Mentally drained. Lower performance than usual. Just going through the motions to get the day done. But she’s gotta have it all. As anyone who has pushed themselves too hard knows, burnout is a very real phenomenon. When we overextend ourselves physically, mentally, or emotionally (and usually some combination of a few), we can quickly reach our limit and feel utterly exhausted. This is especially the case when you already have other mental health issues (like anxiety, depression, etc.). Stress on top of this can have you feeling like you’re trapped between 4 walls closing in on you.
It can be particularly challenging to identify burnout, especially when you're in the thick of it. Suppose you're struggling to keep up with your usual workload, feeling more irritable and impatient than expected. Or maybe you just generally feel like you're running on vapor (or coffee and energy drinks, whatever keeps you going). In that case, these could be the first few signs that what you’re experiencing is burnout.
While the key to avoiding burnout is to make realistic expectations of your bandwidth and to take breaks before reaching them, sometimes it's impossible to do this when you’re in the moment. This takes a dedicated and intentional strategy of putting yourself first. If you find yourself in a situation where you're already starting to feel burnt out, keep reading to see how to recognize it and how to nip it in the bud.
Here’s What Burnout Actually Looks Like.
It's hard to pin down what “burnout” feels like because it has different manifestations for everyone. In general, burnout can be described as physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. A ‘triple whammy’ of sorts. It’s like you’re burning from both ends of the Le Labo candle.
When you're experiencing burnout, you might feel like you're running on fumes, like your tank is empty but you still have to keep going. It’s like you just have to get to the end of the day. If I can just get to the weekend. Omg, it’s Monday and I just need to get to the end of the week again. It may be difficult for you to concentrate or focus on anything and you could feel more impatient and irritable than usual. Has anyone close to you mentioned any personality differences or noted that you’re not your usual self? One way to check is to ask someone within your proximity if they’ve sensed that something is off with you or your relationship dynamics.
Your body will tell you exactly what’s going on before you can intellectually understand. You may actually start to feel like you’re running on the fringes of your limits. Like it’s not actually you doing your daily duties, like it’s a silhouette or a frame of yourself getting your through the motions. You could come up with symptoms like headaches, fatigue, and even illness (especially like recurring flus and colds). Additionally, if you're having trouble concentrating or sleeping, you may be experiencing burnout.
These symptoms can make it difficult to function well at work, at home with your family, with your friends, maintaining hobbies, and any other realm of your personal life. In severe cases, burnout can seriously affect your health and well-being and even lead to depression or anxiety.
Does This Sound Like What You’re Going Through?
If you're not sure whether you're experiencing burnout, there are a few signs to recognize when burnout starts climbing in. Although everyone experiences burnout differently, there are common signs and symptoms to look out for.
You Feel Exhausted All the Time
If you feel exhausted even when you haven't been working hard, it's a sign that you need to take a break. Physical exhaustion is often the first symptom of burnout, so if you're tired all the time, it's a good idea to check in with yourself and see how you're doing. What does your Google Calendar look like right now? Do you have anything scheduled for yourself? Is it consistently studying and working blocks and no breaks? Do you have commitments scheduled for each day of the week? You need to schedule something fun and healthy to make it a non-negotiable. Create a self-care calendar and add something to look forward to. A Netflix or Hulu binge to celebrate making it to Friday night. A few group fitness classes (with your mask on, for sure) throughout the week. Schedule a weekend brunch with the girls. Something to get you away from the daily grind.
You’re Disengaged and Have Trouble Concentrating
When we get burned out, our minds are usually in a constant churn, making it difficult to focus on any task in front of us. If you have trouble concentrating or completing simple tasks, that’s a good indication that you need to take a step back and give yourself a break. Finding it hard to focus on your work or projects is another common sign of burnout—we may start to feel like our work is pointless or that we're not making any progress. This can lead to a feeling of disengagement and apathy towards our work.
