We all deal with stress on a daily basis. However, when stress becomes prolonged, we can begin to experience emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion. This state of exhaustion is referred to as burnout. At some point we cannot continue to cope effectively with the high level of sustained stress, and we begin to experience symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches, difficultly sleeping, fatigue, loss of motivation, pessimism, emptiness, self-doubt and an overall lack of meaning. As this persists, we may start to neglect our needs and experience a desire to escape and avoid, which ultimately contributes to feeling more and more isolated and hopeless. If any of this sounds familiar, you are likely experiencing burnout.
Coping with burnout involves reducing the constant drain on your emotional resources by learning to move through the stress cycle and conserve your resources, while also working to replenish your reserves. When in the midst of ongoing stress, it is important to work on reducing the burden on your resources through self-care and regular breaks. Later, it is equally important to continue attending to our needs after the stressful event or circumstances have passed, which is often when we are in the most need of support. In this way we can work on moving through the stress cycle by allowing ourselves to recover and prepare for future stressors.
Emotional exhaustion is a key component of burnout. Therefore, emotional awareness is an essential part of working to reduce stress. This often starts with labeling and accepting what you are feeling, rather than avoiding or ignoring it. It is also helpful to recognize that emotions require patience and cannot be abruptly changed or avoided.
The metaphor of a tunnel has been used to describe the process of moving through an emotion in order to see the light at the end. When we get stuck in the middle of the tunnel for an extended period of time we begin to experience burnout. Labeling, accepting, and expressing our feelings to others helps us continue to move through the tunnel and arrive at the light.
Physical and mental exhaustion also play a significant role in burnout. Here, taking a break and finding a release are helpful coping strategies. This might take the form of a midday walk or other exercise, during which time you can intentionally direct your attention away from the sources of stress in your life. You might even try taking interesting or meditative pictures on your walk. It may also include things such as developing a regular meditation practice. Finally, it is essential to get adequate sleep, eat healthy foods, and stay well-hydrated.
Several additional strategies can be helpful for reducing the burden of constant stress:
Creating boundaries around your work or academic demands can be helpful for reducing mental and physical exhaustion. For example, you might set a timer and only work within that boundary, after which time you can plan a period of rest.
It is also helpful to communicate and connect with others to get support and to enjoy the benefits of connection. Social connection can also help us to feel less alone in our stress and burnout, particularly when the source of stress is common, such as the additional demands and restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Both giving and receiving support can go a long way in helping us cope.
Burnout can take a major toll on our motivation and sense of purpose. Therefore, it can be extremely helpful to reconnect with a sense of meaning. Try taking a step back and looking broadly at your current circumstances. Take a moment to find one or more things or people you feel good about and connect with a sense of gratitude for the things that are going well, despite the many challenges you may continue to face. Consider your long-term goals and connect with a greater purpose in your life. Lastly, take a moment to acknowledge the ways you have already been resilient in coping with prolonged stress.
Burnout is not a label for lack of effort or commitment, nor does it suggest any personal or moral failure. Yet, it should also not be worn as a badge of honor. It simply means you have been stuck in a tunnel of relentless stress and you have reached a point when taking some steps to address your physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion will be important for your continued well-being.
Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Visit us at lindquistpsych.com
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