burn·out ˈbərnˌout/ noun: burnout; noun: burn-out
1. The reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion. “Good carbon burnout.”
2. Physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress. “High levels of professionalism that may result in burnout.”
For most people, the days of waking with the sun, winding down at night, family meals, and straight-forward tasks are long-gone.
We now live in a fast-paced, high-stress, achievement-centered, overly-competitive world, and though some of us loathe to admit it, it’s hard to keep up!
Add personal aspirations to the environmental demands of daily work and life, and you’ve got a recipe for a potential disaster, commonly known as burnout.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, student, technician, waiter, or stay-at-home parent, burnout can happen to anyone who has had too much on their plate for too long.
It Starts with a Little Thing Called Stress
We’ve all got stress in our lives, but when stress is a constant companion it becomes a problem
Ready for a little biology lesson?
(If science makes your eyes glaze over, feel free to scroll down and skip this section)
Physiologically, we are perfectly equipped to handle sudden threats (i.e. brief bouts of stress).
When we are confronted by a stressful situation, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks in, propelling us into Fight-or-Flight mode.
When this happens, the adrenal glands release the hormone epinephrine (A.K.A adrenaline), which causes blood to rush out of the organs and into the extremities (arms and legs). Your heart rate also speeds up, and your senses go on high alert.
Evolutionarily, this response developed so you could either fight or run away from whatever triggered the stress-response (hence, “fight-or-flight”)
When you confront stress another hormone called cortisol is simultaneously released by the adrenal gland.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that keeps a constant stream of blood sugar in circulation so that you have enough energy available to respond to the stressor. Cortisol also raises your blood pressure and slows down the immune system, so your body can focus its energy on getting you the heck out of whatever situation you’re stressed about.
Generally, cortisol levels are higher in the morning and subside toward the evening. This rhythm, called a circadian cycle, gives you a boost of energy to get out of bed in the morning, and helps you wind back down at night. However, whenever you encounter a stress trigger, your adrenal glands will spike cortisol levels temporarily so you can effectively deal with the situation at hand.
Epinephrine and cortisol spikes are great if you’re, say, confronted by a mountain lion on your walk home from your daily hunting-and-gathering excursion.
But the same response is triggered when you’re desperately trying to make a deadline, and when you have too many things on your to-do list, and when you’re just really worried about _________ (insert worries).
A non-stop stress response is less than ideal for your health.
Your stress response is better at sprinting than running marathons. It is designed to work really well short-term, but if it’s being triggered multiple times a day, every day, it becomes sluggish.
Just like you, when your adrenals are tired they stop working as effectively.
And when your adrenals stop working well, your body stops producing cortisol efficiently. This is known as adrenal fatigue.
Adrenal fatigue is not fun. If you get to the point of adrenal fatigue, it means you’ve been ignoring what your body needs and instead have adopted the habit of pushing through beyond your limits.
(*Click here for more in-depth information on adrenal fatigue. )
You probably wish you had a lot more internal resources than you actually do, and it’s likely you have grandiose fantasies of being a superhero too (honestly, though, who doesn’t?!)
The bad news is, you’re not a superhero. You’re just like everyone else.
“But other people are doing more than I am!” You might protest.
My response is that those people doing more were either born with a supremely robust constitution (if this is the case, you’ll just have to learn effective ways to deal with your jealousy and learn to honor your own unique qualities), or they, too, are on their way to burnout but hide it really well (this option is more likely).
You can tell that you have adrenal fatigue if you are constantly tired, have trouble getting up in the morning, and generally feel run-down.
You might feel like you’re always coming down with a cold, or you aren’t fully recovering from an illness.
You might also crave comfort foods frequently.
If you reach adrenal fatigue, you probably still have all the stressors in your life that got you here in the first place, but now you have less resources to deal with them.
The worst part about all of this is, these symptoms will probably stress you out even more, because they make it really hard to get anything done.
That’s just the way it is, and since you can’t go to the store and buy more internal resources, you’re going to have to figure out a way to reduce your stress load.