You’ve Been a Debbie Downer
Many times when you’re burned out, you’ll adopt a negative outlook on life. Every molehill turns into Mt. Everest. You have trouble anticipating what needs to be done. It could be an errand you’ve needed to run for days or weeks and instead of treating it like a coffee pickup, you’re paralyzed like it’s Tax day. You could also be more critical of those closest to you and see the world through a darker lens than usual. (This could also be a sign of lurking depression). Unless you're usually a pessimist, this change in perspective should be treated as a vital sign for burnout.
You’re Withdrawn and Isolated
When burned out, we often lose interest in the things that used to bring us joy. We may stop going out with friends or participating in activities we used to enjoy. Even simple things, like talking on the phone or going for a walk, may feel too much effort. At some point, you may feel like you need to distance yourself from others, even if you're unsure why. You may isolate yourself from your friends and family or avoid social interactions altogether.
Girl, Where Does Burnout Even Come From?
While burnout can have several origins, there are a few that most people come across. One of the most common causes of burnout is stress. There’s eustress (excitement) and then distress (angst and avoidance). When we're under a lot of pressure, especially with things out of our control, either at work or in our personal lives, it can take a toll on our mental and physical health.
A combination of work-related factors (such as unrealistic deadlines, excessive workloads, or lack of control over our work), personal factors (such as caring for a loved one or managing our health), and environmental factors (such as stress from current events) can all lead to burnout.
Burnout can also be caused by a lack of professional support at work or emotional support in our personal lives. When we don't have a strong support system to rely on, it can make it harder to cope with stress and other challenges.
Here Are a Few First Steps:
If these signs and symptoms above apply to you, then you're likely struggling with burnout and it’s not just in your mind. You’re not lazy. You don’t need to work harder. What you need is to slow down and prioritize yourself. You know that you're not alone and there are a few things you can do (within your control) to ease the symptoms and start on the road to recovery.
First and foremost, take time for yourself every day to do something you enjoy, even if it's just for a few minutes. You cannot pour from an empty cup, so take care of yourself first. In addition, try to eat healthy meals and exercise regularly, as both can help improve your mood and reduce stress levels. When you wake up, try doing a 5-10 minute stretch or meditation routine.
Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and get their input on managing them best, especially if you're struggling with anxiety or depression. Sometimes, it takes getting to the root of the issue. If your work is a significant source of stress, talk to your boss about ways to reduce your workload or make your job more manageable. Or you could schedule some PTO time once projects are finished up. It’s there for a reason.
Finally, reach out to friends and family for support. Talking to someone who cares and understands what you're going through can significantly help. With care and understanding, you can begin to heal from burnout and move forward in your life. If friends and family aren’t a feasible option for talking about mental health issues, look into a therapist. A Black woman therapist. Having a therapist who looks like you feels a lot like a sip of warm lemon tea.
If you constantly feel overwhelmed, see if there are any areas of your life where you can delegate or let go of some responsibility. And if you're struggling to cope with a particular situation, whether at work or in your personal life, don't be afraid to seek professional help. A therapist can provide support and guidance as you navigate this difficult time.
This is How You Recover From Burnout
Recovering from burnout can take some time, but it is possible to feel better, even when it looks like there’s no end in sight. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. It can take months or years to get to it but the most important thing is to be patient and allow yourself the time you need to heal. Get on track as soon as you feel the symptoms come up. It can’t rain forever but you don’t want to get so far out of whack that you have to come back from drowning when you can step outside of the cloud for a sec.
Start by taking things slow and permitting yourself to rest when you need it. You don't have to push yourself to do everything at once. In addition, make sure to schedule time for fun and relaxation, even if it's just a few minutes each day. A 10-minute walk around your block (if it’s safe to do so) can help you decompress and return to work or your personal life refreshed. Anything is better than nothing at all. If all you have is 5 minutes for a HIIT workout, then take what you have. If you can squeeze in a Rest is just as important as taking action, if not more important. Rest helps you recover from your daily struggles. It’s like weightlifting. You can use your muscle to break it down, but you need the rest days to recover and rebuild. Use rest to rebuild, refocus, and refresh yourself.
