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  • Writer's pictureDr Heather Dyson

Beyond Exhaustion: Understanding Burnout and Building Resilience



For many of us, who find ourselves constantly attached to our phones, laptops, and emails, demands on our time and resources seem never-ending and expectations are constantly rising. Subsequently, burnout has become a prevalent issue affecting individuals across various professions and walks of life. Burnout doesn't discriminate; it can affect anyone from students to CEOs, caregivers to creatives. Consequently, recognising the signs of burnout in both ourselves and our colleagues, and implementing effective coping strategies are an important step towards maintaining both our own mental and emotional well-being, as well as those around us. In this blog post, we'll explore five signs of burnout and practical ways to look after yourself.


What is Burnout? 

Burnout is a state of chronic physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress and overwork. It typically occurs when individuals experience high levels of job demands coupled with limited resources or support to cope effectively. Burnout is characterised by feelings of fatigue, cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy. It can impact various aspects of an individual's life, including work performance, relationships, and overall well-being.


By comparison, vicarious traumatisation (also known as secondary trauma or compassion fatigue) refers to the emotional and psychological distress experienced by individuals who are exposed to the trauma narratives or experiences of others, such as trauma survivors or clients. Unlike burnout, which is primarily associated with chronic stress and overwork in one's own work environment, vicarious traumatisation occurs as a result of empathetic engagement with others' traumatic experiences. This exposure can lead to symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including intrusive thoughts, emotional numbing, and hypervigilance.


Differences Between Burnout and Vicarious Traumatisation:

Source of Stress: Burnout is typically associated with chronic workplace stress and overwork, whereas vicarious traumatisation stems from repeated exposure to the traumatic experiences of others, such as clients or trauma survivors.


Symptoms: Burnout is characterised by emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy, whereas vicarious traumatisation may involve symptoms similar to those of PTSD, such as intrusive thoughts, emotional numbing, and hypervigilance.


Prevention and Intervention: Preventing and addressing burnout often involve strategies such as self-care, setting boundaries, and seeking social support. In contrast, managing vicarious traumatisation may require specialised interventions, such as trauma-informed care, supervision, and therapy focused on processing secondary trauma.


Recognising the signs of Burnout

Physical and Emotional Exhaustion

One of the ways burnout manifests is in an overwhelming sense of physical and emotional exhaustion that permeates every aspect of one's being. This profound fatigue transcends mere tiredness; it's an all-encompassing weariness that persists despite efforts to rest and rejuvenate. Despite having supposedly rested through the night, individuals experiencing burnout often wake up feeling as though they've scarcely slept, their energy reserves drained, and their vitality diminished.


Physically, the body feels weighed down by an invisible burden, limbs heavy and movements sluggish. Mundane tasks become Herculean feats, and even the simplest activities demand an extraordinary effort. This persistent fatigue not only undermines productivity but also erodes the very essence of vitality, leaving individuals feeling like mere shadows of their former selves.


Emotionally, burnout exacts a heavy toll, manifesting in a myriad of distressing feelings that seem to permeate every thought and interaction. Overwhelmed by a relentless tide of responsibilities and demands, individuals find themselves teetering on the brink of emotional collapse. Irritability becomes a constant companion, as even the slightest inconvenience or setback threatens to unleash a torrent of frustration and resentment.


Moreover, burnout may lead to a profound sense of detachment—a disconnection from both work and personal life. Tasks that once held meaning and purpose now feel hollow and devoid of significance. The passion that once fuelled endeavours has been extinguished, replaced by a pervasive sense of apathy and indifference. Even personal relationships suffer as individuals struggle to muster the emotional energy required for genuine connection, opting instead for superficial interactions that offer fleeting respite from the relentless onslaught of burnout.


Self-Care Strategy: Prioritise Rest and Recovery.

  • Establish a consistent sleep schedule, aiming for 7 hours of quality sleep each night.

  • Incorporate relaxation techniques such as abdominal breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, or yoga into your daily routine to reduce stress, calm the autonomic nervous system, and promote emotional well-being.

  • Take regular breaks throughout the day, allowing yourself to step away from work and recharge. It can feel like a revolutionary step to simply take your lunchbreak, and yet research indicates that by taking that time away from work, individual’s levels of stress significantly decrease.

