All of us wish that we had more time to do the things we want and need to do. It’s increasingly common to feel as though there isn’t enough time in the day to complete everything on those long to-do lists and as such, the house is never quite tidy, we go months without seeing friends and we put off important jobs. That’s to say nothing of our unfulfilled need to just chill out for a while!
But as much as we might want to fill every waking moment with chores, tasks and activities, the reality is that there is a limit to how much you can achieve. We are obsessed with time management and finding more time in the day – but it’s important that we pay just as much attention to energy management. Just because you have the time to squeeze in more jobs and tasks, that doesn’t mean you can or that you should!
Ignoring this fact is what leads so many of us to burnout…
A Definition of Burnout
The term burnout was first used by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s and describes a state of exhaustion that comes from continuous stress and exertion without a sufficient resting period for recovery (1). While Freudenberger was looking particularly at ‘helper’ professions, the term has since been expanded to describe any case of an individual feel that they have pushed themselves past breaking point and being unable to continue working or exerting themselves. Anyone can become burned out and it is an increasingly common event in today’s 9-5 schedule.
While there is a generally agreed understanding of burnout and while doctors will recognize and treat the condition, there is actually no formal definition or diagnostic criteria unlike mental illnesses like depression. It may also take numerous forms and be linked with other conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders or chronic fatigue.
Causes of Burnout
While many types of tiredness and exhaustion could be considered burnout, the most likely culprit in the majority of scenarios is ‘adrenal fatigue’.
Adrenal fatigue occurs when you push yourself or put yourself under pressure for an extended period of time. Stress and pressure cause our adrenal gland to produce stress hormones like adrenaline, cortisol and dopamine and this is what keeps us active, focussed and drive. The problem is that you can eventually exhaust this part of the brain and that in turn leads to a depletion of those chemicals and a resulting lack of focus, energy or drive.
While it’s not good to have too many stress hormones in the system, it’s also not good to have none – as this leaves us listless and exhausted. That is ‘burn out’.
The key thing to recognize when discussing burnout, is that the body isn’t designed to undergo chronic stress. Stress is the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is when the body produces vast quantities of excitatory neurotransmitters in a response to perceived danger. These increase brain activity, contract the muscles, accelerate the heart rate and breathing and divert blood to muscles and brain away from the digestive system and immune system.
In the wild, danger would be identified and would then pass shortly after. This might take the form of a predator, or of a fire.
Today though, danger can more commonly be something that stays present. For instance, it might take the form of debt, an angry boss or relationship trouble. Thus we remain in this fight or flight state for too long, which has a range of negative effects on our health and eventually leaves us with a completely empty ‘tank’.
There are numerous scenarios that might involve placing yourself under immense stress for extended periods of time. As mentioned, this might be experienced by a caregiver, or someone with an unwell family member. It is also common among high achieving individuals who push themselves too hard and too far in their jobs at the expense of their personal health.
Athletes and gym rats also need to be careful, as overtraining is also thought to be closely connected with adrenal fatigue and burnout!
Signs of Burnout and What to Do
Signs of burnout include:
- A general ‘low feeling’
- Proneness to illness
- Extreme exhaustion/lethargy
- Lack of motivation
- Reduced performance at work/physically
- Muscle weakness
- Poor libido
These symptoms are somewhat similar to depression and so it can be hard to differentiate between the two. Note that depression also causes low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts and hopelessness. It can also be useful to look at context. If you can acknowledge that you have been overworked, overfraught or overstressed for a long period, then this increases the likelihood that burnout is to blame.
What to Do
The most important thing to do when you are burned out, is to give yourself a break and to take time out. Acknowledge that there is a limit to what you can achieve, forgive yourself for needing the break and take a well-earned holiday. Note that holidays ‘in country’ can actually be better, as they remove the stress of travel!
Stress management techniques such as those taught by CBT can also be very helpful and you might find that social contact is also a good natural tonic. Avoid the natural inclination to insulate yourself from social contact and stay home!
Also highly important is to take the time to look after yourself physically. That means eating lots of nutritious meals, which can help to restore your energy levels as well as your neurotransmitters and hormones. Sleep will help the body to recover and undo the damage caused by extended periods of stress. Look into elements of your sleep hygiene and see if you can improve the environment you are sleeping in.
Most importantly though, address the ongoing causes of your stress and find ways to reduce the strain on yourself. That might mean reducing your commitments, or it might be asking for help. Whatever the case, take this as a warning sign and an incentive to put your health first.