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Recognizing Burn Out

And what to do about it.

Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash

When I was a college student, I had many mentors, advisees, and supervisors who often advised me to be careful with my workload.

“You’re young now but these things will catch up with you,” is what they would say.

Just like most college students who go into college with the high aims to have a good career, become successful, and make their families proud, I had the inclination to constantly put more and more on my plate. I had the hopes that the more experiences I gained, the more opportunities I would have in the long run. Which did become the case.

Going to a prestige college where students are competitive and all stakes are high, being able to juggle multiple things at a time such as research, clubs, sports, volunteering, and work, in addition to doing well in your classes, is highly reinforced.

At least for me, this led to more student job opportunities with higher pay rates, offerings for research assistant positions, and scholarships.

Unfortunately for me, this inclination “to do more” increased when I went into graduate school to earn my master’s degree. Between caregiving for my dad full-time, conducting research, working part-time, tutoring small children, writing/blogging on medium, being a source of emotional support for my mom, and also keeping up with school, my days were jammed packed with things to do from the moment I woke up until the minute I fell asleep.

I kept up this busy schedule for months. Even after my dad passed, I didn’t take a break. I went into filling my extra time by working full-time right afterward.

Within little to no time, however, I noticed that it became harder and harder to do even the simplest of tasks.

For example, if I was asked to do something I normally don’t do on a regular basis. Let’s say, call my internet provider because our wi-fi kept cutting, it felt like a fuse would go out in my brain and I would become irritable and annoyed.

Another example is that after about fifteen minutes of usual work, I would be distracted by my thoughts of wanting to do something else.

I was irritable going to the research lab that I managed and would get bored very easily while in any of my classes.

Even though I kept many of my major healthy habits like eating balanced meals and exercising regularly. I began to let go of other smaller but important needs like incorporating breaks throughout the day and doing things I enjoyed just for fun.

I didn’t realize that I was burning out until “it was too late.” What made it difficult for me to notice that I was experiencing burnout, however, was the combination of grieving, working on bettering my symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and also dealing with premenstrual dysphoria disorder (PMDD).

All these have overlapping symptoms like fatigue, loss of motivation, avoiding social activities, and reduction in cognitive performance or ability to focus.

Given these predispositions, however, I think most people would have seen that taking things slow would have been a better way to live for me at the time. Instead of jam-packing my days and going 100 mph day in and day out.

What I failed to notice early in myself was that because I had been so accustomed to being busy since high school, which only exacerbated as an undergraduate and then graduate student, a part of me felt guilty about the thought of slowing down. I often had the thought that “if I was able to do all of these things before, I should be able to do more now.”

Types of Burnout

Overload Burnout

I think most people who burn out follow this trajectory. In going with the rat race of trying their best to be good at everything and achieving high stakes, they lose the ability to relax and take it easy. And when they do, it feels morally wrong to take a break.

It may also include trying to juggle multiple responsibilities outside of work or your career, like caregiving for an ill/disabled parent, child, or other family members, or consistently supporting a friend going through a difficult time.

This is known as overload burnout.

Under-Challenged Burnout

Under-challenged burnout is due to the body’s natural inclination to want to evolve and grow. As living creatures, our bodies are constantly changing. A healthy change that allows us to feel fulfilled is to become better at the skills we already have or learn new skills.

If we feel “under-challenged,” bored, or even unappreciated at our job (or even in our lives in general), we will constantly feel that we simply need to push through our work days. However, this takes a toll on the brain because it is not being stimulated enough.

Neglect Burnout

Feeling helpless in any domain of life can be distressing and chronically stressful. Especially if we begin to see ourselves as incompetent to manage the tasks and responsibilities placed in front of us.

If we lack the support needed to manage difficult situations, we become prone to neglect to burnout. One reason is due to consistently not being able to handle whatever situation is happening and the stress associated with that level of difficulty. Two, because of the secondary emotion of not feeling “good enough” to obtain that support or care.

So why is it important to recognize burnout before it actually happens?

It Can Be Costly

If you’re experiencing burnout, you may notice that it takes you more time to do the same work that you used to do in less.

You may also need to place more effort to be able to focus on the task at handle than before.

Lastly, this increase in time and effort means that the quality of your work and performance may be dropping. A drop in performance may also mean less efficiency and a decrease in productivity.

Leaks to Other Responsibilities

It’s important to note that burnout does not apply to only one domain in life. It may leak into other responsibilities as well, like your family life, friendships, extracurricular activities, etc.

This may mean that you have less patience for your loved ones. Or less capacity to be around others. Perhaps your tolerance for small hiccups in your personal life decreases, and you easily become irritable about what are usual everyday nuances. Like hitting traffic on your way to work or your kids not wanting to eat all their vegetables.

