Signs You’re “Burnt Out” & What to Do About It (Starting RN)

Wellness

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We hear the term “burnout” all the time – but what does it mean exactly? How do you know you’re not dealing with basic overwork, lethargy, or fatigue? And what can happen if you don’t nip burnout in a timely manner? (Spoiler alert: it can lead to not-so-great things.) More importantly, what are you supposed to do to find more balance in your life? For the answers to all the above, we reached out to two amazing psychologists. Here’s what you need to know.

Sooo… What’s Burnout?

Picture a candle in your favorite scent. It’s sitting there on your bookcase or coffee table, flickering and flaming away for hours. And hours. And hours. It’s lit so long that the wick reaches the very bottom, and *poof* it blows out on its own and sends a waft of swirling smoke up into the air.

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That is the visual of burnout, a mental phenomenon that occurs when you’re overworked, overcommitted, and overstretched in your day-to-day life.

“True burnout affects all aspects of your life, and one cannot recover from it with a simple ‘me day,’” explains Dr. Saloumeh Bozorgzadeh, a holistic clinical psychologist who focuses on meditation and full-body wellness. “Overall, your system is overwhelmed and tired, and [you may struggle to find] joy.”

Signs You’re Dealing with Burnout

Dr. Bozorgzadeh says that glaring red flags of burnout often include:

Physically: You may experience notable fatigue or sleep more than usual. You might also have more headaches, gastrointestinal issues, or get sick more frequently.

Emotionally: You may feel more reactive, irritable, or experience stronger-than-usual emotions. You may also find yourself with a lower tolerance for difficulties or setbacks and may struggle to find joy in the activities you normally would. In extreme cases, you may have anxiety which can devolve into depression.

Cognitive: When your mental energy is depleted via burnout, you may often feel like you are in a daze, have clouded thoughts (brain fog), or struggle with erratic, racing thoughts. You may also struggle to make decisions easily or formulate opinions.

Socially: In an attempt to manage your emotions and time, you may find yourself more socially isolated than usual. You may also engage in more conflicts, or conversely, begin feeling numb or detached from others.

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“What [burnout] may look like on a day-to-day basis would be never seeming to feel rested or feeling as if you drag yourself from task to task,” notes Dr. Margaret Rutherford, a clinical psychologist, author, and host of the podcast SelfWork. “[You may also experience] gradual cracks in your own performance.”

How to Find Better Balance

Managing burnout isn’t as simple as taking a bubble bath or hitting the spa for a pamper-me day. Sure, those things are great, but improving work/life/social balance is more comprehensive. It requires implementing real changes in the way you’re managing your day-to-day, creating healthy boundaries around work and obligations, and being kind to yourself.

In that sense, it’s more about tackling burnout head-on versus truly checking in with yourself and avoiding the “escapist” route via short-term coping mechanisms (such as alcohol, drugs, video games, and screens).

Here are five tangible ways to work through and prevent future burnout:

1. Do a Pragmatic Tally of Current Commitments

“Track the hours you spend on work as well as on other activities so you can see for yourself how much mental and emotional energy you’re spending,” says Dr. Rutherford.

Make a list of all the things you’ve said yes to, including work-related tasks, social obligations, and projects. It may also help to write down all the items zapping your emotional energy, from family-related “drama” to health issues. Seeing it all written down on paper can give you a visual of what’s on your plate.

2. Begin to Reprioritize

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For now, what sort of items can you remove from your obligations? What are some things you can start saying no to? Can anything be postponed to a later date when you have more time? Is there any way to delegate some of your obligations to clear your own plate? What items are important to keep at the top of your priority list?

3. Challenge the Rules You Have For Yourself

These rules might center around perfectionism, deadlines, or “requirements” around ways you must spend your time.  Dr. Rutherford says, “Write down the musts, the shoulds, and the have to’s. Ask yourself, ‘Is this a truly helpful rule to have? Or does it keep me rigidly adhering to my obsession?’”

4. Bounce Your Thoughts Off Someone You Trust

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Silent thoughts and feels tend to fester, which is why it’s so important to talk with others you trust. Maybe it’s your partner, a family member, or a best friend. A therapist is also key in working through issues. They can provide non-judgmental, unbiased thoughts and helpful strategies to work through chronic burnout. 

5. Pencil in Some Healing “Me Time”

Invest in things that bring joy, ease, or comfort into your personal life. Maybe it’s hiking or outdoor adventure, a weekend getaway or staycation, throwing yourself into a fun project at home, journaling, or simply reading a book.

“Burnout results when we neglect spending time with ourselves,” says Dr. Bozorgzadeh. “Without that time, we do not know what we need and what our capacity is; we just move in any direction that we are pulled in like a leaf in the wind. Time spent in self-development allows us to build a strong foundation and to value ourselves and our health and time.”

One Last Note on Burnout

So often, when it comes to de-stressing or tackling burnout, we take a “what can I do or add to my life to help?” approach. We challenge you to spin that natural inclination. Instead, focus on ways you can remove stressors and re-arrange your to-dos, so your world is less cluttered and more purposeful.