How to Recover from Burnout

By Angela Tague in Healthy Feeling

This past year has been enjoyable in small and specific ways. It's given many people the opportunity to stay at home, get closer with family and pets, try new recipes and online exercise classes, and learn about the importance of health.

But, at the same time, we're all exhausted—and some of us are headed for burnout.

What even is burnout? How does a person get to that point? And is it possible to prevent it? Let's identify what triggers this extreme physical and mental fatigue response, and how to recover from burnout.

What Is Burnout?

After a long day of video meetings, homeschooling the kids, or being a caregiver (or all three!), you're bound to feel fatigued. It's a natural reaction to expending energy. You unwind in the evening, get a good night's rest, and by morning, you're ready to tackle the new day.

But what if you wake up still feeling depleted? Well, you might be experiencing burnout. A May 2021 article in Psychiatry Research is redefining this condition that originally was characterized by three factors:

  • Exhaustion
  • Depersonalization
  • Reduced personal accomplishment

After more study, the researchers discovered additional factors:

  • Cognitive impairment
  • Empathy loss
  • Compromised work performance
  • Social withdrawal

tired student with book over her face leans back in chair

Steven Kotler, the cofounder and director of research for the Flow Research Collective, explains in Psychology Today that burnout is the "by-product of repeated prolonged stress." It's the combination of working long hours at something—such as Zooming with co-workers, teaching our children, or punching in for another shift during a global pandemic—while specific oppressing conditions exist.

These oppressing conditions might include believing we aren't in control of our lives, a lack of passion or purpose, or gaps between expending effort and receiving rewards. Experiencing this strain day after day puts you on the road to burnout.

Identifying Feelings of Burnout

So, how can you tell the difference between being tired and craving a staycation versus being burnt out and needing to recalibrate your daily life?

Start by checking in with yourself. Perhaps during a moment of mindful meditation, journaling, or chatting with a trusted friend, explore how you're feeling. Are you experiencing some of the above symptoms? Are accomplishments feeling less rewarding? Is your brain often foggy? Are you caring less about others? Is your work quality slipping? Do you find yourself declining social engagements?

If you're finding that a lot of the answers to these questions are "yes," it's time to get serious about your mental health. Reach out to a mental health professional, family member, or friend for help.

How to Recover from Burnout

It's important to keep in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for healing. Kotler explains that there are both passive and active approaches when dealing with burnout—and passive recovery methods are often not the ticket.

Passive recovery is what most of us first do when our exhaustion level reaches a ten. We plop down on the couch, fire up Netflix, scroll social media, and reach for the snacks. While this feels good in the moment, it's not actively shifting our brains into relaxation mode.

Active recovery hinges on letting the mind take a break so it can rid itself of stress, repair itself, and shift into a more relaxed state. It can be hard to find the right active recovery technique for you, especially since there are so many options! So, keep trying new ideas until you land on what works for you.

Here are a few options to get you started.

Tune Out

Sit in a quiet, dark room with your eyes closed and try to cancel out all the information your brain usually processes. I was taught during a meditation session that as thoughts pop up, visualize putting them in a jar, placing them on a shelf, and letting them be. Just let go.

Improve Your Sleep Hygiene

Sleep in a dark, cool room with no cellphone, tablet, television, or other screens. This allows your brain to shift into deep delta waves where memory consolidation takes place. Think of it as tidying up your brain after a day of information gathering.

Do Something for Yourself

During a period of burnout triggered by grieving the loss of a family member, my therapist suggested I pretend to date myself and do what I'd want others to do for me. Buy yourself flowers. Take yourself out to lunch at a new cafe. Tell yourself your outfit is a ten today. Give yourself small gifts. Spoil you!

A woman practices yoga in a greenhouse among the plants

Get in Touch with Your Body

Movement and physical awareness help to shift emotions. Here are some activities you can experiment with:

Feed Your Mind

Learn more about mindful meditation and find a process that works for you, whether it's attending a guided meditation class, walking on nature trails, or painting on canvas. A quiet activity that allows your brain to focus on doing one task at a time is incredibly relaxing. My list is long, but I gravitate toward reading, journaling, walking in forests, gardening, and photography.

Take Time Off

We all need breaks from our routines. Try to sneak in a PTO day or three-day weekend ASAP. Then, pencil a vacation onto the calendar. Even if you don't leave your town, you can hire a babysitter or take the kids to a relative's house and use the time to sink into self-care. It might just be the reset you need.

Young woman takes time to herself to journal and enjoy nature

Make Changes Moving Forward

Once you feel as though you're back to your old self, implement real changes so you avoid finding yourself in the same place a month from now. For me, I found that if I logged my day as it unfolded, I could see where I was overextending myself.

I ended up leaving more breathing room between work tasks, actually taking the breaks I put on my calendar, declining invitations to activities that I didn't feel up for, and cutting back on social media.

Kotler says it's best to be proactive with how we manage our time and energy, so we don't slide down the slippery slope of burnout. Over time, chronic, ongoing burnout will deplete your motivation and momentum, causing even more stress, memory difficulties, trouble with problem-solving, and issues regulating emotions.

It's a difficult cycle to break unless we put our personal wellness at the forefront of each day. But you can do it! Start today.

Learn more ideas to improve sleep, release emotional baggage, and start a gratitude practice by following the Natural Inspiration board from @tomsofmaine on Pinterest!

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Why It's Good

There's one person in this world responsible for your wellness, and it's you. Reduce the risk of burnout by making mindful decisions each day to nurture your mental and physical health.