Diminished Ability to Do Work

Earlier when I mentioned a drop in performance, this does not only pertain to the work you’re producing. But also your overall capacity.

Think of a car that hasn’t gone through proper maintenance for over a year. It’ll keep going for a while, but its capacity to function the same as before will diminish because of the lack of resources it can pull from. Eventually whatever resources it has on reserve will fully diminish and it’ll fail to keep going.

Can Affect Your Overall Health

Burnout is not a medical condition. However, it is an emotional, mental, and even physical stressor on the body. This strain can lead to deregulation in the body’s ability to function, heal, and recover.

This is because deregulation may be experienced through changes in appetite, sleep patterns, and mood. If left unaddressed for a long period of time, it can begin to negatively affect other functions of the body like digestion, cognitive function, and mental health.

Symptoms of Burnout

According to WebMD, the main symptoms of burnout to look out for that are distinguishable from stress and depression are:

  • fatigue/exhaustion
  • Loss of motivation or negative feelings toward your responsibilities
  • Loss of performance or inability to perform

Other symptoms that can also be signs that you’re reaching your limits include tension headaches and changes in your diet or sleep pattern.

Preventing Burnout

Stress Management

Preventing burnout resembles what you may see with typical stress management. Such as sleeping well, resting regularly as needed, eating balanced meals, engaging in activities you enjoy outside of work or other responsibilities, and spending time with friends and family.

Breaks and Time

A key way to prevent burnout, however, is to avoid placing yourself in situations that will lead to burnout.

Are you going to take on a big work project that will take months to finish? Make sure you prioritize having a few hours in the week for yourself. Or book a short 2 to 4-day vacation for when the project is done. Or give yourself some time after you finish the project before taking on a new one.

Another is scheduling breaks away from normal life regularly throughout the year. This may mean going on a weekend trip with the family every 6 to 8 weeks. Or take a week off from work every 5 to 7 months. Just anything that takes you away and allows your brain to defocus from its normal routine and responsibilities.

Creating Boundaries

Lastly, think of boundaries. Do you sometimes take work home with you or found yourself answering emails on your days off? Setting boundaries of when it’s time to work and where work should be done is important to not get sucked into the constant frazzle of mentally switching between “being home” and “being at work.”

Setting boundaries with friends and family can also be important. Like letting them know that you need time away or that you won’t be able to help with favor because you’ve had a long day at work.

Recovering from Burnout

A Major Nervous System Reset

Recovering from burnout may take bigger steps to manage. That’s because once you’ve reached your highest level of tolerance, you have already increased your allostatic load. This means that you have accumulated more stress than what’s natural for your body, so your body has frantically been trying to adapt by increasing its stress tolerance until it reaches a maximum point of tolerance.

The easiest way to recover would be to take time off. Getting away and allowing the mind and body to rest is an effective way to “reset” your system.

How long you go away and what you do is dependent on what you enjoy doing, how long you’ve been dealing with burnout, and your body’s ability to recover. Some people have bodies that deal with stress better than others. Therefore, even in stressful circumstances, they have very little increase in their allostatic load.

Micro-Resets

Another way that is perhaps better for those who can’t “just leave” because they have certain ties that require them to be present is to incorporate micro healthy habits that can be done in 10 minutes or less to reset the nervous system. Commonly known habits may include short meditations, deep breathing exercises, going for short walks, getting sunlight, calling a friend, etc.

With time, although these habits are small and short, they will build and help the body be more resilient to stressors. They’ll also help with managing any stress present or that has accumulated.

This may also be easier than adding larger commitments to your routine. Like promising yourself to hit the gym six days out of the week if you hardly go at all. Especially if you’re experiencing overload burnout because adding this change may perceptually seem more of a burden or chore than a reliever.

Asking for Help

Lastly, asking for help can be another step in a positive direction. For example, ask your partner to take on one of your household responsibilities if they have the time and bandwidth to do so. Or ask your supervisor for more assistance with your workload or more time to finish your work.

Just asking for any minor change that you know will allow you to feel like you can “finally breath.”

Concluding Thoughts

Burnout is fairly common and can occur outside of an occupational domain. Unlike disorders like anxiety or depression, burnout is not a medical condition and cannot actually be diagnosed. However, it can still be impeding for people and limit their functional capacity to take on responsibilities. Recognizing burnout and taking the steps to address it can increase a person’s quality of life and long-term health and success.

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Rose Mejia

Rose Mejia

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Striving to be a holistic psychologist & writer. Interested in reading more? Sign-up for my newsletter: https://mailchi.mp/fec9b5b8e4fb/anchor-light-n