Maybe you’ve heard or said the Evil Twin: “I think I’m burning out.”
What does it mean to be stressed out or burned out? What’s the difference?
According to www.Medlineplus.gov, stress is “a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline.” (May 5, 2018)
Stress, then, is centered on the action. There’s tension to accomplish something. Burnout, however, is based on inaction – our inability to find the motivation or energy to accomplish anything.
Here’s how burnout is different. According to the World Health Organization, “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” (May 28, 2019, www.who.int) I’d like to offer that there is such a thing as emotional burnout, too – similar in definition to workplace burnout, but when the stress of daily life has overwhelmed us. Helpguide.org defines burnout as “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” Sounds like what most of us have been experiencing recently, doesn’t it?
Stress tends to have a greater effect on our physical bodies; burnout results in more psychological effects, such as depression. Stress is about too much. Too much work, too many chores, too much pressure. We think if we get things under control, everything will be OK. Burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough. We feel empty and hopeless. We have to drag ourselves around, and we procrastinate on accomplishing even the smallest of tasks.
It’s very important to deal with the stresses of daily life in a positive way. If we don’t, not only can our stress grow into anxiety, burnout, and then depression, it can also cause heart problems, digestive problems, and autoimmune diseases.
It’s pretty easy to recognize the symptoms of stress. We become restless, irritable, or angry; we might have trouble sleeping; we have the “hamster wheel brain” that turns around and around and around; we have trouble concentrating; and we may have muscle tension, stomach trouble, and headaches.
Burnout is a little harder to catch. There are several stages to burnout, and the number and definition of those stages varies depending on who you talk to. However, they all point to a gradual erosion in your well-being that is recognizable if you know what to look for.
Burnout starts as a feeling of stagnation. What used to be exciting and new is now routine and a bit boring. Then some stress starts to set in. You may feel inadequate or incompetent. You’re easily frustrated. You know things aren’t quite right, but you’re not sure what to do about it. Next, you may stop caring. Every day is a bad day. You’re exhausted all the time. You may get sick more frequently, withdraw from your responsibilities, procrastinate, or use food, drugs, or alcohol to self-medicate. Self-doubt creeps in. Motivation goes out the window. You may feel trapped in your own life.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it? What can we do to prevent this? How can we fix it if we’re already in it?
Good news: Some of the very strategies we use to combat stress are those most effective in dealing with burnout, too. Since stress precedes burnout, learning to manage stress prevents the burnout from happening in the first place.
Defining our values, keeping our expectations reasonable, practicing self-care, learning to be mindful, finding gratitude and positivity, and a healthy diet and exercise all play a part. See which of these techniques work best for you in reducing stress.
Write down your core values. What is important in life according to you? What traits do you feel are important to have? Honesty? Dependability? Responsibility? Kindness? Something else? If you can’t think of anything, search for “examples of values” to get ideas.
The reason this is important in dealing with stress and burnout is that we can suffer from something called Cognitive Dissonance when our value system is in conflict with our behavior. That dissonance, or disharmony, just causes more stress. So if our employer thinks it’s OK to take advantage of customers, for example, and we don’t, it causes dissonance. We can avoid a lot of stress by making sure our behavior mirrors our core value system.
You may have your unique Superpowers but being perfect will never be one of them – for anyone. Let go of the expectation that you have to do everything perfectly all the time. Instead, think of what is logical, reasonable, and attainable for your situation. Having too much to do and not enough time frequently contributes to stress and burnout. Prioritize your task list, do what you can, and learn to set limits and deal with conflict in a reasonable way.
Practicing Self Care
Use your vacation time. Use your paid time off. Do things you love to do! Make a list of activities that you’re interested in, and schedule them into your life on a daily basis. We can’t help others unless we’ve taken care of our own needs. That’s why the flight attendant on the plane tells us to put our own oxygen mask on before we help someone else.
Monitor the way you talk to yourself – make sure you say things that are kind, encouraging, and positive. How would you speak to a friend or loved one who is stressed out or burned out? How many times do you say to yourself, “I stink at this,” “I can’t finish everything, so I’m an awful worker,” or “I hate being here. This suck!” Turn those statements into positives (see Gratitude and Positivity below).
The past is gone. It just is. There is nothing we can do about it. Conversely, the future isn’t here yet. We may think we can control what’s going to happen, but how many times have you planned things and a big honkin’ monkey wrench got thrown in? The only thing that is real is right now. We think to ourselves, “I’ll be happy when this happens,” but when we get it, it’s not so satisfying. So we set another goal. Rinse and repeat. Instead, focus on right now. What are you doing now? How are you feeling, right now? What is the experience of this moment? It makes logical sense to be focused on now since that’s where we spend most of our time.
Gratitude and Positivity
Look for the smallest of things to be grateful for. There is always something, even if it’s only that you survived. Did you hear birds chirping today? Did you enjoy a cup of delicious coffee or tea? Are your clothes comfortable? Do you get to use a cell phone, computer, or other miraculous gadget? Turn negatives into positives. Instead of thinking, “This sucks!” find something positive in your experience. What did you learn from it? What benefit will you get? Did you survive? Tell yourself what a bad-ass you are for being strong.
Diet and Exercise
I’m not going to go into detail here – you know what you have to do. I will say, though, that avoiding alcohol, sugar, nicotine, and excessively fatty foods are important while you’re dealing with burnout. Eat healthier food and you’ll have more energy, which is crucial when you’re feeling burned out and non-motivated.
It’s important that you find and lean on your support network when you’re stressed out or burned out. Having your friends and loved ones around helps keep you accountable and provides the love you need to get through tough times.
Reach out to your life coach or therapist if you feel like you need more help.