Ah, stress. It’s safe to say in this fast-paced, get-it-done-yesterday world that everyone has it. It might even cause you to feel overwhelmed to the point of wanting to throw your hands up in frustration. But when overwhelm shifts into physical and mental health decay, that’s the time to stop and take notice. Because burnout is not only real, it’s dangerous.
The Symptoms of Burnout
A recent article for Psychology Today defines “burnout” as, “a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and/or feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.” If you have any of the following symptoms, it might be cause for pause:
- Chronic headache
- Impaired concentration/forgetfulness
- Chest pains
- Upset stomach
- Diminished sex drive
- Dizziness and/or fainting
- Teeth grinding
Speaking personally for a moment, I’m someone who has suffered from burnout. Between working multiple jobs as a freelancer and extreme financial concerns, I started to buckle under the weight of it all. I also had a combination of almost every symptom in the book. I would want to take long naps in the middle of the day but I couldn’t stay asleep at night, waking up with worry. I ground my teeth, I had dizzy spells on the sidewalk, I was irrationally angry with everything and everyone, and my depression was off the charts. I was incredibly cynical about the future, and I grew increasingly uninterested in anything and everything I enjoyed. After months of this, I knew I needed to speak to someone.
What causes burnout?
Let’s talk about what burnout is and what causes it. Psychology Today has an excellent definition of the word, accompanied by some very telling signs:
“Burnout is not a simple result of long hours. The cynicism, depression, and lethargy of burnout can occur when you’re not in control of how you carry out your job, when you’re working toward goals that don’t resonate with you, and when you lack social support. If you don’t tailor your responsibilities to match your true calling, or at least take a break once in a while, you could face a mountain of mental and physical health problems.”
Let’s add to all of this the common cause of stress for adults in the United States: money and economic security. According to a 2015 study conducted by the American Psychological Association, “Nearly three-quarters (72%) of adults report feeling stressed about money at least some of the time, and nearly one quarter say that they experience extreme stress about money (22 percent rate their stress about money during the past month as an 8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale).” In other words, money, workplace, and economic issues are the main cause of burnout for US adults.
If you’re a student, school stress can be the cause, accompanied by post-graduate workplace and money worries. So, in other words, money, work and economic security are the roots of pretty much all burnout.
How to deal with burnout
Experts say that the only way to deal with burnout is to make changes in your life in order to avoid it. That means making changes — some large, some small — to your life in order to recover from your current physical and mental state and to prevent further burnout symptoms. If you can go away for a weekend or a week without working and that seems to do the trick, you’ve avoided serious burnout. But if you come back on Monday and the feelings persist, it’s time to make some changes:
Focus on daily self-care – Remembering to eat, sleep, and take regular rest breaks isn’t some fluffy, New Age wisdom; it’s common sense. If you don’t care for your body, it will inevitably run out of resources, and no amount of willpower can overcome that level of depletion and fatigue. It’s okay to put yourself first. After all, you’re the one who has to accomplish all of this, and it will get done better if you’re in top mental and physical health. That includes non-negotiable appointments with yourself to exercise regularly. Studies have shown that even a few minutes of walking daily is excellent for mood and mental health.
Say “No” – Can it all get done right now? Maybe. Should it all get done right now to your detriment? No. Learning to set boundaries and say that magic word will give you the space and time to recover from and avoid burnout. “No” is my new favorite word, and it’s also a complete sentence. No further explanation necessary.
Make mandatory breaks a priority – In order to rest and recharge for peak performance, break times are just as necessary as food and water. I have 30-minute break periods after every 90 minutes of work scheduled in my work day now, and they’ve made a world of difference. Not only am I more focused during those work periods, but I get more done in less time because I’m fresh from periods where I don’t work at all. I also make it a point to take an hour for lunch where I don’t work at all. As a result, I’m done earlier, more work gets done, and I’m happier because of it.
Turn off your brain (and your phone) – Meditation is a tool of some of the top executives in the world for a reason: when the mind is calm, it performs at its best. Even if meditation isn’t for you, finding time in your day to focus on nature, your breathing, or any calming activity will help you decompress. Warm baths, massages, yoga, walking in the park or by a body of water – any and all of it counts, and they all work. That also means turning off your phone and email at a regular time every day. TV executive Shonda Rimes has a company policy that says she doesn’t reply to email after 7 pm every day, and she encourages her employees to do the same thing.
Burnout can and does happen to the best of us, but with some knowledge and a plan for action you can recover and thrive. Putting your mental health first is the key, and it’s something we should all strive for. After all, you don’t have to crash and burnout to prove your worth. You are deserving because you are here. Striving for balance and a life filled with hope and grace is a happier way to live, and it’s something for which we work diligently every day.