Dealing with burnout can be overwhelming. That feeling of reaching a tipping point can make it feel like life will never go back to normal again. Speaking from my own experience, I can say that it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with in my life. Some see burnout as being the same as depression. Although the two certainly intersect, there are a few key differences. You can reach burnout level without having a diagnosis of major depressive disorder or clinical depression. You can reach this point from stress overload. In the majority of cases, burnout is situational. This means that it is not usually caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, but rather an overload of stress and anxiety.
Before I share some strategies to help you cope, it first helps to understand why dealing with burnout can be challenging. As with functional depression, the biggest challenge with burnout is that it can too easily go unnoticed. You may feel overwhelmed and you may be battling to cope, but you think you are just having a rough month. You may think you are weak or that you should be able to cope with life more effectively. You probably guilt-trip yourself as well. Most of the time, we don’t stop to think about WHY things have reached this point. Because it’s easy to overlook or dismiss burnout, getting help can be much harder. To make dealing with burnout a little easier, I’ve put together some strategies that helped me when I reached that point.
Effective Strategies for Dealing with Burnout
First things first, what is burnout, exactly? Burnout is a state of exhaustion – mental, physical and emotional – that is caused by ongoing, high levels of stress. It does not happen suddenly. Instead, it happens in stages. At first, you may feel busy but ready to power through everything. You will then begin to feel stressed – normal stress at first, which increases constantly. You will begin to feel anxious, overworked and flooded with thoughts that something has got to give. From here, you will feel completely exhausted, overwhelmed and unable to deal with life. Even the smallest things will feel impossible. It’s a bit like trying to juggle a huge number of balls and then feeling like the entire lot is about to come crashing down. When it is not treated or major lifestyle changes are not made, it can be serious enough to cause major physical, mental and emotional problems. It can even increase your risk of heart-related issues. Needless to say, acting quickly is essential.
Here are some of the things that helped me the most when I hit burnout point.
The biggest, and most important, thing that is needed right now is change. Burnout is a sign that things in your life are no longer working. You may be over-working or trying to do too much. You may be struggling to set boundaries. Work and life might be too hard to balance right now. you could be in a place that no longer feels right. When everything gets too much, something has to change. I know it’s not as simple as that for most people. I was extremely lucky and had the chance to get out of the city for a few years. You don’t have to take drastic action. You don’t have to quit your job (unless it is causing burnout and you can no longer cope). You can still make changes, however. Dealing with burnout requires lifestyle changes. This could mean anything from quitting unhealthy habits such as drinking too much, cutting out toxic people from your life, taking time off work if that is possible, seeing a therapist or coach, getting onto medication of your burnout has caused depression or anxiety, and taking a very good look at what is no longer working. Even small changes can make a huge difference.
When I was battling my way through burnout, I had no routines in my life at all. If anything, my lack of routine became a routine of sorts. I did not have any proper structure in my days. Instead, my days were the same – wake up, work, work some more, get onto the couch to watch series or play The Sims (my escape back then), drink too much wine, then go to bed late. That was on my quiet days. When things got busy, my days were a blur of waking up, working, not eating, not sleeping right and sometimes not sleeping at all as I worked right through the night. Slowly, as I started dealing with burnout, I began to change these bad habits with healthy routines. I started eating breakfast – a HUGE thing for me at that point. I began to set basic work hours. I started making time for lunch. I started sitting in the garden in the afternoons, having tea and watching the birds at their feeders. Later, I got back onto my yoga mat. I started with one practice a week and eventually moved to a daily practice. Then I got back to running – something I had I had loved before burnout hit. I developed a bedtime routine, too. Breathing exercises that I still use today, relaxation, music and gratitude. All of these routines helped to give my days structure. It was easier to manage my time and I increased my productivity at work because I was consciously creating a healthier lifestyle. I won’t lie… my routines are currently not as healthy. I still have them, though. And they still help.
I cannot stress this enough. A support network is absolutely essential. A major challenge I had at the time was thinking that I was alone. I was trying to do everything on my own, not letting anyone help. I had many ‘friends’ but I realised that they were not the same as truly close friends that I could lean on when I desperately needed help. Having a lot of friends is not a bad thing. I never felt that I could burden them with my problems and soon battled to stick to social obligations. This made me feel guilty, which added to my stress even more. Eventually, after being out in the countryside for a few years, my circle was smaller when I returned. This was not necessarily a bad thing. The friends that had stayed in touch while I was away were still here. The friends I started making became my best friends who helped me through the ups and downs I have faced after dealing with burnout and coming out the other side. Talking to people is hard. It’s very hard to take that first step and say, “I am not ok.” Support networks do not always come in the form of friends you see every single day. They don’t only include friends, either. Therapists, online friends, long-time friends, family, pastors, support groups… there are many different ways to get support. All of them have the same purpose – to make you realise that you are not alone.
Recovering from burnout is a process. It can reveal a lot more about you than you could ever know. It showed me that the control I had been trying so hard to hang onto for so many years was not really as scary as I thought. I always had a fear that losing that control would unleash some sort of angry monster. I thought that it would bring me to my knees and make me weaker. Instead, it brought me a weird sense of peace.
As a people-pleasing control freak, I still need to have things in order. I learned that it’s ok to fall apart and that I can survive. I got through burnout, just as I got through the depression it caused and the trauma behind it all. I didn’t just bounce back, of course. It was difficult and scary and exhausting. I felt like a failure. Leaving the city for the countryside felt like running away and I felt like I was giving up. I thought that was the end of everything. What I didn’t know then was that it was the start of everything.
If you have been battling to deal with burnout, please know that you are not alone. Life is incredibly stressful at the best of times. We don’t need a global pandemic to reach burnout. You are human, with very real emotions, fears and challenges. The goal here is not to keep trying to carry on when you are unable to move forward. It’s to recognise and accept that things are Not Ok. Once you realise this, you can start your path to healing.
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As with all things related to mental health, please remember that getting help is essential. Self care and other coping strategies are needed as well but they will not work unless you get the help you need. If you are battling with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts or any other effects of burnout, see your doctor as soon as possible. You can then find the best treatment that works alongside self care strategies to help you start dealing with burnout properly.