Amidst a global pandemic, divisive election season, and multiple climate crises, it’s no surprise that so many of us feel completely drained. The doom-scrolling, the unbridled work-from-home hours, and the lack of true human connection are all a recipe for burnout.
“Burnout occurs when a person is chronically stressed or frustrated, leading to physical and mental fatigue and a sense of ineffectiveness and cynicism that can affect them in their personal and professional life,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Brian Wind, Ph.D., former co-chair of the American Psychological Association’s Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance.
Though burnout may seem a lot like clinical depression or anxiety, it’s not quite the same. “Burnout is easy to isolate from clinical anxiety or clinical depression because, after a short break or some downtime (we call it ‘self-care’), the symptoms of exhaustion, anxiety, and depression pass,” explains clinical psychologist, Dr. Cali Estes, Ph.D. “I find that after at least 24 hours of downtime, sleep, and supplements like vitamin D, L-tyrosine, and magnesium, the symptoms subside. If you try getting rest, supplements, exercise, and proper nutrition and still feel bad, though, it’s important to get evaluated by a professional.”
Signs Of Burnout
If the term burnout hits close to home, look out for these tell-tale signs you’re running on fumes.
1. You’re exhausted all the time
One of the most common signs of burnout? Round-the-clock tiredness that just doesn’t lift, which is oftentimes accompanied by brain fog. “You might lack the energy to be productive and find it hard to concentrate,” explains Wind. “You may need more time to get ready or feel tired, even though you went to sleep early. This is because chronic stress and frustration can lead to mental and physical exhaustion.”
2. You feel anxious all the time
Burnout can manifest in the form of anxiety, such as feeling tense, edgy, or worried pretty much all the time. When you’re anxious, your thoughts have power over you because you believe the negative ideas that pop into your mind—even if the probability of them coming true is very slim.
In your body, Wind says anxiety can result in muscle tightness or a heart-pounding sensation. “The stress from being burnt out can cause [these] symptoms of anxiety,” he says.
3. You’re having trouble finishing things you start
Whether it’s for lack of focus or motivation, anxiety, or otherwise, Estes calls this more subtle clue of burnout “spinning your wheels.” For example, you may have 10 things on your to-do list and find yourself unable to complete a single task.
“Laundry is piling up, dishes are piling up, you have a Zoom meeting to attend and can’t find the link, the kids missed their online assignments, and dinner is burning on the stove,” she describes. “You are trying to accomplish too much at once and nothing gets done correctly. This usually leads to a mental breakdown and physical ailments that force rest.”
4. You want cake and bread and cookies and pizza
Cravings for carbs and sugary foods can also be a signal that you’re burnt out, says Wind. “Burnout has been associated with low levels of serotonin and dopamine, so we may want to eat more sugary foods to boost our levels of these hormones,” he explains.
Of course, we all have days where we can eat an entire pizza or crush the proverbial cookie jar in one sitting. If you’re burnt out, however, these days can turn into weeks—and may be accompanied by weight gain.
5. You’re experiencing blurry vision and headaches
This is one of the more unique burnout symptoms Estes has seen in clients. But nonetheless, it’s very real.
“This is the body’s direct reaction to not only stress but also to eye strain due to extensive use of electronics during this time,” says Estes. “Continuously staring at the computer, dealing with negative emails and unfinished work, and the like can cause the blood pressure to rise, eye strain to occur, and headaches to form.”
6. You’ve got a gnawing feeling that you need to make a change
Whether it’s the sense that you’ve got to change careers, end a relationship, relocate to a new location, change your diet, or something else, you may experience a heightened sense of anger and frustration with the status quo when burnt out.
“When this happens, your ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ responses have become engaged,” explains Camille Drachman, N.S.W., L.C.S.W., S.E.P., director of clinical education and specialty programs at mental health treatment center Sierra Tucson. “Your flight response shows up as wanting to leave; freeze shows up as feeling shut down, numb, or unmotivated; and fight response shows up as irritability, frustration, and anger. You can also alternate between the states of flight, fight, and freeze and feel like you’re on a rollercoaster.” It’s no wonder you feel like you want to quit your job one day and ask for a promotion the next!
Your body can respond to these feelings in various ways. A few examples: a rapid heart rate, breathing difficulties, aches and pains, dizziness and headaches, an impaired immune system, and increased susceptibility to illness, exhaustion, and gastrointestinal problems.
How To Recoup From Burnout
Ready to take action to feel better? Thankfully, there are many ways to bounce back from burnout. Here are seven strategies for rebounding.
1. Get back on track with healthy sleeping habits
When burnt out, first things first: You need rest. “You must sleep and prioritize what needs to be done,” says Estes. “No one will die if the dinner dishes sit in the sink. Sleep, recoup, and then refocus.”
You probably know the basics for scoring better sleep: Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed, pull back on TV time and electronics, and try a nightly calming ritual like a bath or restorative yoga. For more expert tips, check out these tactics to get a decent night’s sleep during times of stress and these eight tricks nutritionists use to sleep better.
2. Build a smarter to-do list
When you’re feeling more rested and ready to refocus on your daily priorities, Estes recommends making a list of everything you need to do and giving every item a ranking from one to 10, with one being fairly trivial and 10 being something that needs to be accomplished today.
“Put it on a legal pad and cross it off as you complete the tasks,” she says. “Move the items not done to tomorrow. Also, ask who you can delegate work to. Remember, you’re not superhuman and cannot do everything.”
3. Take a few days off from work, school, or your daily obligations
During this recovery time, steer clear of anything that’s a stress trigger for you, whether that’s checking your email or communicating with someone with whom you have a difficult relationship.
Instead, “do activities that you find relaxing and that you couldn’t find the time to do previously,” suggests Wind. If that means taking two bubble baths a day and reading the pile of books on your bedside table for a few days, so be it.
4. Hop into that downward dog
Or child’s pose. Or tree pose. “Yoga has spiritual, mental, and physical benefits because its meditation practice, controlled breathing, and light exercise all contribute to relaxation and stress relief,” shares Wind. That’s why he advises individuals to start a yoga routine of at least one or two sessions per week.
5. Make self-care a daily habit
“Self-care is important regardless of what work you do or don’t do,” says Drachman. “Self-care is part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and a part of basic living requirements. Living is hard enough as it is; we need a regular and ongoing regimen of caring for ourselves.”
For some, that might mean winding down nightly with lavender and melatonin; for others, that might mean making an effort to reach out to three friends every day (and making it a standing item on your to-do list). Whatever daily practices you find work best for you, no matter how simple, stick with them even when—okay, especially when—you feel like skipping them.
6. Follow a balanced diet
You’ve likely heard it before, but it bears repeating: You can’t live well if you don’t eat well. “A well-balanced diet will keep your mind clear and focused,” says Estes. “Eating sweets before bed or stress-eating has to stop, as it will rob you of restful sleep and cause more burnout.”
To break the cycle, it might be helpful to keep a food journal or enlist the help of a nutritionist. Also, when cravings for sweets or carbs strike before bed, ask yourself: Are you really hungry, or is this just the burnout monster rearing its ugly head?
7. See a therapist
While some people may simply need a few days to decompress, there’s not always a quick fix for burnout. “It takes intention and patience to recoup what has been lost,” cautions Drachman. And not everyone can turn things around on their own. In fact, in many cases, those who get to the point of burnout have a history of stress in their lives, and burnout is just the last stop in the stress cycle, she says.
Coupled with self-care practices, seeing a licensed professional can help you rebuild resiliency and learn coping tools.