You’ve gotten eight solid hours of sleep, and you slept like a rock.
But the minute your foot hits the floor, you want to fall back into the bed.
You drag yourself up, shuffle through your morning routine, and begin your day in a fog of exhaustion and malaise.
The smallest actions, from brushing your teeth to putting your breakfast dish away, feel overwhelming. Just the thought of facing the day ahead sends you into a mini panic attack.
All of your emotional reserves have been sucked away, and you have a sense of profound hopelessness and detachment. Every part of your being wants to curl up in a ball and hide in a dark room.
Or maybe you fantasize about running away to some remote destination where no one can find you, where phones and technology are forbidden, and you can bask in solitude for a week . . . or a month . . . or a year.
If you look back over the past weeks, or months, or years, you’ll see that you’ve been operating on relentless overdrive. Your stress levels have been so prolonged and excessive that your body and your psyche are now engaged in a major revolt.
The result is burn-out. You’ve reached the end of your rope. All of that anxious energy that kept you going has evaporated and left you an empty shell.
Burnt out is the final destination on the stress express, and it’s characterized by:
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
- Having low energy and feeling tired in spite of getting rest.
- Having insomnia or trouble staying asleep.
- Blunted or “frozen” emotions.
- Disengagement from what you once enjoyed or found interesting or important.
- Feeling detached, disillusioned, or depressed.
- Having an inability to focus and concentrate.
- Decline in performance at work or elsewhere.
- Having no motivation or enthusiasm.
- Feeling irritable, cynical, or impatient.
- Experiencing physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, or muscle pain.
- Getting illnesses like colds and other infections more frequently.
- Isolating yourself.
- Turning to food, drugs, or alcohol to cope.
- Having little concern for self-care, home care, or work performance.
These feelings are often the result of stress at your job, but life in general can trigger burn-out as well.
When your plate is overflowing with obligations, challenges, conflict, or even enjoyable endeavors, with little time to recoup and recharge, you can experience these symptoms.
You can feel burned out as a result of these situations:
On the job . . .
You feel you have little or no control over your work or the outcomes of your work.
Your good work isn’t rewarded or acknowledged.
Your work isn’t challenging, interesting, or rewarding.
There are no clear expectations or expectations are too demanding for your job.
You see no clear way of improving your situation.
You feel pressured to work long hours without enough downtime.
You work in a chaotic, stressful environment.
In your personal life . . .
You’ve over-scheduled yourself with too many commitments or activities.
You’re dealing with an ongoing life challenge (an ill parent, a special needs child, etc.).
You don’t have enough emotional and tangible support from others.
You don’t take time for socializing, relaxing, and recharging.
You have an “adrenaline addiction” to busyness and stress.
Burn-out can happen to anyone, but often people with Type A personalities and perfectionist tendencies, or those who need to be in control, will get burned out more often.
By it’s nature, burn-out is a progressive problem — it doesn’t just show up overnight. You burn your candle at both ends for weeks or months until you burn out.
If you have awareness about your tendency to experience it, and you recognize the signs that you’re headed in that direction, you can save yourself before you end up curled in a ball in the back of your closet.
Here are 10 ways to protect yourself against being burned out:
1. Consider changing jobs. If you hate your job and feel unmotivated and unfulfilled by it, then it’s time to consider making a change. Don’t wait until you’re too depressed or depleted to begin a job search. Simply getting your resume in order and looking around at other opportunities can give you a sense of hope and excitement.
2. Change up the job you have. If it’s impossible to leave your job, determine the main source of stress and try to change it. If you’re working too many hours, ask for some time off. Is your boss making you crazy? Find out about switching to another department. Do you feel bored by the day-to-day tasks of your work? Let your boss know that you’d be more productive and engaged doing something else. Even the smallest change can be enough to feel more empowered and hopeful.
3. Stop trying to be superman or woman. You don’t have to stay late every day or take on more projects than you can comfortably handle. You don’t have to work through lunch or forgo your vacation. Pace yourself and be realistic about how much work you are capable of handling without imploding. Take as much vacation time as you’re allowed, and please, don’t take work with you on vacation. Give yourself a complete and total break.
4. Ask for help when you start to feel overwhelmed. If you have a big project at work or a huge obligation in your personal life, don’t assume you just have to “push through” and manage everything by yourself. Other people may not recognize that you’re feeling overwhelmed, so you can’t wait for someone to step in. You have to ask. It’s not a sign of weakness or laziness. It’s a sign of strength and good sense.
5. Practice radical self-care. The best defense against burn-out is a good offense, and that means getting serious about self-care. Exercise is imperative for relieving stress and staying healthy, resilient, and energized. Getting enough sleep is also critical to your mental health and ability to function well during the day. Pay particular attention to your eating habits during stressful times, as we all tend to fall off the healthy food wagon when we’re overwhelmed.
6. Create balance in all areas of your life. Feeling burned out is the result of too much of one thing — too much work, too many demands, too much intensity in one area of your life. Determine the optimal balance between work, relationships, self-care, fun, and relaxation. Then put that into practice by mindfully pulling back from the “too much” part of your life and giving more time and energy to the “too little” parts of your life.
7. Give yourself a technology detox. Even when you back off of work or other life demands, the ever-present lure of your computer, smartphone, or iPad can pull you back into the stimulating world of information overload. You may think it’s relaxing to peruse social media or surf the net, but it creates a low-level anxiety that contributes to the stress of burn-out. Reading a book, taking a walk, or talking to a friend are much better options for maintaining internal equanimity.
8. Try to stay out of your head. When you feel stressed and overwhelmed, your brain goes into overdrive with worry, looping thoughts, and negativity. The chaos of your outer life is triggering mental tornado as you try to analyze or think your way out of your situation. Notice your tendency to get trapped in your thoughts, and when this happens, distract yourself with something else. Go for a walk, focus on something creative, call a friend. Do anything to break the pattern of negative thinking that contributes to stress and burn-out.
9. Learn to meditate. One of the best ways to tame your anxiety, burn-out, and mental clutter is through meditation. Meditation is simply a way of clearing your mind and harnessing your thoughts with the added benefits of improving your focus, well-being, and health. Here’s a great introduction to meditation.
10. Examine the reason behind the reason. You experience burn-out for a reason — you’re working too hard, taking on too much, not taking care of yourself. But what’s the reason behind that reason? Why are you allowing this to happen? Why do you feel the need or pressure to overdo it? Why do you accept a job you hate or feel the need to be perfect? You may need the help of a coach or counselor to ferret out the answer to this one, but once you do, you have the secret weapon for creating a life on your terms that is balanced, happy, and much less chaotic.
After reading this far, you know that being chronically burned out is sucking years from your life and undermining your health, happiness, and relationships.
If you are on the slippery slope of stress and overwhelm, about to descend into the quicksand of burnout, please catch yourself before you hit bottom. Nothing in your career or life is worth sacrificing your mental health. Step back, take a time out, give yourself a break, even if it makes others angry or unhappy with you.
I promise, it’s much hard to recover from the rock bottom of emotional despair than it is from whatever perceived consequences you’re imagining.