You should also avoid making big changes in your life, such as changing jobs or ending a relationship, as you're recovering from burnout. These types of changes can be stressful and make the adjustment process that much more different. Instead, focus on taking care of yourself and gradually reintroducing activities into your life. Decide on the things that matter the most. When you think of self-care, what’s the one thing that pops into your mind that you just can’t live without? Make that your go-to.
When you start to feel more like yourself, slowly introduce more activities to your life, but don't try to take on too much at once—pace yourself and listen to your body. If you feel overwhelmed again, take a step back, and scale your commitments. If you haven’t been out of the house in a minute, take some day trips on the weekend to a mall, library, or coffee shop. Just something different to get you out. If you haven’t been talking with your folks, schedule a phone call once a week to touch base with someone. Nothing too serious or too much when you’re pulling yourself by the bootstraps to get out of the dumps.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself during this process, and remember that healing takes time. If you’re going through a tough time, it's okay not to be at your best. Burnout happens to the best of us. I’m sure if you asked Serena Williams or Beyonce about burnout, we’d have some colorful stories to eat from. So give yourself grace and space to heal, and you'll eventually get back to a place where you're feeling better.
You Can Prevent Burnout, Too.
No one is immune to burnout. No one is too big or too important to experience overwhelm. We've all been there at some point, feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and like we just can't keep going. And if not yet, you likely will in the future. But there are a few ways to prevent burnout before it happens:
Healthy boundaries are the antidote and the preventive measure for burnout. It's essential to set boundaries to avoid burnout. Know your limits, and don't try to do more than you realistically can. A full plate keeps you from being bored but you may not get to everything. Say no when you need to, ask for help (or outsource) when necessary, and make time for yourself every day, even if it's just a few minutes. Putting yourself first isn't selfish—it's necessary to avoid burnout. For example, a single mother of 3 cannot be everything to each child, all the time, especially if finances and schooling come into play. You have to choose between spending more time or spending more money in most cases. If you don’t want to spend 3 hours a day making a meal, you can buy a subscription to a meal prep delivery service. As long as those kids have some well-balanced meals, it doesn’t matter if you make them. You don’t have to be the cookie-making and baking soccer mom from the ‘50s who doesn’t miss a beat. Another example. If you’re taking overtime at work to get extra money, maybe try rationing your OT hours and shifts so that you get extra money every now and then, but also get a break from the hustle and bustle. You can have it all, but not all at once. You can keep adding things to your plate, but the pie doesn’t keep getting bigger. Each piece just keeps getting smaller. You’ll be able to make one piece of the pie bigger at the expense of others, depending on what season of life you’re in. You could be in a season where the ‘fitness’ piece is larger but then have children and they get a larger proportion of your time, money, and attention. You could be in a season where taking a break is paramount, then enroll into a competitive graduate school that requires more out of you, a tighter, faster-paced routine than that.
Build a Support System
You need a village. The ‘Team of Me’ isn’t going to work all the time. We all need someone to lean on from time to time. Whether it's a friend, family member, or therapist, make sure you have a support system that you can rely on when things get tough. People who hold important roles in your life can provide valuable guidance and help you stay on track when things get overwhelming.
Take Care of Yourself, First and Foremost.
You are the Star-Player in your own narrative. No one is coming to save you from yourself and no one else is going to care for you like you will. You have to make self-care activities non-negotiable. This may seem obvious, but it's often one of the first things that lapse when we're busy and just trying to make do. Make sure you care for yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Eat healthy meals, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and take breaks when necessary. Schedule the times for self-care that work with your body and your schedule. If working out in the morning is a drag, schedule your time after work or during a work break, etc. Don’t work against your natural body rhythm. You could create more stress for yourself trying to live up to these unrealistic and arbitrary expectations. Live according to what works for YOU the best. Some kind of self-care is better than the perfect image of self-care.
When you take care of yourself, you'll be better equipped to handle whatever comes your way without burning out or losing steam. An empty cup is an asset to no one else. Do whatever you need to fill yourself up so that you can be fully present in each area of your life.
How do you manage your self-care when you start to feel burned out?