Seven serious signs of burnout

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I wondered if this topic was worth writing about, since burnout is one of those things that you know it if you see it in someone else.

Trouble is, we sometimes have a hard time seeing it when it’s happening to us.

Plus, I wanted to write about this because I’m big on helping people-pleasers, and people-pleasers are notoriously vulnerable to burnout.  They’re so busy being accommodating that they frequently end up oversubscribed and overwhelmed.

Exposure to chronic stress has very serious consequences.  You may not see it at first.  You may even think you’ve gamed the system by simply powering through a tough situation or stressful job.

Unfortunately, American culture tends to aggrandize busy-ness and also the pulling-bootstraps method of handling feelings and personal limits.  So, most people have a distorted sense about what constitutes a reasonable amount of stress in a life.

But even if you live and work in a health-conscious city like Austin, you may still find yourself prone to episodes of burnout if you aren’t careful.

So let’s learn more about how to spot burnout and what you can do to feel better now.

Slow poison:  common signs of burnout

What do you think of when you think of burnout?  The signs are different from person to person.  Here are a few of the most common signs that you’re approaching, or in the middle of, a burnout.

Tears (or irritability).  If you startle yourself by crying over burned toast, something’s up.  Similarly, if you feel you’re always just one straw away from losing your temper, and you’re normally a placid person, you may be on your way to burn out.  If your feelings can be conjured up at the drop of a hat, you should pay attention.

Fatigue.  This is a hallmark of burn out.  There’s a heaviness and a weariness—not just a physical fatigue, but a bone-tired, down-trodden sort of feeling that is in your body and your soul.

Thud.  This relates some to the heaviness of the fatigue I was mentioning earlier.  But thud also refers to the lack of bounce-back that happens with burn out.  It’s what happens when you don’t have any more tricks up your sleeve about creative ways to handle/ignore/override feelings of overwhelm, and they all come home to roost at the same time.

Aches and pains.  Some people’s burnout has a very physical signature—aches and pains in the body that linger or don’t go away after treatment.  The body has a special way of holding tension, almost like a bookmark for your unfinished stress-business, whether it’s neglected boundaries, an uncompromising workload, or a toxic relationship that is frying your system.

Catching the bug.  When you’re burned out, you get sick.  A lot.  Maybe you just catch every sort of bug there is in each season.  Or, it could be something more serious, like irritable bowel syndrome or fibromyalgia.  When you’re chronically stressed, your body is going to talk.  A lot.  Any conditions you had prior to your episode of burnout will probably worsen.

Despair.  People who are burned out have tunnel vision.  They have exhausted themselves trying to work through an untenable situation and they are all out of options.  It is hard for them to remember when and where things went wrong, and they may even feel that the situation is unchangeable, or an indicator of their personal failing or weakness.  In the throes of burnout, people may think of suicide.

Disconnection.  You don’t care anymore.  About anything.  This can look like cynicism, resignation, or hopelessness.  This comes after a cycle of doubling and redoubling efforts to engage, fix, or somehow work with an unworkable situation.  It represents a collapse of your efforts after all your resources have been depleted.

This list isn’t comprehensive, and many of the signs on this list are common signs of depression or other medical conditions.

As always, it is important to have a clear picture about what the problem is before a solution can develop; this requires ruling out other illnesses and possibly treating several different conditions.  It’s best to seek the help of a professional to have help with this process.

A note about trauma and burn out

One other important thing to note:  physical or psychological trauma can trigger burnout.  A trauma is, by its very definition, an experience of something that is overwhelming.  Not everyone who experiences trauma will have lasting negative aftermath, but some people will struggle to find their bearings and may need extra help.

This is because trauma can leave a signature in the body.  These experiences can set a new baseline for our bodies, making us more reactive and less flexible in the face of stress. This re-tuning can make us more prone to burn out.

If you’ve experienced a trauma and you’re having trouble getting your life back, I want you to know that this is not your fault.  Your struggles are not a sign of personal weakness or moral failing.  Your body simply did not know what to do in the face of something overwhelming, and it tried to adapt the only way it knew how:  by setting a new baseline.

Here’s some good news: these baselines can be reset and worked with, through psychotherapy and EMDR.

Burnout prevention

Prevention and healing from burnout is a topic that really deserves its own post—one that I’ll write another day.  So, I’ll just leave a few preventative tips here for you to consider.

Remove toxins.  Burnout is much easier to prevent than it is to treat. Limit your exposure to depleting situations.  After all, no self-care regime is going to protect you against a hellish job.  Take an honest look at your life and ask yourself if pieces of it are making you sick.  Then, take a big breath and start making changes to those toxic parts.

Self-care.  If you don’t have a good self-care routine that you stick to faithfully, you may be on your way to burn-out if you aren’t there yet.  Need help setting up a system?  Start by looking at these basics:  food and sleep.  Are you getting nourishing amounts of each?

Play.  If you aren’t making time to be playful, if everything feels like very serious business, you’re likely to lose perspective and get stuck in a state of perpetual urgency.  This is more than having a hobby or quality leisure time.  This is also about a personal stance or way of being in life; it’s about reducing urgency and having compassion for yourself.

If you’re hungry for more information on burnout and how to heal from it, I especially like this take on the journey to recovery.

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