Beating Burnout: How to Identify and Address Symptoms - Humantold

Beating Burnout: How to Identify and Address Symptoms

Alexandra Kadish LMHC March 14, 2024

You may not see the damage burnout has immediately, but it is there.

Burnout occurs after a long period of chronic stress. When experiencing chronic stress our energy reserves get depleted and emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, and cognitive weariness are soon to follow; carrying out responsibilities becomes harder by tenfold and there is havoc caused to our sense of control. You may not see the damage burnout has immediately, but it is there. As the conditions triggering burnout are left unaddressed, little by little, burnout will continue its damage. The key to avoiding burnout is understanding how to identify and address the accompanied symptoms.

Am I experiencing burnout?

Burnout is a collection of symptoms and when present has a significant impact on health and wellbeing. To mitigate the risk of burnout, take note of the warning signs or symptoms. These can include chronic fatigue, impaired concentration or forgetfulness, physical symptoms (chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, and / or headaches), change in appetite, anhedonia / lack of interest, feeling of inefficiency, procrastination, cynicism, and psychological exhaustion. Burnout can creep up over a matter of months or even years, so be diligent about noticing the clues. 

Getting accustomed to the signs of stress can help know when action is necessary. Stress is meant to be a short-term measure for our bodies, and in certain amounts can be helpful. When an individual rides a roller coaster, competes in a game, or goes on a first date, they experience good stress. This type of stress, otherwise known as short-term or acute stress, inspires and motivates, focuses energy, and enhances performance. 

Bad stress or chronic stress persists over a long period of time and thrives through habitual interactions, such as a stressful work environment, growing up in an unsupportive household, a demanding partner, or being a victim of bullying. Chronic stress eventually amounts to burnout, puts pressure on the body, causes a range of symptoms, and increases the risk of developing certain illnesses. Burnout and regular stress may be hard to differentiate, but one way to differentiate is to ask yourself whether the feelings you are experiencing have an end in sight. Do you suffer from a cycle of negative emotions and avoidance resulting from exerting yourself emotionally, mentally, or physically without much reprieve? If so, you may be experiencing burn out.

Differentiating burnout from other similar conditions is important as there are different treatment regimens. Emotion is one factor that distinguishes fatigue from burn out. Everyone has long, difficult days where they are left feeling tired, drained of strength and in need of relaxation. This is a normal, natural response to a long day, and there may be a sense of accomplishment that comes from it. While with burnout, no satisfaction or positivity is derived. Regular fatigue can be tackled with vitamins, sufficient rest, a balanced diet, exercise, and limiting caffeine / alcohol intake. Whereas, with burnout being intentional with basic needs can help, but more strategies are needed to reverse and build resiliency to burnout.

Burn out and depressive symptoms can also look very similar. The difference lies in the cause, duration, and management methods. Burn out is the result of prolonged, unresolved stress, and depression is not always linked to a cause. Depression can have triggers but can also be experienced in the absence of stressors. It’s important to note that burnout and depression can be experienced simultaneously, and unacknowledged burnout can be followed by depression.

What contributes to burnout?

Research on burnout started with workplace stress and its impact on the employee. It is now known that the same collection of symptoms that categorizes burn out is being seen worldwide, and not just with people in paid employment. This is not to diminish the impact of workload and pressure in the workplace, which is a common cause of burn out. Workspaces have become more competitive and chaotic than ever before with organizations trying to keep up with our fast-paced world. Work can gobble as much time as an individual is willing to give it and with the city cost of living being higher than other regions of the United States, individuals may be more willing to experience strain to have financial gain. In addition to workload and pressure, some of the other common contributors to burnout are endurance, perceived lack of control, mismatched values, and environment.

Every individual has a unique tolerance to hardship or adversity. This is known as endurance. Maintaining a healthy, happy relationship is one life aspect where endurance makes a difference. Intimate relationships are hard work as there are sometimes periods of strain. It is during the periods of strain, where endurance is needed. A mindset where an individual feels pessimistic, unmotivated, and unfulfilled may intensify a body’s resistance to develop the endurance needed when a relationship is going through adverse conditions. A shift in mindset can aid an individual’s ability to continue through periods of suffering and make bumps in relationships feel more manageable.

Working with individuals just starting out in their career gives me a glimpse into the lack of control perceived as an entry level employee. An entry level employee may be told to do tedious, repetitive tasks that are seemingly irrelevant and not amounting to anything. Having to arrive at work daily to complete trivial tasks with no power to change them can be daunting and contribute to mental fatigue and lack of interest. 

Consistent interaction with individuals of differing beliefs or values can also be deeply dissatisfying and perpetuate burn out. This can happen in the workplace or with interpersonal relationships. Being surrounded by those that have mismatched values can leave individuals feeling alone, misunderstood, or under-appreciated. If an individual values open-dialogue and collaboration in the workplace and is met with someone that makes all the decisions without inquiring about teammate’s input, an individual can be left feeling disrespected and frustrated. Value alignment is pivotal for satisfaction and happiness in any environment. Being surrounded with like-minded individuals, motivation and cooperation tends to increase. When friends share core values, a healthy long-term relationship can more easily develop. Without similar ideals, friction may become unavoidable as communication, conflict resolution, problem-solving, and mutual decision-making will be less than straightforward.