Because when you keep maintaining this high stress load without giving yourself a break, you’ll just burn out eventually, like a candle that has no more wick.
Basically, your body and emotions will go on strike and you’ll be so exhausted that you just stop caring about anything.
Know the Risks
Burnout happens most to people who feel like they are powerless to change their stress level.
(Don’t despair, there’s always something you can do. More on this later.)
You’re most likely to burnout if you experience any of the following:
-You feel like you have no control over your schedule.
-You aren’t sure what’s expected of you.
-You consistently set unattainable goals for yourself (*attention overachievers and type-A personalities!)
-You entered your current position without a strong belief in its purpose.
-Your work takes up too much time in your life and you’re no longer able to enjoy other activities.
Did you nod your head to any of the items on the previous list? Then what about these:
-When people ask you how you are, you find yourself answering something like “I’m hanging in there,” “one day at a time,” or “I’ve been better,” because every day is a challenge, in a bad way.
-You have a really hard time getting up in the morning, and press the snooze button more than once.
-You alternate between extreme boredom and feeling completely overwhelmed (or you just feel one of these all of the time).
-You feel completely unappreciated.
-On the rare occasion that you do have free time, you’re too tired to do any of the things you love.
-You’re unmotivated. Putting in effort at work feels like it takes up vast amounts of energy.
-You feel like there’s no point in cleaning your house because it’ll just get messy again.
-Listening to other people’s problems feels utterly draining.
-You lose patience and snap at people more easily than you used to.
-Little things REALLY bother you.
-You’re having trouble concentrating, are distracted, and forget things easily.
-You’ve been drinking or doing drugs (including pharma and over-the-counter drugs) in order to cope.
-You can’t stop thinking about work, even when you’re away from it.
-You feel chronically dissatisfied.
-You get sick easily.
-You feel a severe lack of affect. Your emotions just seem flat.
-You feel like you’re in permanent auto-pilot mode.
-You’ve gained weight1.
-You’ve become clumsy2.
If any of these sound like you, you’ve officially moved beyond adrenal fatigue and into full-blown BURNOUT.
So now what?
How to Deal with Burnout
Make Relaxation a Priority
When you’re experiencing burnout (or when you’re on your way to burnout), the first thing you need to do is take it seriously, and consequently, take relaxation seriously.
The whole reason you’re experiencing burnout in the first place is because you haven’t let yourself relax for WAY too long.
Last month was too long, heck, two months ago was too long, but you’re still at it, working your little tush off without a break in sight.
If you continue on like this, you won’t just be less effective at doing your job. You’ll actually be putting yourself on the fast-track toward depression and serious illness3.
Short-Term Strategy: Play Hookie!
You need a break. A real break. An I-don’t-care-about-you-I’m-in-
When you’re feeling really worn out, call in sick.
Yup. That’s right
Take a day to do whatever you want, whenever you want, and ignore anything you’re “supposed” to do that doesn’t actually, genuinely, bring you joy.
Don’t plan it out. Play it moment by moment.
Say, for example, that you’re playing hookie and you really wanted to paint when you woke up Now you’ve got some colors on your canvas but it doesn’t look like much, and honestly, you kind of lost interest 20 minutes back. Now you’d really like to go for a walk, but you feel like you should keep painting… What to do?
GO FOR A WALK!
“Should” is a forbidden word today. Remember, you’re doing whatever you want, whenever you want.
If you come to the end of your day and feel like you need more downtime, take another day.
When you let yourself reboot, you’ll not only feel better, but you’ll be better at your job when you get back to it.
Designate Daily Unplugged “Me-Time”
So you played hookie for a couple of days and now you have enough energy to get back to work, but you’re still not thrilled at the prospect.
The best thing you can do when you get back to the grind is to adapt your hookie-day strategy to fit into the rest of your life.
Schedule 20 minutes every day (at a minimum) to turn off all electronics and spend some time with yourself.
Think of this as a mini-version of playing hookie. For this designated amount of time, do whatever the *#&% you want.
But keep the computers, phones, and TVs at a distance. They’re more distracting than nurturing, and can actually contribute to your stress load.
