Recognizing signs and treating burnout

It’s not just you: Research shows that an influx of people worldwide are experiencing symptoms of burnout. More specifically, last year Microsoft surveyed 20,000 people worldwide to find that 50% of employees and 53% of managers felt burnt out at work. The weight of the world can’t be borne by anyone, but burnout can feel like you’re doing just that while barely making your way through everyday life.

Charryse Johnson LCMHC, NCC, a certified mental health counselor and founder of Jade Integrative Counseling and Wellness, often refers to burnout as “managing the unsurmountable burden.” And without intervention, it can escalate into more serious mental health problems. “It’s not just about relieving symptoms, but understanding the ingredients that predispose us to overwhelm,” adds Johnson.

Keep reading to learn more about burnout, burnout symptoms, and coping with burnout, all advised by mental health experts.

What is a burnout?

“Burnout is a form of exhaustion that occurs when we feel overwhelmed and unable to maintain sufficient balance. It can happen to anyone experiencing prolonged emotional, physical, or mental stress,” explains Johnson.

Jake Goodman, MD, mental health expert for the United Brain Association adds that the most common thing we hear about burnout is in the workplace, but burnout also exists in school, home, and caregiver.

In general, Johnson says there are three types of burnout:

  • Overload: When your drive and effort to achieve something creates an unsustainable pace and ignores your health and personal life.
  • Challenged Down: If you are unfulfilled, consider your role monotonous, or you have become disconnected from your passions.
  • Neglect: When you feel helpless, frustrated and unable to find solutions to difficult, stressful situations.

Burnout symptoms

Burnout comes in many different ways – and some symptoms are easier to spot than others. Here are the ones to look out for, according to Johnson and Goodman.

Physical burnout symptoms

We know that mental and physical health are linked, so physical signs that your stress meter is maxed out include:

  • Headache
  • Changes in appetite
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Difficulty staying present in conversation
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Chronic illness

Symptoms of a mental burnout

Mental signals that may be harder to spot include:

  • Overload
  • Neglecting your personal needs
  • Tension
  • Irritability
  • A feeling of inner emptiness, hopelessness
  • Impostor syndrome (a persistent feeling of inadequacy and fear that you cannot live up to standards you think have been set)

Causes of burnout

Everyone has a different capacity for cumulative, chronic stress, or what neurobiology calls your allostatic load, says Johnson. “When life challenges exceed our ability to cope, our allostatic system becomes overloaded and burnout ensues,” she adds.

Other more specific causes of burnout, according to Johnson and Goodman, include:

  • Over-involvement
  • Feeling overloaded
  • Having trouble saying no or missing boundaries
  • Being in very demanding environments
  • Persistent avoidance of personal needs (mental and physical)
  • Excessive working hours
  • Lack of supportive relationships
  • Bad resources
  • Toxic bosses or colleagues
  • Financial stress
  • Family stress
  • Disease
  • Lack of purpose

How to recover from burnout and prevent it

Working through burnout isn’t always easy, but there are some solid, reliable coping mechanisms that can help you feel normal again.

Recognize the burnout

“This is easier said than done,” says Goodman. “Sometimes I ask myself questions like, ‘Do I feel so exhausted that I can’t find joy or purpose in my work? Do I have more bad days than good ones?’ If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, it could be a sign that I’m on the road to burnout.”

Goodman adds that it may take someone else to spot it for you. “Has a friend or loved one mentioned that you’ve been more withdrawn or cynical lately?” he asks. “That could also be a sign.”

Establish daily routines

It sounds simple, but Johnson says prioritizing personal routines like proper sleep hygiene, exercise, consistent meals and developing an identity outside of work can make a huge difference. This, she says, gives you a good foundation for knowing when things are going smoothly and when burnout is trying to creep back.

“Burnout is easier to solve if you are proactive versus reactive. At the first sign of stress, try to refrain from continuing or rationalizing bad coping behaviors,” she adds.

Reach out for support

Better yet, maintain a consistent level of support at all times, Johnson suggests. “Consistently having open and honest discussions about your stress, followed by action steps toward change, are very effective ways to stay afloat,” she adds.

Manage your workload

If you feel overburdened, talk to your boss, colleagues or family about where you stand, and know that you cannot perform at a quality level in a burnout state. Do your best to reduce your workload so that you can maintain better balance and therefore better health.

Find what gives you joy

Not to sound cliche, but life is really about the little things that ground you in the present. “For me, this is gardening, skateboarding, or listening to music,” says Goodman. But for you, it might be painting, yoga, cooking, fishing, hiking, or a new hobby you have yet to find. Investing time in these practices will promote your mental health and act as a welcome distraction from life’s more stressful moments.

Seek professional help

    If none of the best coping strategies help and burnout tends to lead to depression, you may want to find a therapist. “A mental health professional can give you a toolkit to help manage symptoms of burnout, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (i.e., breathing exercises or meditation) or cognitive behavioral therapy,” says Goodman.

    If you start to feel so hopeless that you start having suicidal thoughts, it’s critical that you contact a mental health professional or call a crisis line, says Goodman: “In the United States, anyone can call the 988 Lifeline 24/7 call or text to get confidential support in a mental health crisis.”

    Kayla Blanton is a freelance writer covering all things health and nutrition for men’s, women’s health and prevention. Her hobbies include sipping coffee all the time and pretending to be a Chopped contestant while cooking.

Recognizing signs and treating burnout

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