9 Ways To Recover From Burnout: Moving Forward When You re Exhausted

Snehal Kumar, PhD

9 Ways To Recover From Burnout: Moving Forward When You’re Exhausted

When you’re experiencing burnout, the resultant fatigue, cynicism, and detachment can distort reality so much that peace of mind seems lightyears away. That’s because burnout runs deeper than typical stress; it’s usually the result of dealing with challenging responsibilities or situations on a chronic basis. The impact of these stressors can accumulate and permeate virtually all areas of your life, leaving you feeling fizzled out across the board. This stress can even make you sick!

Burnout is usually a slow and gradual process – one that tends to rob people of their passion, their motivation, and energy, leaving them instead with feelings of exhaustion, disillusionment, and frustration. But as overwhelming and infiltrating as burnout can feel, recovering is possible.

1. Strengthen active reflection and self-compassion practices

When helping individuals recover from burnout, I highly recommend extra self-compassion and patience, as well as reflective exercises to see the big picture of what may be going on.

Studies indicate that actively cultivating self-compassion and empathy can mitigate the impact of burnout. With practice, you can start cultivating self-compassion in your everyday life. This will alleviate existing burnout symptoms and prevent further ones.

  • Be patient – give it time and focus. Reminding yourself that healing from burnout is a process and won’t happen from lighting just one candle or taking one bubble bath.
  • Notice and reward theeffort you are putting in, not just the outcome.
  • Consider taking an ownership mindset. Look for the opportunities and choices you can make to improve your present and future.
  • Remember and reflect on the system you are in! If you view success as getting all the work done in an environment that has never ending work, you are bound to get stressed and feel terrible about yourself. Take a step back and think of how you can protect yourself, improve the system, and/or find another system that fits your needs.

Typically, people who are burned out experience three major symptoms.

First, there’s the persistent physical and emotional exhaustion, no matter how much rest you get. It’s a feeling Nagoski, who was once hospitalized for burnout, describes as, “being overwhelmed and drained by everything you have to do, and yet, somehow still feeling worried you’re not doing enough,” she says. “I felt tired, scraped out, and hollow—like I was a walking shell of a person and I had nothing inside of me to offer to anyone.”

Other signs of exhaustion can include: trouble falling or staying asleep, getting sick more frequently and for longer durations of time, a decrease in sex drive, an increase in neck, back, and stomach pain, forgetting to do normal or routine things, double-booking appointments, snapping at friends and family members, and avoiding social settings. “Another thing to pay attention to is if there’s prolonged exposure to stress,” adds Ziegler. “For most people, when they take a long weekend or a vacation, it might take a night or two to get their nervous system calm enough to enjoy the time away, but by the end, they feel rejuvenated and recharged. When you’re burned out, though, those breaks don’t really do the job. It’s the night before and you’re thinking, I’m dreading going back to my kids or I can’t face another day at the office.”

Additionally, you might experience intense cynicism (“you resent your boss, you resent your spouse, you resent your children,” says Ziegler) and a sense of inefficacy—which are the other two classic symptoms of burnout. “You start to get this checked out mentality,” says Paula Davis, founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute and author of Beating Burnout at Work. “It doesn’t seem like anything you do really matters, so you might find yourself asking ‘Who cares?’ or ‘Why bother?'”

Burnout is real. Here’s how to spot it—and recover.

a stressed woman sitting at a desk puts her face in her hands

When people ask me why I became a writer, I have plenty of reasons to list: Words bring me joy. I ask questions constantly. And when I hear a good story, I’ll repeat it again and again until my friends get tired of hearing it. But in July of 2021, these responses started to feel hollow.

I know I’m not alone. At this moment, when work is isolating some people at home while putting others in danger, burnout seems particularly rampant. In a survey of 1,500 workers from Indeed in March 2021, 53 percent said they were burned out—up by nearly 10 percent from the previous year. Another survey of nearly 21,000 healthcare workers published in May in The Lancet found similar rates.

I wanted to regain my curiosity and the joy I find in language as soon as possible, so I reached out to scientists to find out what, exactly, was happening in my body—and what I could do to make it better.

Burnout is a phenomenon so old, they made a sin out of it, according to Gordon Parker, a professor of psychiatry at the University of New South Wales. Once called “acedia,” the eighth cardinal sin described a state of listlessness, apathy, and torpor observed in fourth century monks. “They would wake up one day and say ‘the sky is no longer blue,’” Parker said. These monks would stop getting pleasure out of life and would lose their faith in God.

They were more than just tired. They had forgotten the meaning of all that they did. And that pretty much describes burnout. The response to chronic stress goes beyond exhaustion; sufferers also experience a loss of idealism and feel like they’re bad at whatever they do. Those are the three prongs identified by the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the assessment most often used by psychologists to evaluate such mental fatigue.

And all that angst isn’t just in your head—it’s very much a physical phenomenon, rooted in the body’s stress-response system. Scientists studying the syndrome are particularly interested in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, also called the HPA axis. When we’re faced with a threat—say, a bear chasing us, or the prospect of responding to an ambiguously stern-sounding email—the HPA axis releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol helps the body run from whatever is threatening it; it raises our heart rate and helps our body harvest energy from glucose. Cortisol also decreases activity in systems you don’t need when your life is in immediate danger, like the reproductive and immune systems. When the hypothalamus, a structure in the brain that acts like the control room for the HPA axis, detects high levels of cortisol in the blood, it’s supposed to say “okay, my work is done here,” and shut the stress response down.

Researchers can capture a snapshot of how the stress-response system is functioning with a test called the dexamethasone challenge. Dexamethasone is a drug that tells the hypothalamus to suppress the stress-response system. Given a dose of it, a healthy person should start producing less cortisol. But multiple studies have found that people with burnout have an altered response to the drug. Some studies find that those individuals don’t react to dexamethasone much, if at all—they continue pumping out more cortisol regardless. Other research finds that people with burnout have an exaggerated response to the drug—they suppress cortisol more than the healthy controls do. Researchers hypothesize that these two seemingly contradictory findings represent two stages: burning out, and being burnt out.

“During the burning-out phase, the system is in overdrive,” Parker said. When stress is chronic, cortisol levels in the body keep going up, but the system doesn’t shut itself down. The burnt-out phase begins when that system is tapped out, says Renzo Bianchi, a psychologist at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. “Your stress response gets so exhausted that you stop producing cortisol at high levels,” Bianchi said.

Cortisol may stress us out, but we also need the hormone to survive. It’s quite literally what gets us up in the morning. So when people enter this “burnt out” phase, they feel tired and cynical. They lose drive. They might even experience cognitive impairment and memory changes.

These symptoms might sound similar to clinical depression. But according to some scientists, including Christina Maslach of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, burnout and depression are not at all the same.

Burnout is a syndrome that may cause a person to become depressed; depression might predispose a person to burnout. But ultimately, burnout is distinct in that work is always at its root. People often feel better as soon as they’re able to get away from the cause of their stress, Parker said. That’s not usually the case with depression.



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