Ask for Help
If you’re experiencing adrenal fatigue and burnout, it’s really important that you ask for help.
Asking for help can be scary, and make you feel especially vulnerable when you’re already in a delicate state, but it’s the best way to get through this.
Generally supervisors want to support you. Your problem is their problem, because they want you at your best just as much as you do.
If you can, ask your supervisor (or whoever is in charge of what you do) if there’s any way to lighten your load, at least for a little while. Your to-do list might stay the same, but maybe you could at least get an extension for a few of the doozies on there.
If your supervisors are too scary, ask co-workers if they can lend you a hand.
If none of these seem like good options to you, seek help on the outside. Counseling therapy or Chinese medicine (as mentioned below) might be a good strategy.
While outside help will rarely affect your actual workload, it can offer you resources to better handle your stress, and perspective to help you recognize and cope when things become too much.
When you’re totally bored at work, or if you’re totally overwhelmed, become more mindful. Cultivating a mindfulness practice can make the most menial tasks entertaining, and the most strenuous tasks more manageable.
By being mindful you are taking advantage of the moment, and are consequently more easily able to enjoy the simple fact that you’re alive, (or not so simple, but that’s another conversation).
Check out books by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Alan Watts for inspiration.
Or click here to read a DTW article on 5 Easy Ways to Become More Mindful.
See a Chinese Medicine Practitioner
Another excellent way to support your body, mind, and soul when you’re suffering from adrenal fatigue or burnout, or anything really, is to see a Chinese medicine practitioner.
Chinese medicine doesn’t just mean acupuncture though. They might use needles, sure, but they might also use moxa, cupping, massage, cranial work, and numerous other therapies to get you on your way to feeling like you again.
If you find a practitioner who is as good with herbs as they are with needles you’ve hit a jackpot. A good Chinese herbalist can find an ancient formula and tweak the ingredients to fit perfectly for you and your situation, so the therapy will keep working between office appointments.
It’s important to have patience with this process. It took some time to get you into this state, it’ll take some time to get you out of it.
Take Adrenal Support Herbs
If you’d rather go the traditional western route, adrenal herbs can be a big support when you’re experiencing adrenal fatigue. Ask your local herbalist about herbs like rhodiola, ashwagandha, or eleuthro. Even small regular doses of adrenal herbs (as little as 10 drops of a tincture 3-5 times a day,) can make a huge difference to how well your body handles stress.
Note that it generally takes 6 weeks for the effects to kick in, so take other self-care measures as well, and have patience with the medicine.
And if you don’t have an herbalist in your neighborhood, feel free to pester me about adrenal herbs. Maybe I’ll write an article on them in the future.
*It’s important to know that some herbs can radically interfere with prescription medications, especially SSRIs or Coumadin. As per usual, please check with your doctor before taking any at-home remedies.
Yoga can be a great way to sneak some exercise into your new self-care regimen, while also teaching you tools to more effectively deal with the stress in your life.
Check out a few different teachers so you can find one that really helps you shine.
It’s easy to want to be super-human, to imagine that you are able to effortlessly carry any burden thrown our way. But the truth is, our bodies aren’t equipped to handle constant stress.
Life isn’t supposed to be an insurmountable struggle. We’re meant to enjoy life, and if you’re not able to do that anymore, buddy, some things will have to change.
I hope you find this article helpful. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
To Your Happiness!
Sources and Resources:
1. “The long-term, constant cortisol exposure associated with chronic stress produces further symptoms, including impaired cognition, decreased thyroid function, and accumulation of abdominal fat, which itself has implications for cardiovascular health.”
2. “In addition to mental and physical disorders, burnout predicts severe injuries. Developing work conditions and optimizing workload may enhance safety and decrease health expenses related to all injuries.”
Ahola K, Salminen S, Toppinen-Tanner S, Koskinen A, Väänänen A.Source:Work Organizations, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. Occupational Burnout and Severe Injuries: An Eight-year Prospective Cohort Study among Finnish Forest Industry Workers. 2013.
Take these tests to find out where you fall on the burnout scale: