February 27, 2018

Tired? Here’s How to Avoid Burnout

The power of resiliency and recovery

When you dream big and work hard, you want (and usually expect) to achieve all that you set your mind to, if not more.

But that level of effort combined with high expectations means these same hard workers also commonly experience burnout.

And (as you’ve probably already experienced) you will also ignore any sign that you’re running out of steam and push on, over, and through it with everything you’ve got.

To what end, though?

Burnout – being in a state of chronic stress that causes exhaustion (the physical, mental, and emotional kinds), insomnia, and anxiety – is becoming more and more common.

You might have noticed some of these symptoms in yourself, but attributed it to other causes rather than as a part of burnout.

And since you don’t just wake up one morning “with burnout” like you do with the flu, it’s important to be aware of and listen to your body’s warning signs over time. Because doing so will help you avoid the disruptive consequences of burnout, which will actually keep you from achieving your goals.

We aren’t here to tell you to stop working hard. Instead, we want to share our ideas with you on how to build resilience in healthy ways so you can be your best, non-burnt-out, big-goal-achieving self.

The signs are there, but are you paying attention?

Stress itself is not always a bad thing. It can actually get you going and keep you going.

In moderation, stress actually serves as really powerful motivation, as studies at UC Berkeley have shown. Short bursts of stress can increase your alertness and performance, by waking you up to the task at hand.

But chronic stress not only affects how you feel (depressed, anxious, tired, etc.), but also constricts your blood vessels, increases blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease, and suppresses the immune system.

Plus, prolonged stress also makes you less effective in your work. It negatively affects your judgment and attention skills, causing you to perform at a lower standard than you otherwise would.

If you don’t know what the warning signs of burnout and chronic stress are, how will you protect yourself from the damaging consequences? Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., writes for Psychology Today in a segment called “High Octane Women.”

She categorizes the signs of burnout into three groups:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion, which manifests in a variety of ways:
    • Fatigue
    • Insomnia
    • Forgetfulness
    • Physical symptoms, like chest pains or shortness of breath
    • Increased illness
    • Loss of appetite
    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • Anger
  • Cynicism and detachment, such as:
    • Loss of enjoyment
    • Pessimism
    • Isolation
  • Ineffectiveness and feeling a lack of accomplishment, which includes:
    • Apathy and hopelessness
    • Irritable
    • Lower productivity and poor performance

Do you see any of these qualities in yourself on a regular basis? How common is it for you to “crash” after a crazy time at work and need to completely recharge for a day, a week, a month? You might be experiencing an ongoing cycle of burnout, recovery, burnout, recovery.

When you’re running around with a full schedule, it’s easy to ignore these feelings and habits because they aren’t obviously connected, and you don’t necessarily feel them all of the time.

If you can’t objectively evaluate your stress levels, try UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Stress and Anxiety Quiz. Or ask a friend or family member who sees you everyday if they notice something is different. It’s easy to minimize symptoms, even if you are aware of them, so bring in an objective outsider who can give you honest feedback.

How to strengthen your resilience “muscle”

Resiliency is the ability to recover from and adapt to a setback, trauma, or in the case of burnout, chronic anxiety and stress. Like a muscle, it’s something that you have to strengthen, especially if you’re someone who is significantly affected by stress more than the average person.

Make (and take) time to recover

Pushing through stress and burnout is self-defeating. Your time will be better spent in by building in some recovery and self-care; otherwise your productivity and effectiveness will continue to diminish over time.

If that means you have to schedule time with or for yourself, schedule it in your planner for a time and place you can stick with; treat it like any other important appointment and don’t be late or put it off. These moments the most.

Locate your source of calm

Calming experiences and things come in all shapes and sizes. What brings you calm?