When addressing burnout, it is also important to be conscious of your surrounding environment, as a toxic environment can make it challenging to manage emotions and derive satisfaction. Actions, inactions, and every day decision-making may be influenced by our environment, but everyone has the choice to make a diligent effort to act in a way that prioritizes health and wellbeing. If you would not expect a pet fish to survive and flourish in an environment with polluted water, then I challenge you to have the same expectations for yourself.

Burnout and Urban Life

There is a constant drive to be more and do more in urban societies, and the cost of that can be emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. There can be negative consequences to relentless productivity that is seemingly expected, and these expectations can keep individuals from prioritizing their health and wellbeing.

Completing more tasks may give us a sense of control in a world riddled with uncertainty and things may seem a bit more manageable if you just get this or that task done. But, in a culture where productivity is heavily linked to our self-worth, people feel pressure to keep up and compare their progress with the next person’s. In the hustle – bustle of the city, it becomes difficult to take breaks as people become struck with guilt about the stigma attached to rest and lean on the idea that rest is unproductive. Individuals affiliate sitting down with laziness rather than good health. Nobody would question that the act of brushing one’s teeth is essential to maintaining our dental care, so perhaps a perspective change is necessary.

Along with this undue pressure of productivity in an urban environment, such as New York City, there are also higher crime rates, the feeling of always being in a rush, over-populated places, loud city noises, and bright lights that can all contribute to a constant fight-or-flight response. The constant over-stimulation can make the body more vulnerable to the contributors of burnout. These obstacles to proper mental health management are just not as prevalent in rural environments.

Scheduling downtime has become a normally neglected part of urban culture and the pressure to have a side hustle, learn more, and keep evolving has pushed back against our natural need to relax. 

What helps burnout?

Burnout is a gradual process, and signs and symptoms may not be so obvious to recognize. Although subtle at first, watch out for warning signs as symptoms get worse as time goes on. Think of early symptoms as clues that something is wrong and needs to be addressed.

After noticing the warning signs, it is important to reverse symptoms of burnout by seeking support, manage stress better, and build resilience to stress by taking care of emotional and physical health. Some ways to manage symptoms are to establish boundaries, foster new friendships, cultivate a rich, non-work life, set aside time for rest or relaxation, establish boundaries, reframe mindset, improve sleep hygiene, and tend to physical health.

When experiencing burnout, it can feel like an uphill battle to take the necessary steps to alleviate suffering. Mustering up the energy to care, let alone take action to help yourself could be daunting. Know that there are a lot of steps that can be taken that are in your control, one of the most effective is utilizing your support system. Interacting with others, whether it be a counselor, coach, or a friend, can help to calm the nervous system and relieve stress. A person may not be able to single-handedly fix your problems, but don’t underestimate the benefits of having an attentive listener that makes you feel understood and heard.

Developing friendships with people you work with can help buffer the effects of burnout in the workplace. Cultivating a community outside of everyday work can also help an individual feel less stressed and more fulfilled. Talking to like-minded people can create a feeling of mutual inclusion and support. Communities can also encourage accountability in meeting your own emotional and physical needs. Just be conscious to limit your contact with pessimistic individuals. Interacting with those who have a negative mindset may damper mood and one’s outlook of themselves, others, and the world. If interactions with a negative person are obligatory, establishing limits around the amount of time spent together is always within your control. 

When increasing your interpersonal interactions, keep in mind that boundaries help you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships. Establishing boundaries can be intimidating, especially when an individual has not practiced boundary setting before, but necessary. Boundaries are ways to communicate our needs to others via words or actions and without setting these expectations in relationships, mental and emotional wellness can suffer. Practice saying “no” as this is one step towards respecting your own capacities and potentially diminishing the effects of burnout. Remind yourself that saying “no” allows you to say yes to commitments you want to make.

Setting aside time for rest and relaxation can help to replenish energy in a state of burnout. Rest does not mean be immobile. Relaxation techniques can include activities such as yoga, meditation, strolling, cycling, going to the spa, walking a dog, sketching, sunbathing, and deep breathing. Whatever resting means for you, do it! The most crucial part of resting is that your brain is in a relaxed state and is not actively working. Developing a positive mindset also aids in building resiliency against burnout. Taking the time to reframe and generate more positive thoughts not only allows an individual to feel more motivated, but also assists in serotonin production (hormone responsible for boosting mood) and hinders the release of cortisol (stress hormone). Stress can start with our thoughts and trickle down to our body, as the mind and body are heavily interconnected, so mindset attention as well to physical health is pivotal in burnout management. 

Maintaining physical health involves being intentional with meeting your body’s basic needs. Exercise may not be so appealing when experiencing burn out, but it does boost mood, increase energy, sharpens focus, and relaxes both the mind and body. Exercising can look like a ten-minute burst of dancing or thirty minutes of walking. A healthy diet and sleep also impacts mood and energy levels throughout the day. Keep your body fed with the energy and nutrients that it needs. With less optimal sleep, brain functioning slows down, memory is impaired, the frequency of accidents increases, and most important to burnout, stress rises. Some ways to improve sleep hygiene are to establish a regular sleep schedule, avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, and use your body only for sleep. Substances like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine can affect one’s ability to fall asleep and impact the quality of sleep. When a bed is used only for sleep, your body learns to associate your bed with sleep. If you are interacting with your phone, television, or work in bed, your body may affiliate the bed with being alert.

Whether you feel overwhelmed, on the verge of burnout, or currently burning out, utilizing these tools can help you feel relief and alleviate the suffering. Don’t underestimate or ignore burnout as it can turn into a condition that wreaks havoc on all your life aspects. Make a change to your daily life to see a positive change happen.

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