When faced with burnout, many of us end up relying on the Band-Aid approach, taking a day off from work or avoiding responsibilities in favor of a full-day nap or TV marathon, only to then jump right back into whatever situation led to feeling burnt out in the first place. Sooner or later, we find ourselves experiencing total meltdown status.
So how did we get here to begin with? “Often, it’s a combination of factors that contribute to the feeling of being overwhelmed and stressed out,” says Roma Williams, L.M.F.T., a therapist who specializes in relational and professional burnout and founder of Unload It Therapy. “Work overload, lack of control over work tasks, and a lack of social support are all common contributors.” Perfectionism and obsession with achievement add fuel to the fire.
The good news is that there are ways to help break the cycle. The next time you find yourself burnt to a crisp, ask yourself the following questions to clarify what’s aggravating the problem—and how you can put an end to it
“Am I getting adequate rest?”
Board-certified neurologist and sleep physician Brandon Peters, M.D., fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, is a big fan of posing this query to yourself when on the brink of the doldrums. “Sleep, like nutrition and exercise, is a pillar of health and well-being,” he says. “Too little sleep, or sleep of poor quality, exacerbates anxiety, depression, and irritability—and affects concentration, short-term memory, and pain.” As such, poor sleep is a pretty legit contributor to fatigue and burnout.
On average, adults need seven to nine hours of sleep and a consistent sleep-wake schedule, Peters says. You can support your sleep quality by prioritizing exercise, exposure to natural light (especially upon waking), and being careful about when you consume caffeine and alcohol. And if you have trouble falling asleep? Peters recommends deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and visualization exercises.
It’s also important to consider whether poor sleep is the result of prioritizing other people and obligations ahead of your own recovery and rejuvenation time, Peters says. (Don’t worry, we’ll talk about those factors in a sec.)
“How is my diet?”
Improving your nutrition may help mitigate burnout in the long run, offers dietitian Jeanette Kimszal, R.D.N., N.L.C., of Root Nutrition & Education. In fact, research actually links eating healthily with fewer burnout symptoms.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like salmon, tuna, mackerel, nuts, and seeds, for example, are associated with an increase in serotonin and dopamine, the so-called “happy hormones,” Kimszal explains. They may also reduce the stress hormone cortisol.
Other must-haves: “Amino acids found in protein foods like meat, poultry, eggs, beans, legumes, and nuts may improve sleep and reduce stress,” she says. “Complex carbohydrates from foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, contain higher proportions of fiber can also help.” (This is because good bacteria in the gut feed on this fiber to produce anti-inflammatory compounds called short-chain fatty acids.)
“It’s important to look at your overall diet and see if you’re getting adequate vegetables (five cups a day), lean proteins, and healthy fats,” she says. “You also want to limit your sugar intake, as well as how much processed food you eat.”
“Do I find myself worrying a lot during the day?”
The last few years have certainly tested us all (and hopefully inspired us to hone in on self-care). If you find yourself worrying excessively or thought-spiraling often, though, your experience of feeling burnt out may be related to a level of anxiety that requires greater attention.
“There are a few key signs that may indicate that someone is experiencing anxiety,” says Williams. “People who are anxious may feel overwhelmed and stressed out, and may have a hard time controlling their thoughts or emotions.” Physical symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, or headaches are also common.
If any of this resonates, check in with your doctor to rule out any other concerns that might be causing physical symptoms, and seek the help of a mental health professional to explore different approaches to managing anxiety.
Read More: 4 Unexpected Ways To Manage Stress Naturally
Williams also recommends taking note of when you feel more anxious throughout the day. This can help you identify the triggers you’ll benefit from processing so that you can feel more balanced throughout the day—and ultimately avoid the grasp of the burnout monster.
“What consumes my day that does not bring me joy?”
Williams believes asking yourself this question can be a valuable exercise. “This is an important question, as it can easily lead you to what is stressing you out and why,” she says. “If it’s your job, what about your job is stressful? Is it that you’re taking on responsibilities that you should not? Are you not treated well?” Williams recommends contemplating these questions and writing down the answers so you can nail down the real issue—and then developing actionable steps to take.
For instance, if you’re a business owner and spend a lot of time invoicing—and find it saps your energy and throws off your mood—could you outsource this task? Or could you do things to make it more fun such as treat yourself to a relaxing afternoon in the park after completing invoices at the end of the month?
“Which of my relationships are draining me?”
This question often goes hand in hand with the above. As Williams notes, many of her clients who feel burnt out often do not have great relationships. “Our relationships are there to help buffer the effects of stressors and help us feel more balanced, especially during difficult times,” she says. “However, if your relationships are what stress you out, it may be time to reevaluate them.” she says.
Williams recommends asking yourself why a relationship is stressful, what role you play in that relationship, and what might improve it.
“How can I reach out for help?”
In some cases, burnout progresses to a critical place. “Just like a swimmer who gets in over their head, we sometimes need someone to toss us the life ring,” Peters says. “Don’t be too embarrassed to ask for help if you’ve taken on too much.”
Of course, who you might turn to can depend on the situation. “Consider who you might ask for a little assistance, whether it’s a family member, a close friend, a co-worker, an acquaintance, a community resource, or other social services,” says Peters. Feeling burnt out is an experience most people can relate to these days—and community and professional resources exist to be utilized.