Do you ever feel your batteries are empty or your spark has gone out and you’re no longer able to recover from the demands of your days within a short period of time? Have you felt overwhelmed, drained? If you answered yes, you may be experiencing burnout – and you’re not alone. Many people suffer from the problem across all sectors of life from parents, grandparents, students, bosses, employees, and volunteers. And surprisingly, most people are unaware they are actually experiencing signs of burnout until they are deep into it.
It adds up and all you do, and don’t do, can exhaust you mentally, emotionally and physically. What follows is burnout — a life hazard you need to understand to navigate before it takes hold and impacts not only your health and wellbeing but also your overall balance and treasured relationships. It is vital to recognize the warning signs of burnout, remembering that burnout can creep-up on you as you’re living your busy life.
Dr. Nina’s What You Need to Know: Signs of Burnout and How to Overcome It
About Burnout: Unrelenting pressure, working long hours with demands at home or work (or both), taking on exceedingly heavy workloads, managing emotionally charged stressful situations along with putting pressure on yourself while managing chronic stress can all lead to a burnout state of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion.
When you are in a constant fight-or-flight mode, chemicals and hormones are being produced and released to prepare you for an event that should normally only last for a few minutes—but is stuck in “on.” This is unhealthy for every part of your being, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Not only can it provoke or worsen anxious feelings and depressed moods leading to an anxiety disorder or depression, but it also has been linked to causing bone disease, cardiovascular disease, strokes and diabetes, to mention a few.
It is important to understand that full-fledged burnout places an unrelenting toll on your body, mind and emotions, challenging your ability to function effectively, personally and professionally.
Burnout Doesn’t Happen Suddenly. You don’t wake up one morning and suddenly “have burnout.” Its nature is to creep-up on you, which can make it harder to recognize in process.
Still, your body and mind do give you warnings and knowing what to look for is key in recognizing it. Here are some common factors identified by experts:
- External Pressures: A lack of appreciation, recognition, fairness, control, sense of community, or ethical behaviors by co-workers, administration, associates, colleagues, friends, or family members; or unclear expectations or dysfunctional environment.
- Lifestyle: Working in overdrive, or not taking or having “me time” to recharge. Alternatively, having excessive obligations or lacking a support system can also cause burnout. And, too, sleep deprivation, unhealthy diet habits, lack of physical activity, or a reliance on alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs.
- Personality: At risk are highly focused individuals often referred to as “High Achiever/Type A Personalities” who may ignore the fact they can over commit and work heavy loads while keeping exceptionally long hours (personally and professionally) with great pressure on themselves.
Signs and Symptoms: Burnout signs and symptoms exist along a continuum and the difference between stress and burnout is a matter of degree. This means that the earlier you recognize the signs and do something to address the symptoms, the better able you will be to avoid burnout. Experts underscore these signs:
Physical and Emotional:
- Chronic Fatigue, feeling tired, less energetic or even dread of what lies ahead. Over time, you can experience weakness or excessive tiredness (your body’s way of telling you to slow down).
- Increased Illness due to lowered immunity, headaches, muscle pains, or a change in sleep habits or appetite. When your body is depleted, your immune system becomes weakened, making you more vulnerable to infections, colds, flu, and other immune-related medical problems.
- Forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention. Lack of focus and mild forgetfulness are early signs. Later, the problems may get to the point where you can’t get your work done and everything begins to pile up.
- Loss of appetite. In the early stages, you may not feel hungry and may skip a few meals. In the latter stages, you may lose your appetite altogether, experiencing weight loss.
- Physical Symptoms of chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or headaches–these should be medically assessed.
- Anxiety. Initially you may experience mild symptoms of tension, worry, and edginess. As you move closer to burnout, the anxiety may interfere with your sleep while causing problems in personal relationships.
- Depression. In the early stages, you may feel mildly sad and occasionally hopeless, and you may experience feelings of guilt and worthlessness as a result. At its worst, you may feel trapped and severely depressed and think the world would be better off without you. If your depression is to this point, you should seek professional help immediately.
Loss of Joy and Attachment:
- Decreased satisfaction, sense of accomplishment, motivation. You feel helpless, ineffective, detached, a loss of joy, apathy and even hopeless. You can doubt yourself, feel like a failure or lonely.
- Pessimism, detachment, apathy, disillusionment. Negative self-talk or moving from a glass-half-full to a glass-half-empty attitude or general sense of feeling disconnected from others or from your environment. It presents as a general sense that nothing is going right or nothing matters or “what’s the point?”
- Increased irritability from feeling ineffective, unimportant, useless, and an increasing sense that you’re not able to do things as efficiently or effectively as you once did.
- Indulgence in unhealthy behaviors—such as drowning sorrows in drinking alcohol, smoking, or doing drugs—often occurs to cope with the uncomfortable feelings of burnout.
While you may not be experiencing any of these, know that they are warning signs. Remember too, burnout begins subtly with mild symptoms, and gradually worsens.
Overcoming and Prevention: If you are experiencing some of these warning signs it is time to honestly assess the amount of stress in your life and find ways to reduce it before it’s too late. Burnout doesn’t go away unless you make some changes in your life. So it is crucial that you take steps for healthy relief by reducing the chronic stress and pressure in order to (re)invigorate yourself. Here are some tips:
- Identify the problems and stressors – and make plans to take a break while assessing your next steps
- Maintain rest and relaxation time, daily and weekly. Even if it is just 15 minutes, make time to unplug (relax, take bathes, pray, meditate, deep breathe, do yoga, read, or daydream). And once a week, take a day off. It is vital to allow your mind and body to rest and relax.
- Get a restful sleep – and plenty of it. Set a bedtime and stick with it — being sleep-deprived can be a cause of burnout as well as slows efficiency and perpetuates the cycle of being burnt out.
- Eat healthy – and stay hydrated with water. What you eat and drink makes a difference!
- Set smart, healthy boundaries with your work, home, school, special projects, and relationships. And try, “no.” Resist the urge to keep adding more on.
- Reduce the negative in your life by hanging out with positive people and take breaks (or detox) as many negative people as possible.
- Unplug from technology, and social media
- Reassess priorities with “me” time
- Don’t go at it alone – share your thoughts, feelings and, if possible, responsibilities with a trusted network of family and friends or professionals who can help carry the load
- Stay active mentally and physically. Get at least a 15-minute walk to help relieve stress and release endorphins, those feel-good hormones. And stay attached and engaged (in the moment) with those you love.
- After a break, write your thoughts, feelings, goals and action plans—and be specific
- Don’t compare yourself to anyone else – this is about you!
- Find outlets, or “counter-weights” to the stressors in life. Some ideas include doing Sudoku, listening to music, gardening, photography, yoga, meditation, cooking, reading for pleasure, spending time with family or friends, or exercising. It’s for refreshment and when you find what “it” is to help you release stress, find ways to incorporate it in your life!
- And consider changing your job/career/level of responsibility, if feasible. If not, seek help and ways to minimize and optimize work responsibilities. Talk with someone to share the load.
The key to effectively managing stress and overcoming burnout is recognizing the signs and taking the time for your own “program,” that works for you and your lifestyle to regain balance while finding the time to relax and recharge to get your spark back – and maintain it!
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.