Mental and emotional burnout is something different from keeping a busy schedule and feeling tired at the end of a week. It occurs when a person has experienced pervasive and prolonged stress. Burnout can be described as occurring in a predictable manner in which it begins with excessive ambition and commitment, leads to changes in values wherein personal care is neglected and emotions are displaced, and typically ends in feelings of sadness, emptiness and/or defeat.

While many people live a full life and are invigorated by pace and productivity, burnout is often demonstrated by a persons’ inability to reenergize and struggle to stay focused. Although true burnout will affect each individual in unique ways, there are standard warning signs that your nervous system may be overloaded, and that you’ve neglected parts of yourself in the process. This list is not exhaustive, but it captures some common signs of burnout:

 

  1. You’re easily irritated and find it difficult to be patient with others.

When other people’s requests of you begin to feel like an assault on your capacity to provide what they need, it is an indication that you’re feeling depleted. Normally, a request is something we can consider, and decide in a relatively neutral way what we’d like to give.

What can you do about it?

Begin to check in with yourself more often to see what you need. When you feel that your own needs are taken care of, you’re much more likely to be able to meet the needs of others. When you have taken care of your own needs (for rest, solitude, exercise, nutrition, enjoyment, etc.) you will be better set up to meet those needs for others.

 

  1. You’ve lost the motivation to engage in activities you normally enjoy and may be more likely to procrastinate.

Procrastination tends to occur when we feel overwhelmed; our “system” (mind, body, spirit) is taxed and so we lose motivation. When we lose motivation, we’re less inclined to engage in activities we normally enjoy or the responsibilities we’ve committed to. When we’re not enjoying our activities, we’re likely to procrastinate in making them happen.

What can you do about it?

This may boil down to scaling back activities and responsibilities. It may also be a matter of tackling responsibilities in “bite-sized” pieces. Some people find it helpful to break down one big task into several smaller pieces, identifying deadlines and rewarding for a job well done.

 

  1. You feel detached from your own feelings, and your day-to-day life can feel robotic.

When a person experiences burnout, they have learned to function at such a high capacity that they have had to shed a certain degree of their “humanness” to do so. When a person begins to think (consciously or subconsciously) that emotions get the in the way, or that slowing down to be present in their experience is cumbersome, they will adjust to a way of being that sees those elements of the human experience eliminated.

What can you do about it?

It requires, yet again, a turning in toward yourself – toward your feelings, your present experience, your needs. Do regular “check-ins” to note the physical responses, the thoughts, and the emotions you’re experiencing. If you operate in a robotic manner, return to the things that make you feel human. Mindfulness practices can be really helpful. For example, hold a cup of tea and feel the warmth on your hand, note the scent it releases, and observe the design of the mug itself. Taking moments to look for what brings you pleasure can eventually lead to a slower, more human experience.

 

  1. You become emotional at unexpected times, and you are quick to cry.

If it is true that we are more inclined to detach from feelings if we are experiencing burn out, then it stands that our emotions will bubble up unexpectedly, as we know that they have to find their release somewhere J. If you find that you can go weeks at a time without identifying any significant emotion, but then suddenly cry at a car commercial, you may be experiencing burn out.

What can you do about it?

There are many ways to facilitate an open acknowledgement and acceptance of the emotion. Some people need to process it verbally with a good friend who listens well, or with a therapist. Some people find that journaling can be helpful as it forces a person to reflect on their experience. No matter how you begin, it requires a method for tuning in to your feelings, and this requires slowing down enough to make this possible.

 

  1. You experience an increase in worry and anxiety.

The capacity to process your environment is compromised, and your stress responses are weakened when you are burnt out. When your body and brain have operated as if you’ve been under threat for a prolonged period of time, the resources for dealing with everyday stress are inhibited, and you are likely to experience an increase in anxiety.

What can you do about it?

First, try to eliminate obvious stressors. An honest look at your schedule may illuminate the ways you’re overextending yourself, and where you can cut back. Second, don’t try to push away the feeling of anxiety. It can be very tempting to attempt to detach from anxiety, much like detaching from other emotions or feelings when experiencing burnout, but this can be counterproductive. Sometimes it can be helpful to follow the “thread” of the anxiety, to become curious about what it’s about, and to see if there’s something beneath the explicit fear. Particularly with burnout, it can be helpful to stay with the feelings of anxiety, as it can point us toward what we need.

To provide a personal example, when I was experiencing a strong sense of overwhelming several years ago, I began to worry – more than usual – about my children. I found more reasons to be concerned about their safety and wellbeing. It was during this time that I was also taking quite a bit of school work. When I became curious about my anxiety, and how it generally pertained to my children, I realized that I was really missing spending as much time with them as I had in previous years. I felt more distracted and less connected to them, and that was unsettling for me. My anxious feelings pointed me toward what I was really in need of at the time – to drop a course and to fit in more time with my young kids.

 

If you recognize yourself in any of the items listed above, it may be helpful to take some time alone. In the quiet of solitude, we are more likely to reflect on who we are, and what we need. In addition, it’s likely you could benefit from the support and guidance of a counsellor. If you think working with someone to process some of this could be helpful, give us a call, we’re here to help.