Author: Janessa Leung
What is burnout?
“Burnout” is a popular term for the extremely unpleasant point where mental and physical reactions to stress reach a crisis point, interrupting daily life. Burnout point is peak anxiety when you are simply no longer able to continue as usual. The same motivations to do so may still be there—doing your job, maintaining your relationships, passing exams. This state may be marked by statements or behaviour that seem irrational or self-sabotaging. Burnout appears to be a loss of control, which can be frightening or confusing to you and people in your life.
What are the signs of burnout?
Before you reach the point of burnout, your body and mind send signs that something in your life needs to change to prevent a crisis. In the lead-up to burnout, you may notice you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, lose interest in food or can’t concentrate. You may have frequent headaches or an upset stomach or you may have had episodes of pounding heart and feeling lightheaded or dizzy.
When you are close to burnout, your situation may seem inescapable. You may feel that your life is full of traps. Maybe you procrastinate because anything you do may make things worse. Or you avoid things that make you nervous, like important appointments, or opening your mail.
At this point, anxiety is adding new stress to your already stressful life. You are unable to rise to the occasion when you face challenges, even small ones, because you have no resources left to deal with additional stress. You try as hard as you can, but are overwhelmed, and you feel like you may be facing burnout. At this point, it’s time to look for help.
Every life includes stress. At times, though, stress lasts too long or there are too many sources of stress to manage, even though you try as hard as you can. Even the best “stress juggler” can only keep so many balls in the air at one time, for so long! The earlier you recognize the signs burnout is on the way, the better able you will be to avoid burnout.
As you ask yourself whether each statement applies to you, answer “yes” or “no”. Take your time considering whether each of the following statements applies to you. You will have reasons for each answer—maybe there are demands on your time, or you are waiting for a specific date or cycle to “get back to normal.” Be honest with yourself and answer based on how you are this week. It may be helpful to write down a few notes about your thoughts.
- Loss of interest in spending time with friends and family
- Avoiding or no longer take pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
- You feel blue, irritable, or hopeless much of the time
- Losing or gaining weight
- Your sleep patterns have changed—you have difficulty falling or staying asleep, or you always feel tired
- You get sick more often than you used to
- Urges to hurt yourself or someone you’re caring for
Thoughts of self-harm
If you have urges to do harm, get professional help right away. Urges to hurt yourself or someone you are caring for are a symptom of burnout or other issues that can be treated with professional help. You don’t need to be ashamed, and with help you will be able to overcome the fears and urges that come with being overwhelmed and feeling alone.
If two or more of the other statements apply to you, or one applies to a degree that concerns you or is negatively impacting your life, seek professional help. Make an appointment with a medical doctor to talk about physical changes such as weight and sleep disruption, especially if these changes persist and seem unconnected to stressful times in your life. A therapist can help if you are affected by stress, are overworked or in a difficult relationship, or if you are having difficulty managing your current levels depression and anxiety. With skilled professional therapy, you can improve your ability to cope with your life as you also proactively address potential causes of burnout.
What is the treatment for burnout?
When you find the right professional therapist and begin to work on your personal burnout factors, you may find that your therapist using one or both of two basic approaches:
Challenge thought patterns that contribute to anxiety
Your ways of thinking will feel entirely normal to you, but some patterns of thinking tend to contribute to anxiety and burnout. Do you feel as though one of your problems is that you “over-think” things? Maybe you are concerned that your reactions and thoughts make things worse, but that your efforts to control them seem to fail. You may also worry that physical symptoms will embarrass you or make you unable to function at work. As a consequence, you may find yourself avoiding activities or places that might make things worse. Maybe you decline social events that feel like sources of additional stress, or don’t apply for a new job because you may be painfully rejected. Do you feel trapped by factors beyond your control, in your work situation, relationship or social life? You may feel certain that your choices are limited.
All of these instincts are normal, but they can also increase stress and contribute to burnout. With your therapist’s help you may begin to look at your approach to things you find difficult and gradually begin to explore alternatives.
Relaxation often seems automatic and easy—you’ll relax completely just as soon as stressors disappear and you can afford endless vacation, right?
Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that! The ability to relax yourself when you need to wherever you are is a skill. Most of us are better at finding new sources of stress than letting go! You can learn to relax even with the imperfect life you have with help, rather than waiting for your impossibly stress-free dream life. In therapy you can learn healthy ways to set stress aside temporarily. The ability to relax your mind and body regularly can make even serious problems seem much less difficult to face.
Your therapist can also help you build new positive habits and activities that allow you to accomplish your goals, or to build interpersonal skills that allow you to be more relaxed in your relationships. These are the type of positive changes that loosen anxiety’s tight grip on your time and energy.
What about medication?
A doctor may discuss the possible benefits as well as the risks of medication with you. Anxiety is an illness, and in some cases medications can help to break the cycle of panic and move toward recovery. Psychotherapy and medications can be used either separately or together for successful treatment of panic disorder. If medication may be helpful for you, your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications, certain antidepressants or a class of heart medications known as beta-blockers to help prevent or control panic attacks.
Edited by: Mayte Parada, PhD