  • Speak with your supervisor and consider whether there are any areas in your role that you can put aside for the time being whilst you recuperate from burnout. Whilst some of us may benefit from taking a holiday, for others, this might be akin to taking a holiday when you home is on fire. When you return back from your holiday, you home is still going to be alight, and you will still need to tackle to source of the fire.


Decreased Motivation and Productivity

The burnout may also manifest in a crippling sense of inertia, rendering even the simplest of tasks an uphill battle. Concentration becomes a fleeting commodity, slipping through the grasp like grains of sand as the mind struggles to maintain focus amidst the chaos of burnout. Despite one's best efforts, productivity wanes, thwarted by the relentless onslaught of fatigue and apathy.


In the workplace, the consequences of burnout are keenly felt, as once-dependable employees find themselves faltering under the weight of overwhelming demands. Projects languish, deadlines loom ominously, and the quality of work suffers as motivation wanes and concentration falters. The vicious cycle of burnout perpetuates itself, as decreased performance only serves to exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.


Beyond the confines of the workplace, burnout mat seep into every facet of life, eroding the foundation of motivation and productivity upon which personal fulfilment is built. Hobbies and passions that once provided solace and joy now feel like distant memories, overshadowed by the oppressive weight of burnout. Relationships can begin to suffer as energy levels plummet and enthusiasm wanes, leaving individuals feeling disconnected and isolated.


Self-Care Strategy: Set Realistic Goals and Prioritise Tasks

  • Break down larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps to prevent feeling overwhelmed.

  • Create a to-do list or schedule, prioritising tasks based on importance and urgency.

  • Celebrate small victories and progress, acknowledging your efforts even when tasks seem daunting.

  • Some individuals may have a sense of guilt when they put “their needs” first. For those individuals, it may be helpful to think about the “plane metaphor”. When you are given the safety briefing on a plane, you are told to put the gas mask on yourself first before you help others. This is because you will not be able to help anyone, if you are not safe yourself.


Increased Cynicism and Detachment

When someone begins to suffer with the symptoms associated with burnout, it can result in a profound shift in outlook. What was once approached with enthusiasm and optimism now appears through a veil of scepticism and disillusionment. Work, once seen as a source of purpose and fulfilment, becomes laden with cynicism as the relentless demands and pressures chip away at one's sense of efficacy and worth. Relationships, once cherished and nurtured, now feel strained and hollow, as the emotional toll of burnout leaves individuals feeling disconnected and disengaged.


Indifference can become a constant companion, as individuals struggle to summon the emotional energy required for genuine engagement. Conversations and interactions that once sparked connection now feel like perfunctory exchanges, lacking the depth and authenticity that once defined them. Even personal achievements and milestones are met with a sense of detachment, as the numbness of burnout dampens the joy and satisfaction that should accompany such moments.


Self-Care Strategy: Cultivate Meaningful Connections and Activities

  • Even though it can feel difficult to do, maintaining connections with trusted friends may help us to deal with some of the symptoms associated with burnout. Socialising with others provides us with the opportunity to get a different perspective on the situation. Likewise, having the opportunity to share our difficulties with others, may allow us the opportunity to have these feelings validated.

  • Engage in activities that bring you joy and fulfilment, whether it's hobbies, volunteering, or spending time in nature. Any enjoyable activity with inevitable result in a release of endorphins which will help to improve you mood.

  • Practice gratitude by reflecting on the positive aspects of your life, fostering a sense of appreciation and connection. Human beings, by our very nature are predisposed to focus on the negative aspects of life. However, we can bio-hack this by intentionally focusing on anything positive that occurs. Research has shown that individuals who intentionally spend time thinking about one thing that made them “happy” had a more positive outlook on life after two weeks.


Physical Symptoms

The effects of burnout can extend beyond our mental and emotional well-being, permeating the very fabric of one's physical health. As the relentless demands of daily life take their toll, the body becomes a battleground, besieged by a myriad of distressing symptoms that serve as harbingers of burnout's insidious grip.


Headaches, once occasional nuisances, increase in frequency and intensity, serving as a painful reminder of the relentless stress and tension that pervade the individual’s current situation. Individuals may experience gastrointestinal issues, which can negative impact their digestive system, leaving them grappling with a host of unpleasant symptoms such as bloating, nausea, and indigestion.


