact list, and who you are following on social media, and reduce that list only to who adds to your life in a positive and uplifting way.
Break Down Tasks and Roles into Realistic Segments
In order to reduce your overwhelm and avoid burning out further (or all together) it’s important to break those things down that are necessary to do into manageable chunks- and be really honest with yourself when doing this about what is really required and how long those things will actually take.
If you’ve never tried time blocking, it’s an amazing tool for being realistic about how much you can logistically fit into your day. At the beginning of the week, sit down with a planner and a highlighter, firstly block out the standard to-do’s every day (think getting ready in the mornings, school drop off and pick up, commuting to and from work, dinner prep, sports, etc). then highlight any commitments you have coming up for the week on certain days (doctor’s appointments, birthday celebrations, running errands, grocery shopping etc). Then have a look at the remaining time spaces and any other-to-do’s you might have.
Be realistic about how long things will take (including travel time) and ensure that you’re leaving at least a couple of blank time boxes every day to ensure you’re not doing all day long without any breaks. And the most important thing to start scheduling regularly are time blocks and activities that will allow you to recharge. Do things that will help you to feel energised, whether it’s sitting down quietly with your own thoughts, going for a gentle wander around the block, reading a book, or going for a swim or to a yoga class.
If you’re normally someone who by nature takes on too much, try aspiring to do only half of what you would normally schedule into your day. And leave chunks of time where there is NOTHING planned. We all need opportunities for down time where we don’t have to be somewhere or be doing something. This may be hard at first if you’re so used to being switched on every waking moment, but it is the number one thing we can do to help ourselves recover from burnout (and prevent it into the future). It’s really important here too to set boundaries with your time and energy.
Find Stillness in Your Day
Probably the most essential thing to schedule into your day to combat burnout is stillness. To have this, you may need to wake earlier than everyone in your house to have some time to yourself where you can just ‘be’ without distraction. Other things that could help to bring stillness into your day are things like going for a walk outside at lunch time and finding a spot to sit and eat. If you’re a mum, taking your kids outside to play and sitting down to watch them. And mid-afternoon, making a cup of tea or coffee and sitting down long enough to drink it without distraction (no phone scrolling!). Grab moments of stillness where you can, whether it’s 1 minute or 1 hour, you’ll feel so much better for it.
Learn That it’s OK to Say ‘No’
A big factor leading to burnout is when we find it difficult to say no to people or opportunities. It is so easy to over-commit ourselves in fear of letting others down or fear of missing out. But when it comes to addressing burnout, it’s vital that we learn to become selective about what we can or actually want to commit our energy to.
When we learn to say no to the things that we simply cannot fit in, or that we really just don’t want to do, we are gifting ourselves the headspace, time and energy to focus on what really matters to us and our ‘why’.
It’s so important that when we start to feel depleted in life, we address it. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t always know what’s around the corner. Do we really want to feel withdrawn and miserable with our precious time being spent in survival mode long-term? Do whatever it is that you need to today to ensure you are caring for your overall wellbeing.
Please note: this article is not intended as a replacement for professional diagnosis or tailored support and care. If you are feeling overwhelmed and/or burnt out, please talk to someone as a first step, to let them know how you are feeling and that you need some support. It may be a trusted loved one, or a health professional (GP, counsellor, or helpline). Please see the list of helplines at the bottom of this article if you would like to contact them for support.