We all feel overwhelmed from time to time, but during the pandemic we’ve seen a radical increase in burnout. Let’s talk about what burnout is, why it’s happening more frequently, and how we can protect ourselves from it.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state of exhaustion brought on by excessive stress. It affects us mentally, emotionally, and physically. This stress is often work-related, but it may also stem from our responsibilities as a parent or caregiver, relationship problems, or other areas of life.
The pandemic has upped risk for burnout in several ways. Our stress levels may be elevated by fear of contracting the virus, especially if our job requires us to be in contact with the public. If we are working from home, we may struggle with work/life boundaries. Working, going to school, or socializing on Zoom instead of in person leads to screen time overwhelm. Our opportunities to meet our needs to connect with others and take time to relax or vacation may be severely limited. All of this additional pressure can lead to a vicious cycle of stress and sleep cycle irregularities – the stress makes it difficult for us to sleep, which makes us more stressed.
What does it feel like when we burn out?
Burnout differs from regular stress in that it feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. We experience mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion, a sense of dread, and often feel angry, empty, or pessimistic. We feel that we are constantly giving our all, with no chance to replenish ourselves.
People in helping professions such as health care, education, ministry, social work, etc., are particularly prone to empathy fatigue, which can be another sign of burnout. A person experiencing empathy fatigue becomes apathetic to others’ struggles, finding it difficult to show kindness and connection. They may also lose hope in their ability to help or make a difference.
How can we protect ourselves from burnout?
Protecting ourselves from burnout is essential to all aspects of our well-being. Here are some simple but powerful actions you can take right now to avoid burnout.
Set an intention for the day
Take a few minutes in the morning to think about what you would like to achieve or experience that day. It could be, “I intend to be kind to myself and others,” or even something as simple as “I intend to drink enough water today.” Write it down, say it out loud to yourself, or share your intention with a friend.
Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which tells your brain you are safe. It also gets more oxygen to the thinking part of your brain and can increase your ability to focus. One way to do this is called “box breathing” – inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, and exhale for a count of eight. Repeat the breathing pattern at least three times, or until you feel a sense of calm, being mindful to always exhale longer than inhale.
Take a Mindful Minute
At the top of each hour, take one minute to practice mindfulness. Notice what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. Notice your breath, your emotions, and your body. Set an alarm on your phone to help you remember.
Get into nature
Nature plays an important role in protecting and supporting our mental health. It calms our nervous systems and produces positive emotions, along with many other benefits. Accessing the outdoors directly is ideal, but if it isn’t easily accessible to you, or if air quality is a concern, consider bringing plants or other natural elements into your home.
Connect with others
Connecting with others helps us realize that we are not alone in our experiences and feelings, boosts our resilience, and even increases our lifespan. If connecting with others in person is not comfortable or safe for you, and if you’re not too overwhelmed by screen time, connect with family, friends, and community virtually, via FaceTime or Zoom.
Use soothing and supportive touch
Soothing, supportive touch increases the serotonin and oxytocin levels in the brain. You can do this by stroking your pet, hugging, or practicing soothing self-touch. Place your hand over your heart, cradle your face in your hands, or wrap your arms around yourself and give yourself a gentle squeeze.
Let go and walk away
If your to-do list seems never-ending, prioritize your well-being over your accomplishments, and let go of some of the less necessary tasks. For things that simply must be done, give yourself permission to walk away from your work for a few minutes to rest. You will be more focused, relaxed, and capable after taking a break.
Move your body
Movement strengthens the mind-body connection, reduces stress and anxiety, and improves creativity. A regular exercise routine is great, but you can also simply shake your body as you sing off key while you cook (like me)!
Take an electronics break
Virtual meetings have become the norm during the pandemic. If you are experiencing screen time burnout, choose certain times of the day to take a break from screens and electronic devices. This could be mealtimes, or in the evenings before bed. And simply get up and stretch while breathing slowly.
Go on a sense and savor walk
Find a quiet place to walk for about twenty minutes. Use as many of your senses as possible as you slowly walk. Notice the sights, sounds, and smells around you, feel the movement of your body, and savor your environment.
Self-care and mindfulness practices like these can be extremely helpful in escaping burnout. It’s also wise to use them preventatively, before burnout takes a strong hold of you. Check in with yourself on a regular basis to assess your stress levels and protect yourself from burnout.
Photo by Claudia Wolff