Compromised immune function may leave the body vulnerable to illness and infection, as stress undermines the body's natural defences. What was once a robust immune system becomes weakened by chronic stress and emotional exhaustion. Minor ailments that were once shrugged off with ease now linger stubbornly, exacerbating feelings of fatigue and malaise.


These physical symptoms are not merely bothersome inconveniences—they are the body's desperate cry for help, signalling the profound toll that burnout has taken on one's well-being. Left unchecked, these symptoms can escalate into more serious health problems, further exacerbating the cycle of burnout and diminishing one's quality of life.


Self-Care Strategy: Listen to Your Body and Practice Self-Compassion

  • Pay attention to your body's signals and address any physical discomfort or pain promptly. If you are concerned about any physical ailments, contacting your GP and considering both biological and psychological explanations for your symptoms, may be useful.

  • Practice self-compassion by being kind and understanding towards yourself, especially during times of struggle or adversity.

  • Incorporate physical activity into your routine, whether it's a brisk walk, yoga session, or strength training workout, to alleviate stress and promote overall well-being.


Loss of Satisfaction and Fulfilment

When individuals begin to experience symptoms of burnout, it can feel as though there is a shadow over every aspect of one's life, infiltrating the very essence of satisfaction and fulfilment. What was once a source of passion and purpose—be it in professional pursuits or personal endeavours—now feels like a distant memory, obscured by the heavy fog of disillusionment and discontent.


In the professional sphere, the once-promising career path now feels like a treadmill of monotony, devoid of the challenges and rewards that once fuelled ambition. Tasks that once held meaning and significance now feel like empty gestures, devoid of purpose and impact. The relentless demands of the job leave individuals feeling drained and disheartened, questioning the very value of their contributions and the validity of their career choices.


The once-clear vision of life goals and aspirations now feels muddled and uncertain, obscured by the fog of burnout. What once seemed achievable and worthwhile now feels like an unattainable dream, leaving individuals feeling adrift and directionless. The pursuit of happiness feels like an exercise in futility, as the relentless cycle of burnout saps the vitality from even the most cherished of aspirations.


Self-Care Strategy: Reconnect with Your Values and Purpose

  • Reflect on your core values and what truly matters to you, aligning your actions and decisions accordingly.

  • Set boundaries to protect your time and energy, saying no to commitments or obligations that don't align with your priorities.

  • Seek professional support from a therapist or psychologist to explore underlying issues contributing to feelings of dissatisfaction and burnout.

 

Acknowledging the signs of burnout is not merely an act of recognition, but an important first step towards reclaiming the vitality and well-being that burnout seeks to steal away. It is a brave acknowledgment of one's own limitations and a courageous step towards self-preservation. However, recognition alone is not enough. It is necessary to take proactive measures to address the symptoms of burnout and nurture resilience in the face of adversity. Prioritising self-care becomes paramount, as it lays the foundation for a journey towards healing and restoration.


Self-care encompasses a multitude of practices, from the mundane to the transformative. It involves setting boundaries to protect one's time and energy, saying no to commitments that detract from well-being, and saying yes to activities that nourish the soul. It means carving out time for rest and relaxation, honouring the body's need for replenishment and rejuvenation.


Implementing practical strategies to address burnout symptoms is key for reclaiming a sense of balance and equilibrium. This may involve seeking professional support from therapists or psychologists who can provide guidance and perspective on navigating the complexities of burnout. It may also entail exploring alternative approaches to work and life that prioritise fulfilment and purpose over mere productivity.


Cultivating resilience is a gradual process, requiring patience, perseverance, and self-compassion. It involves embracing the inevitable ups and downs of life with grace and equanimity, knowing that each challenge is an opportunity for growth and self-discovery. It means reframing setbacks as learning experiences and setbacks as stepping stones towards a brighter future.


Above all, remember that you are worthy of care and compassion, deserving of love and understanding, even in the midst of struggle. Investing in your mental and emotional health is not a luxury, but a necessity for long-term happiness and fulfilment. By prioritising self-care and resilience-building practices, you can reclaim your well-being and thrive in both your personal and professional life. You are capable of weathering the storms of burnout and emerging stronger and more resilient than ever before.


 

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

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