Stress happens when something comes between you and something you want. It’s a fact of life that things don’t always go your way. We all deal with it—until we don’t—and that’s when manageable stress becomes burnout.
This is different than depression.
Symptoms of depression can be much more intense. They last longer than two weeks, causing powerful mood changes, such as painful sadness and despair. Even the experts disagree on the definition of burnout, but it typically includes exhaustion, lower than normal levels or performance both at work and at home as well as an emotional distancing from colleagues or family members.
Stress + stress+ even more stress+ way too much stress= Burnout
I like to visualise a boat with a leak. I can take a bucket and scoop the water out of the bottom of the boat but if the water continues or the hole gets bigger eventually the simple action of scooping water to remove it becomes impossible.
There’s a funny thing about burnout—it can happen when you’re bored, when you’re not doing anything new, when you’re feeling lonely, or after a failure or setback. But burnout can also happen when you’re at the top of your game, working hard, successful, and feeling in the flow. Grant yourself some understanding and empathy about why burnout happens.
The following are five steps to take when you feel like you’re running on empty.
1. Hit the Reset Button
The first step is to check in on how you came to be empty. Use HALT to ask yourself:
- Am I hungry?
- Am I anxious?
- Am I lonely?
- Am I tired?
Deficiencies of sleep, fuelling your body with nutritious foods, social connection, or stress can all affect your ability to function optimally. Solving these problems first is key. Putting quality food into your system and allowing ample rest time are simple. Loneliness can happen even when you are surrounded by people. Being lonely doesn’t come from being alone; it comes from not feeling a sense of belonging or being heard by those around you. If you aren’t surrounding yourself with people who inspire you, challenge you, and help you to stay motivated, it may be time to make some changes.
Anxiety floods your body with chemicals that hijack your amygdala (the part of your brain that allows for planning and good decision-making) and instead puts you on high alert. This is useful if you must fight ninjas or run away from a man-eating tiger, but it’s not so useful when you’re stuck in traffic or about to speak at a conference. Burnout can be the reaction to prolonged stress and one of the best antidotes to stress is meditation. If you need an immediate boost, take long, deep breaths for 90 seconds to disrupt the fight-or-flight pattern your body has initiated. Later, you can make a plan to incorporate meditation into your day in order to keep anxiety and stress levels low.
2. Check in on Your Sense of Purpose
People who identify a source of meaning and purpose in their lives report greater life satisfaction. They also have higher levels of both physical and mental health, higher levels of resilience, and a greater sense of control. If you are feeling a lack of any of these, you may need to check in and see if you’re still aligned with your purpose.
3. Make Sure Your Burnout Isn’t Coming from Comparison
There can be an upside and a downside to comparisons. Seeing the good in other people’s lives can be a motivator; however, people are also able to construct identities that show their highlight reel without giving you an inside peek at the process;
You don’t see the mistakes along the way, the false starts, the failures, and the tough times are all as important as the end product that is usually what is posted on social media. If you’re comparing your rough first draft to somebody else’s highlight reel you’re always going to come up feeling badly. When you catch yourself comparing yourself to anybody but yourself, STOP.
4. Assess Your Levels of Self-Compassion
It has been said that compassion is incomplete if it doesn’t extend to self. You are often hardest and most critical of yourself. Notice how you speak to yourself. Do you use the carrot or the stick method? Kristen Neff, Ph.D., is a self-compassion researcher who suggests asking yourself, “Would you speak to a friend or a colleague the way you are speaking to yourself?” If not, start to be kind to yourself. Book a massage. Take a walk. Celebrate your successes. These reminders will help keep burnout at bay.
5. Use a Quick Fix to Turn Around the Negative Downward Spiral
Think of well-being as either spiralling up or spiralling down. There are some quick fixes that can help you begin the process of changing a bad mood to good or burnout to ease. The smell centre and the auditory centre are both right next to the pleasure centre. This means you can use a good smell or a favourite song to help get back in the game when you would rather stay on the bench.
Feeling burned out is your body telling you something. When your body is in balance it tells you to rest when it needs rest and it pushes forward when it has purpose and energy. Listen to your body. Your jobs, your friends, your family, and your goals can get in the way of accurately seeing your levels of energy, engagement, and resilience. When you feel depleted, instead of viewing it as a weakness, use it as an opportunity to reassess and then move forward in a way that supports your continued ability to flourish.