Engaging in calming activities builds resilience to and changes how we react to stress, giving us the presence of mind and stores of energy necessary to handle it in a healthier and more productive way. Here are some examples of ways to bring calm into your life:

  • Linda Graham, MFT, writes in her book “Bouncing Back” that seeking out calm people has a calming effect against anxiousness and stress. Reach out to a friend or person in your office who has a calming presence and spend time with them, even if it’s just a few minutes; go for a quick walk, chat, take a tea or coffee break. Or call someone who provides a calming conversation instead.
  • A hug or cuddle with a loved one creates calm through the release of the hormone oxytocin, relaxing the body.
  • Calming yoga, like hatha or restorative yoga, or a quiet meditation, can quiet your mind.
  • Scents like lavender are very relaxing. Studies show it creates soothing, calming, and sedative effects when inhaled, and it improves sleep quality, reduce anxiety, and may result in more stable mood when massaged into the skin. Try dabbing a couple drops of a calming essential oil on your skin or bedding.
Tap into your body’s natural resources

To build resilience, focus on doing those things that cause your body to produce the feel good neurotransmitter, endorphins:

  • Move your body. Physical exercise produces lots of endorphins, but also has the benefit of helping you sleep better, giving you a boost of energy, and improves your mood and overall outlook.
  • Combine exercise and nature. Recent studies show “green” exercise, exercising in nature such as walking, cycling, horseback riding, or fishing, for as little as 5 minutes significantly improves self esteem and mood. The presence of water is also significant. Take advantage of that fountain in your building’s courtyard or find a body of water to take a walk around.
  • Body work, like massage or acupuncture will release those endorphins and oxytocin too.
Lean on your support network

Who lifts you up? Who do you talk to about what’s going on in your life? Who do you have fun with?

Even if you don’t have a large social support network, studies show that the quality of the system is more important than the quantity. Make time for friends and family who make you feel lighter and happier after being around them.

Spend time alone with yourself

If you’ve just spent countless hours in meetings, negotiating, or talking to and dealing with people, it’s time to give yourself a break from all of the human interaction. Disconnect.

Spending time alone allows you space to better process how you feel and what is going on in your life at the present moment, which helps you overcome challenges smartly (as opposed to using brute force to get through it all).

To strengthen your resilience to stress, allow your brain to recover by disconnecting from people and technology for a short amount of time. Cal Newport writes that this means distancing yourself from the “output of other minds,” e.g. anything that another human being dismeninates from themselves to you:  

  • Get outside in nature, take a walk, sit on a bench, or hang out in your backyard listening to the sounds around you.
  • Work on your creative outlet(s), whether that’s working with your hands, or thinking through a method or idea on your own.
  • Practice self-compassion. Acknowledge a struggle in your life and your feelings about that struggle. Recognize that you are not alone in struggling, and set an intention to be kind to yourself as you move through this struggle.
  • Practice mindfulness or meditate. Mindfulness is a way to practice being in the moment, being aware of how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking in a nonjudgmental way. UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center offers free weekly meditation podcasts available to the public. And breathing meditations draw attention to your breath, making it the anchor point in your mind instead of your thoughts. Sit or lie down, close your eyes, and think about breathing in and out; breathe deeply, slow down, and let go of stressful and negative thoughts or feelings.
Look on the bright side – positivity is powerful

Being positive during a stressful time doesn’t mean ignoring or overlooking how you feel or what you’re going through. It’s not an unrealistic view of your world either. It is, however, recognizing that you’re going through a rough patch and having the confidence that you’ll get through it.

  • Find the silver lining. Look for the good in what seems to be the bad so you don’t lose focus on your goals or give up completely. It’s hard to get used to, but the more you practice this, the easier and more natural the thought pattern will become.
  • Recognize and savor the good that is in every day. Harvard Medical Center suggests this is easy to do for big life events, like a wedding or vacation, but is equally important for the smaller moments in your life. Stop multitasking; focus on the one thing you’re doing in the moment. Savor your meal, enjoy the way you’re able to listen to and hear a radio program, or notice the colors surrounding you in your environment.
  • Watch those adorable kitten videos on YouTube. What makes you laugh and take a lighter approach to life? Taking even a short a break to feel joy will help you build resilience to the present difficulties, bringing you back to the challenge refreshed.

Take care of yourself first, so you can do what you need to

It’s easy to push aside basics like getting enough sleep and eating healthy foods when you’re busy and overwhelmed. But taking that approach means burnout and its symptoms are going to be right around the corner, waiting for you.

You have to take care of yourself first if you’re going to accomplish all that you want.

It will take time to figure out what brings you the best relief from stress, how to build in time for yourself, or recognize and listen to the warning signs. Experience is a big factor. But no matter what, you’ll thank yourself for the effort and energy you put into flexing and strengthening your resilience muscle today!

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